Mystery Seeds and Brushing Scams

By now you have probably heard of people getting packets of mystery seeds sent to their homes, apparently from China. And you may have heard the term “brushing” applied to this scheme. But what is brushing, and how should you respond?

Brushing is a scam used by online sellers to boost their product ratings at online marketplaces, such as Amazon, that allow third-party sales. Sellers will order their own products through these channels and send…something…to random recipients, then use the now “verified” purchase (since a shipping label was created and the shipment was completed) to post five-star reviews of their own product on the unwitting recipient’s behalf. The sales also help artificially inflate the product’s ranking on the site through which it was “sold.”

What gets shipped to the random recipients is generally not the product whose ranking and reviews are being inflated. It will be an inferior knockoff, an empty box, or in the case of this latest version, a packet of mystery seeds, labelled as jewelry on the outside of the mailer.

What should you do if you get a packet of seeds you didn’t order?

First, do not plant them. They could be an invasive species capable of destroying crops if they spread, such as amaranth, which has already been identified in some cases. By that same token, don’t throw them in the trash, since they could take root at the landfill and spread from there. (Also, don’t eat ‘em, smoke ‘em, or stick ‘em in your ear. I know that should be obvious, but people can be…surprising.)

Do not open the packet. If you live in Indiana, mail them along with the envelope and any packaging to:

USDA APHIS PPQ
State Plant Health Director
Nick Johnson
3059 N. Morton St.
Franklin, IN 46131

(Outside of Indiana, you will need to find out where to send the seeds.)

If you are concerned about identity theft or data breaches, change your password with any online retailers you do business with, and keep an eye on your credit reports and bills. The addresses used in this scheme are mostly obtained by the sellers buying a mailing list, but it never hurts to use a little extra caution.

Watch Out for This Amazon Prime Phishing Scam

Here is the text of an email that has been used to target Amazon Prime members:

Dear customer,

Your Amazon Prime membership is set to renew on [DATE].

However, we’ve noticed that the card associated with your Prime membership is no longer valid.

To update the default card or choose a new one for your membership,

Please find the document attached and follow the on-screen instructions.

To prevent interruption of your benefits, we will try charging other active cards associated with your Amazon account if we can’t charge your default card.

If we can’t process the charge for your membership fee, your Amazon Prime benefits will be suspended.

The message includes an attached PDF file.

There are other versions of this attack out there. Some are poorly-spelled attempts to convince the recipient to click on a link and login to what they think is the Amazon website, but isn’t.

However, in this case the grammar and spelling are fine, and the original message as it appears in your inbox contains correct Amazon Prime logos and graphic elements. This one isn’t trying to weed anyone out—it is designed to convince as many people as possible to open that attachment.

What’s in the attached PDF? Most likely the file is infected with malicious software, something that will either log keystrokes or give someone else access to and control of your computer. It may even contain actual instructions for logging into your Amazon account.

If you are a Prime member, keep track of your renewal date so you will know right away if an email has any chance of being legitimate. But also remember that Amazon isn’t going to send you a message with an attached file. Never open an attachment in an email message you weren’t expecting. Even if you think the card associated with your Prime membership might really be expired, don’t click any links or open attachments, visit the Amazon website directly and login to check.

Add Warren Buffett to the List of People Not Giving Away Free Money

Bill Gates isn’t the only game in town when it comes to scammers posing as generous billionaires. Here is an email that made the rounds over the past year:

My name is Mr. Warren E. Buffett an American business magnate, investor and philanthropist. am the most successful investor in the world. I believe strongly in ‘giving while living’ I had one idea that never changed in my mind? that you should use your wealth to help people and i have decided to give ($2,500,000.00) Two Million Five Hundred Thousand United Dollars, to randomly selected individuals worldwide.On receipt of this email, you should count yourself as the lucky individual. Your email address was chosen online when searching at random. Kindly get back to me at your earliest convenience , so I know your email address is valid. ( warrenbuff02(at)aol.com ) Email me Thank you for accepting our offer, we are indeed grateful You Can Google my name for more information: Warren Buffett .God bless you.

Sure. Warren Buffett’s email address is going to be “warrenbuff02(at)aol.com.” And he’s going to forget the word “I” at the beginning of a sentence. And rich people give away millions to random individuals all the time. That’s how they get rich—by giving it away, not by getting it and keeping it. Everybody knows that!

