Fear by Phone: High Anxiety for You, High Profits for Scammers

Fear by Phone: High Anxiety for You, High Profits for Scammers


The telephone is a scammer’s best weapon, used in 77 percent of money-netting schemes, reports the government’s latest scam-tracking data. The best ammo: Fear, and here’s how it bangs best for the biggest bucks:

“Official” intimidation. The most profitable and most-played schemes have fraudsters posing from a government agency – Medicare, the Social Security Administration, FBI, local police and, of course, the IRS. (Until busted last year, one India-based ring of IRS imposters was netting $150,000 per day preying on retirees and other Americans.)  These self-described G-men threaten dire consequences – lost benefits, impending arrest and hefty fines – for supposed (even minor) offenses unless a fine is immediately paid and/or ID theft-worthy personal information is “verified.”

Why hang up: If there’s really an issue, government agencies will contact you by U.S. mail – not phone. Arrests aren’t pre-announced. Tax-supported agencies do not demand, or may even accept, scammer-requested payments such as prepaid debit and iTunes cards.

“Friendly” fraud. Along with emotions, the fear factor climbs with scare tactics made by those you supposedly know and trust: Grandchildren claiming trouble while traveling (which nets some imposters $10,000 per day) or in a recent resurgence, subject to a telephoned virtual kidnapping. Online sweethearts with a sudden overseas emergency that requires financial help. Your bank, credit card or utility company, supposedly warning of account problems and lost service.

Why hang up: So you can verify the claim and contact your loved one or institution before providing money or information to those just claiming to be. Scammers can glean call-convincing information like relatives’ names from social media and online directories.

Robocalls. The messages are terrifying in many of 2.4 billion robocalls made each day: You are being sued. You can fall and die without that “free” medical alert device. You are overpaying interest on your plastic. You need quick action to avoid these and other problems.

Why hang up: Notice what isn’t mentioned in these robocalls? Your name. Autodialers are programmed to blast millions of prerecorded calls per day; until recipients respond, fraudsters typically have no idea of who gets their robocalls, or if dialed numbers are active. So don’t say anything after “Hello” or push any key, not even to supposedly “opt out” of future calls; that only alerts callers that your number is live. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission recently proposed new rules, expected to take effect in coming months, to allow phone companies to block robocallers that “spoof” Caller ID numbers to conceal their actual area codes and identities or make them appear as to belong to a trusted entity.

Debt collectors. Generating more complaints than any category – including identity theft – debt collectors often try to scare targets into paying a debt…whether legitimately theirs or not.

Why hang up: It’s illegal for collectors to threaten or be abusive. Despite their lies, police don’t arrest for unpaid debts and garnished wages or Social Security benefits can only occur for delinquent state or federal debts such as unpaid student loans, taxes, government-backed mortgages or child support – not private debt.

If you really owe, you may want to talk once with calling collectors to try to resolve the matter. If it’s not your debt or you don’t wanted continued calls, write a letter saying so – sent by certified mail with “return receipt.” Once receiving your letter, collectors may not contact you again, with two exceptions: to tell you there will be no further contact or to let you know that they or the creditor intend to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit. (Your letter doesn’t get rid of legitimate debts, only calls related to them). Report violators to the Federal Trade Commission or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: ponsulak/iStock

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Why and How College Students are Scammed

Why and How College Students are Scammed


College students are ideal victims for identity theft, with clean or still non-existent credit histories ripe for exploitation…and often clueless to their risks and value to scammers.

They are more likely to boast birth dates and other personal nuggets on social media that can be pieced together by Facebook-trawling identity thieves. Use public Wi-Fi for risky online shopping, banking, and to access email. Open links that hide computer malware touting free music and games, information-requiring surveys and prizes, or intriguing text messages and emails.

If they have credit, it’s usually free of problems being jointly held or otherwise supervised by a parent; if they don’t, even better for scammers to use their identities to open fraudulent accounts for credit cards, loans and utility service. In between classes and keggers, few college students check their credit reports, explaining why those 18 to 24 take five times longer than other age groups to detect identity theft that’s already occurred – and that discovery is often made when they apply for car loans, mortgages and post-degree jobs.

How are college students scammed? The top ruses targeting your children and grandchildren include:

Fake employment. In the latest, fast-growing scheme, scammers place advertisements for phony job opportunities (often administrative work) on college employment websites, and/or recruit students via hacked school email accounts, warns the FBI. Gleaning Social Security numbers, bank account details and other sensitive information, “hired” students (often interviewed in nearby hotel lobbies or other non-workplace locations) are paid with counterfeit checks, instructed to deposit them and wire-transfer a portion to a provided vendor under the guise of job-necessary software or other equipment. Students lose the money wired, any funds drawn from the bogus deposit, and their bank account could be frozen. Plus their SSN and other valuable info is in enemy hands.

Pay now imposters. Using caller ID spoofing to make calls appear to be from the IRS or school financial aid office, scammers phone those with student loans threatening dire consequences – including arrest or non-graduation – unless they immediately pay a non-existent “federal student tax” or other bogus fees. Again, scammers make a quick buck and glean personal details for possible identity theft.

Scholarship and grant scams. These services claim to have lists of “secret” or “guaranteed” awards for current and future college students, or will provide no-fail help with paperwork. They demand upfront fees and then don’t deliver. The better route: Get reputable scholarship info for free at websites like FinAid and FastWeb, or directly from individual colleges.

 

False freebies. From must-have gizmos touted in surveys and bogus social media giveaways to free-trial offers of acne creams, gym memberships and you-name-it, expect attached strings, such as having to provide ID-worthy personal details, credit cards and hard-to-cancel memberships.

 

Credit card cons. Offers are all over campus and the internet, but beware. Plastic pitched heavily to college students often have sky-high interest rates and/or annual fees. Others are from identity thieves who merely pose as credit card companies. When shopping for credit and prepaid debit cards, stick with recognized and reputable names; run from anything with an APR near or above 25 percent or an annual fee of $30 or more.

 

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

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FTC: Impostor Scams Surpass ID Theft (but Debt Collection Remains Top Complaint)

FTC: Impostor Scams Surpass ID Theft (but Debt Collection Remains Top Complaint)


More Americans last year complained about scammers playing an identity – most often, that of an IRS or other government official – than stealing theirs.

In its 2016 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book released last week, the Federal Trade Commission says imposter scams surpassed identity theft for the first time, becoming the second most common category of consumer complaints.

Debt collection remained the top consumer gripe, generating 859,090 (28 percent) of all complaints – more than the combined 406,578 reports about imposter scams and 399,225 for identity theft. In 2015, debt collection first overtook identity theft, which previously held the dubious top spot for 15 consecutive years. The FTC says the high number of reported debt collection complaints was due, in part, to reports made to a mobile app by one of the agency’s data collection partners.

At 3,050,374, overall complaints fell 3 percent from the record 3,140,803 set a year earlier. As with 2015, Florida remained the state with the highest per-capita rate of reported fraud and other types of complaints, followed by Georgia and Michigan. Per-capita rates for identity theft reports were highest in Michigan, Florida and Delaware.

Other highlights of the latest 102-page Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, which includes complaints made directly to the FTC, various state and federal law enforcement agencies and other groups, and is used to help track and combat the leading scam trends:

  • Identity theft complaints slightly declined, from 16 percent in 2015 to 13 percent – with 29 percent of 2016 consumers reporting that their data was used to commit tax fraud. There was a jump in citizens who reported that their stolen data was used for credit card fraud; from 16 percent in 2015 to more than 32 percent in 2016.
  • Age-wise, AARP-aged Americans filed the most fraud complaints. Those in their 60s led all age groups with 20 percent of complaints, followed by 50-somethings at 18 percent and those 70 and older at 17 percent.
  • For identity theft, 20 percent of complaints were made by those in their 50s, 14 percent in their 60s and 6 percent in their 70s. (Those in their 30s and 40s filed 21 and 20 percent, respectively.)
  • A total of 662,209 consumers – 51 percent of those filing complaints – reported losing $744.5 million through fraud in 2016, an average $1,124 each. That’s an improvement over 2015, when 53 percent of complainants lost a combined $774 million and $1,154 average. In 2014, the gotcha rate was 55 percent, with $1.7 billion lost and per-victim average of $1,979.
  • The telephone remains the most used tool to initiate scams. Among consumers reporting their initial contact method by fraudsters, 77 percent say it was by phone; that’s up from 54 percent two years earlier. Email, websites, snail mail and “other” each tallied only single digits, consistent with previous years.
  • Wire transfers remain the most popular method at 58 percent, following by credit cards, debits from bank accounts, and prepaid cards.