So, it is very obvious that this message is designed to appeal only to the absolute most trusting individuals, and weed out anyone who might start to respond but become suspicious and not follow through. It is also obvious that the World’s Richest People are going to forever have their names utilized in email-based grifts like this one, so for future reference, if you get one of these from Jeff Bezos later on, that’s a scam, too.

A Reminder That the IRS Won’t Email You

Will there be a second round of direct Economic Impact Payments to U.S. residents in 2020? The debate continues as of this writing (mid-June 2020), and while the question of whether or not it will happen might be resolved by the time this article is published on June 24th, I ran across an article that is disturbing in either case: Second Stimulus Payment Fraud: Why 35 Matters More Than $1,200.

In short, a research team did some polling and found that 35% of the people they asked expected the IRS would contact them by email regarding future Economic Impact Payments. That’s over one third of people who, upon seeing a message from the IRS in their inbox, would not immediately recognize the attempted deception.

This is despite the IRS repeating “we won’t email you” like a mantra, despite hundreds of articles written about how the IRS won’t email you (I’ve penned a few myself), despite warnings of email scams going after the previous payments, despite the fact that they didn’t email anyone the first time around in 2020.

Therefore I want to remind you now: don’t be one of that 35%. The IRS isn’t going to email you, about future payments when and if they occur, or about anything else.

Why So Many Scams are So Obvious

A lot of times, the fraudulent email messages that show up in your inbox are laughable. Bad spelling, terrible grammar, bizarre claims, incorrect logos when they try to imitate a well-known corporation. If you’re a charitable type, you might chalk it up to the fact that many scams originate overseas, from people whose first language is not English. If you’re not as kind, you might just go with, “Boy, these scammers sure are stupid.”

But what if there is a reason those emails are so wrong on every level? What if they’re that bad on purpose? After all, they still work.

Pretend you’re running an email scam. You bought a database of a million email addresses for a couple dollars, and you want to maximize your earnings in as short a time as possible.

If you send your scam attempt to all one million addresses (we’ll assume they’re all valid for the sake of this example), and your pitch is so well-crafted that 1% of its recipients respond, you now have an inbox with 10,000 replies. On the surface, that might look great—after all, 10,000 victims that lose $1,000 each means you’re going to have $10 million coming in.

However, not everyone who responds is going to end up following through and wiring you money. If only 1% of the 10,000 who responded end up giving you money, that’s 100 victims (admittedly, still a nice little chunk of change), but 9,900 people you had to waste time trying to convince to fall for a scam they ultimately didn’t fall for. If you’re a single person, or a small team, that’s a lot of time lost. When you consider the hours that would have to be spent, it ends up being more cost-effective and less work to get a job. It would be much better to deal only with people who are very likely to send money.

The solution a lot of scammers go with is to make the attempt as transparent as possible from the start. This way, the only people who respond are those who are not savvy enough to detect anything suspicious. If only 200 people out of a million respond, the success rate is going to be much higher, and less hours will have to be spent on people who ultimately figure out that something isn’t right.

None of this is to say that every scam attempt is going to be completely transparent. One type of email scam, known as spear-phishing, uses inside information about a company to gain access to sensitive financial or customer information. These messages appear quite professional, with perfect spelling and grammar, and correct details about a business’s operations, and in many cases attempt to impersonate a manager or executive at the organization itself.

Traffic Ticket Email Scams

Here is one way to get a traffic ticket: break the law in front of a police officer, who then pulls you over and writes you a citation. This is the most common way to get fined, and it probably dates to about a week after cars first became commercially available.

Here is another: get caught on a traffic camera going too fast or running a red light, and the ticket shows up in the (postal) mail. This method is much newer than the pull-‘em-over routine, and it’s not in use everywhere, but it has become more common.

Here is a way you’re not going to get a ticket: through an email informing you of a violation, that also contains links to pay the fine or dispute the ticket.

Why? For the same reason the IRS doesn’t send official communications through email: because there is no “official” email address through which to reach you, or anyone else. There is no national, state, county or municipal database keeping track of your email contact information.

Think about it. You live at your address, and this information appears on official documents like your driver’s license, financial accounts, and everything else. You cannot live at 123 Any Street, then suddenly decide, “You know what? I’m tired of 123 Any Street. I live at 456 Other Street now!” and have that be your address, then change it to something else a few days later.