The top 10 complaint categories:

  1. Debt Collection – 859,090 complaints (28%)
  2. Imposter Scams — 406,578 (13%)
  3. Identity Theft — 399,225 (13%)
  4. Telephone and Mobile Services – 292,155 (10%)
  5. Banks and Lenders – 143,987 (5%)
  6. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries – 141,643 (5%)
  7. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales – 109,831 (4%)
  8. Auto-Related Complaints – 94,673 (3%)
  9. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers and Report Users – 49,679 (2%)
  10. Television and Electronic Media – 49,546 (2%)

 

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

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Shelter From the Sneakiest Real Estate Scams

Shelter From the Sneakiest Real Estate Scams


Scams are a reality of real estate. Whether buying, selling or renting property, here’s what to know about some of the sneakiest schemes:

Closing cons

It starts with hacking the email accounts of real estate agents to steal details about clients and closing dates, often by tricking agents into clicking malware-infected links supposedly sent by a potential client. Scammers then follow with phone calls or other emails — posing as that agent, a title company, real estate attorney or the seller of property that’s slated for settlement — to funnel funds to their bank accounts.

Claiming a “last-minute change,” buyers or other involved parties are given new wiring instructions, sending to scammer-held bank accounts the buyers’ down payments and closing costs, release of money held by title companies for a supposed canceled sale, or sellers’ proceeds. What helps fraudsters: Legitimate transactions often depend on pre-settlement wiring of funds to bank accounts held by title companies, real estate attorneys or others handling the deal.

Defense: Don’t trust email, instead communicating via telephone numbers you already have or can look up yourself. Before wiring funds, make sure that the bank account and routing numbers are for bona fide title companies, attorneys or others after ensuring they’re legit via an online search of unknown firms and the designated contact person.

 Rental ripoffs

Rental scams have traditionally targeted prospective tenants. Crooks steal photos and descriptions of properties for sale on real estate websites, or invent their own to advertise bogus rentals on Craigslist and elsewhere. After striking a deal — typically by email or phone — renters are asked for payment up front. When they try to move in, they discover that the rental doesn’t exist, or that the actual owner isn’t renting it. In addition to lost payments, renters risk identity theft from disclosures they have made on fake application forms.

But landlords are increasingly popular targets. Usually, scammers pose as would-be tenants for vacation or permanent rentals, then sending advance checks in amounts greater than the agreed rent or security deposit. Citing a “mix-up” a day or so later, they ask that the difference be returned ASAP. Landlords who oblige lose that money, and later learn the renter’s check was counterfeit.

Defense: Both renters and property owners should run an online search on who they’re dealing with. Google names, contact information, property locations and even chunks of descriptive text from advertisements or responses to ads; if you find duplication elsewhere, assume it’s a scam. Try to deal in person — not solely over the phone or email — and before exchanging money, get copies of driver’s licenses that can be cross-checked with the property ownership records. When booking vacation rentals, pay with a credit card, PayPal or payment transfer services at websites such as VRBO and Airbnb.

Time-share resale schemes

In this classic con, scammers identity time-share owners through public records or lists bought and sold from resort developers, then contact them as “resellers” to say they have an interested buyer or can quickly sell unwanted units. They may set up front “company” websites or even provide false documents to make the potential deal seem legit, sometimes using an associate to pose as the buyer.

All that’s needed: Up-front payment — often by wire transfer — to cover sales commissions and services, closing costs, taxes or other fees. Once the money is sent — usually via wire transfer or a check sent to a post office box or a temporarily rented office space — the resellers vanish, sometimes reopening under a different company name. Some victims are subsequently hit with follow-up fraud — another business (usually run by the same scammers or cohorts) that claims help to recover funds lost in resale rip-offs … with another up-front payment.

Defense: Need more reason to not send up-front payments before services are rendered? (Consider that advance payment is also key to scams promising services for loan modification, foreclosure rescues and other homeownership problems. If you’re serious about selling a time-share, check with your resort about any resale programs it offers, or with trusted, well-known local real estate agents. When listing a time-share yourself, stick with legitimate websites such as RedWeek and TUG (Timeshare Users Group).