But you can do that with email addresses. You can also have more than one. You can have more than ten. The number of email addresses you use is really only limited by how much spare time you have on your hands. And since there is no database at any level of government, no registry that is updated when you create a new email address, there is no way for a traffic ticket to be sent by email with any confidence that the address belongs to a particular person, or that it is still maintained.

“But I’ve been renewing my license and plates online for years, so the state does have my email address on file,” you might be thinking.

And it is true—you can renew plates and online. But again, they only have that email address because you provided it. There is no way for the state to verify that it belongs to you personally—after all, someone else could be paying for your plates and using their email (nice of ‘em, eh?), or you could switch internet providers the day after renewing, causing the address you used for the transaction to go dormant or disappear. Since there is no database keeping track of these things, sending a traffic ticket through email simply isn’t practical.

If you’re still unsure about an email informing you of a traffic fine, all you have to do is call the department from which the email claims to be from. Use an internet search to find the real phone number—don’t rely on any contact information from the message itself—and ask if they issue tickets by email. The answer will be “no,” but it does not hurt to check if you’re still worried. Whatever you do, don’t click on any links or reply to the email in any way.

Email Extortion Scams

For the past couple years, people have been getting emails that claim to have caught the recipient doing something embarrassing or illegal. These messages are attempts at extortion and nothing more.

In one version, the email claims the potential victim’s computer webcam has been hacked, and that some private video footage was captured—something they would not want viewed by the general public. The message goes on to demand that the victim make a payment in bitcoin to the sender in order to avoid having the video distributed to everyone they know. This message contains an actual password once used by the recipient, cited as “proof” that the sender knows who they are and has access to their computer, contacts, webcam, and more.

The password used as evidence that the email is legitimate will be real. The recipient will have used this password at some website in the past. However, there has NOT been any webcam hack in this case.*

Here’s what DID happen: quite a few years ago, there was a data breach at some big website or other. I have received one of these messages, and as far as I can remember, the password they used dated back to 2009 or 2010. (Unfortunately, I do not remember which website it was used with.) Therefore, the database of email addresses matched with passwords being used in these attacks is quite old. I recognized it right away—it was from a time before I knew how to create strong passwords.

The people sending these messages are hoping you’ll recognize that password. They’re counting on it for the immediate fear reaction. However, they didn’t hack anything. They purchased an outdated database from a decade-old data breach and started sending emails.

However, while you’re deleting this message (and NOT sending bitcoin to anyone), there is still something to be learned. For one thing, if you’re still using the password from the message on any website, app or account, CHANGE IT NOW. For another, never reuse the same password for different accounts. You don’t want poor security at some message board you visit three times a month to be the reason someone was able to login to your credit card account. Once any website is breached, even one with not that many users or sensitive information, it is guaranteed the hackers will try your email/password combination at all the major financial sites, or use it to attempt extortion.

*Note: none of this is to say that the camera on a mobile phone, tablet or laptop computer can’t be hacked or compromised in some way, it’s just not what is happening with these particular emails. Remember the little hunk of tape you put over your laptop’s camera years ago? Still not a bad idea. Leave it on.

More Coronavirus Scams

It appears that a lot of scams are going to be related (whether directly or tangentially) to COVID-19 for quite some time. Here is a quick rundown of a few text message and phone call-based schemes making the rounds.

One text scam that plays directly on the fear response tells the potential victim this: “Someone who came in contact with you tested positive or has shown symptoms for COVID-19 & recommends you self-isolate/get tested.” It includes a link to a website that will likely attempt to obtain personal and/or financial information.

While it’s possible that someone you know personally might send you such a message (as in, “Hey I tested positive, you should get tested, too”) WITHOUT including a website link, there is no centralized virus database sending such messages anonymously.

With widespread loss of income and the ensuing anxiety, please remember that bogus offers for free gift cards are going to spike, and might seem appealing or “worth a shot” if you find yourself in need. One example recently spotted in Northwest Indiana says this: “Important! [Name], Seems you didn’t open the door when we tried to deliver your $1000 Wal-Mart voucher. Claim it now [link].”

This message is interesting in that it appears to contain the actual recipient’s first name, but don’t be fooled. First, having a first name matched up with a mobile phone number is no great feat these days, since SOME of everyone’s information is almost certainly already available. Additionally, even in a global emergency, Walmart is never going to give away such large amounts to random people. Why would they? Don’t be tricked with the little “we came to your door” angle, either. Nobody came to your door (as they SHOULDN’T right now). Once again, that link is going to lead you to a website designed to steal your banking or other information.