 

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

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Puppy Scams Return!

Puppy Scams Return!


How much is that doggy on the computer screen? With a recent resurgence in the longtime Puppy Scam, it’s costing some pet-seekers thousands of dollars and heaps in heartbreak.

That’s because they fall for an adorable pup pictured online – on Craigslist, Facebook or a website supposedly for a reputable breeder – that’s advertised “for sale,” adoptable for free to a loving home, or in response to their own “wanted” posts seeking a pet.

Problem is, there is no animal. Photos and descriptions are lifted from other websites – often those of legitimate breeders – and the self-described animal rescue workers, breeders and distressed pet owners are scammers. Some pups are touted as prized purebreds (yet available at bargain prices), others as everyday pets in a need of a home, usually with a compelling back story to further whet appetites. (Favorite tales for the pups’ availability allege to be from a soldier unexpectedly being deployed or on behalf of a grandmother hospitalized just after a beloved dog gave birth to a litter.) After contact is made – typically by email – would-be pet parents may even receive vaccine records, guarantees of health or glowing reviews about the seller.

What comes next: Eager pet parents are told that upfront payment is needed for adoption fees or to ship a pro bono critter to its new forever home. Once sent by requested wire transfer or prepaid debit card, scammers claim unexpected delays and surprise additional fees – for insurance (which is not required for an animal to be shipped or to travel), veterinary care, a specialized crate, quarantine costs or other supposed snafus. It can continue until victims eventually wise up, realizing it is themselves – not an anticipated canine – that’s in the doghouse.

If searching for a new best friend online, know this:

Act locally. Pet scammers nearly always claim to be far away (and actually are, usually in Nigeria or another foreign hotbed for fraudsters) who say they need to ship the supposed critter. Yet reputable breeders and many rescue shelters typically don’t sell or ship dogs to people they haven’t met or vetted.

Why even consider a puppy said to be thousands of miles away? Shipping swindles aside, you’ll want to meet that potential family member to gauge personality and temperament. So use the internet wisely, finding local animal shelters, rescues, breeders or breed-specific rescues by typing a desired breed type and your ZIP code into an online search engine. Pets (especially rescues) found on Petfinder and similar sites may be shipped from another state, but should be with a local foster family or facility for a face-to-face meeting before money is exchanged.

Don’t rely on email. Because it offers anonymity and is hard to trace, pet (and other) scammers prefer all correspondence be done solely by email – not telephone or in-person. To justify email-only correspondence, some pet scammers claim to be hearing-impaired. Don’t trust advertisements or responses to “wanted” postings that list only an email address, but no phone number.

Get “personalized” photos. If the pet actually exists, there should be no problem getting more photographic proof. Ask for several “personalized” photos with the pup posing with a specific item you request, such as a recent newspaper or ball. If not received, assume there’s no animal and you’re being set up for a scam.

Beware of payment ploys. Unlike legitimate breeders and shelters, pet scammers do not accept credit cards. They insist payment be made via Western Union, MoneyGram or prepaid debit card because it’s like sending cash – immediately redeemable anywhere in the world, hard to track, and impossible to get back. And don’t trust any checks you may receive (say, a so-called advance for third-party charges) with instructions to deposit it and forward a portion back to their “agent.” These checks are counterfeit and your bank will hold you responsible for money forwarded or drawn from their deposit.

Do your homework. If there are claims of using a pet relocation service such as Animals Away or delivery at a local airport, call to check about your specific pet shipment before paying shipping fees, looking up the number yourself. Scammer-run websites often look authentic because the content is stolen from another site, so check for duplication by copying descriptions and photos into a search engine and looking for identical wording elsewhere on the internet. Also check domain name ownership of websites for self-described breeders and shelters and insist they provide registration and association membership information that matches their contact information.

Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself why would someone go to the trouble and possible costs of placing advertisements of show-quality pups for a fraction of their worth (or for free)? What are the odds that some do-gooder who volunteers at an overseas orphanage has time to find an American home for a puppy in Africa, or that a quick transaction is needed because of an unexpected but heartstring-pulling life change? Why are pups claimed to be treasures and treasured even offered on the internet, up for grabs to just about anyone who bites?

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: MarkusSchiemann/iStock

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