A recent telephone (robocall) scam uses this prerecorded message: “Hello. This is a call from the Social Security Administration. During the difficult times of the coronavirus, we regret to inform you that we have got an order to suspend your socials immediately within 24 hours due to suspicious and fraudulent activity found on your social. We are contacting you as this case is critical and needs your urgent attention,” and includes a phone number for the victim to call.

If you analyze the text of this message, it’s an obvious scam. The SSA doesn’t refer to payments as “your socials.” Or to “activity found on your social.” That’s a message concocted by someone who isn’t quite familiar with how the Social Security system works. If you call the number, however, you’ll end up speaking to someone who is extremely familiar with talking people into revealing account numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords, and everything else you don’t want to hand over to a crook. Remember: they can make caller ID say anything they want it to. The same rules apply during a pandemic as any other time, but expect the frequency to increase, and for old schemes to be given a coronavirus twist.

Old Scams Revamped for COVID-19

It may seem like there is an infinite number of scams, but when you take a closer look, it turns out there really aren’t that many basic schemes, just a lot of variations of old ones, dressed up with new details.

Sometimes big changes in technology don’t even usher in completely new basic types—the “Nigerian 419” scams (a type of advance fee fraud) that is mostly known as an email-based con used to proliferate through postal mail and fax machines. In fact, it’s based on a scam from the late 1700s that was known as the “Spanish Prisoner scam,” wherein the victim would be promised a large sum from a wealthy family, if only he would provide the money to bribe the guards at a Spanish prison, in which some rich nobleman was being wrongly held.

With a global pandemic now unfolding, and all the unprecedented problems it has caused at every level, you will definitely see some old scams reemerging. Some will directly invoke the coronavirus, while others will simply take advantage of the situation with very few updates.

Work-at-home scams will probably see a bump. With millions of people laid off, furloughed or working reduced hours, and with the very real possibility that some employers will end up closing down for good, a lot of people will be looking for opportunities to earn extra money from home. And while there are legitimate ways to do this, many (if not most) of what you’ll find by searching on the internet are going to be scams. The old “mystery shopper” scam probably won’t be too big, since not many people are real jazzed on the idea of going to stores in person at the moment, but you might encounter an uptick in “payment processing” or “reshipping” jobs, which are nothing more than money-laundering operations run by organized criminals. In any case, no job opportunity is going to come to you from out of nowhere, and if you find something online, even if it’s posted on a well-known job-hunting website, do plenty of research before you respond.

I believe IRS Impersonation scams are going to be off the charts this year. With millions of people receiving relief checks from the federal government, the temptation for scammers to try to cash in is going to be unbelievable. Remember that the IRS is never going to call you on the phone and demand immediate payment by credit card, wire transfer or prepaid debit. I have a feeling people are going to get calls telling them that they “must pay taxes on your stimulus check or face arrest,” which gets so many things wrong it isn’t even funny (it’s not called a “stimulus check” this time, for one). Even if the economic impact payments were taxable income, which they’re not, you wouldn’t have to deal with it until next year, when you file 2020 taxes.

Grandparent scams will likely be given a COVID-19 twist. Instead of the usual calls (“I got mugged in London” or “I’m in jail in Mexico”), they will pivot to “I have the virus and they won’t give me medical care until you wire money.” Just remember that this setup has never once turned out to be true, even if the caller seems to know some information about the person they claim to be.

These are just a few old schemes that may get a fresh coat of paint this year, but there will be others. As always, take a few moments to stop and think before you respond to any new information, and remember that anyone trying to make you afraid, or entice you with easy money, then asking for money or personal information, is up to no good.

Avoiding Economic Impact Payment check scams

The coronavirus has led to a pretty enormous piece of legislation being passed by the federal government. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is a $2.2 trillion package that includes, among other things, direct payments to taxpayers, intended to blunt the impact of the severe, widespread economic fallout caused by the pandemic.

At some point in the near future, qualifying individuals will receive a payment. Those who received their tax refund electronically will probably have the payment directly deposited, while others will receive a check in the mail. (I think they are working on setting up a portal so that people who did not provide direct deposit information for 2019 taxes can set it up in lieu of a paper check, but I don’t know all the details.)

This presents a massive opportunity for scammers. Here are some things you need to know.

The government officially refers to these payments as “Economic Impact Payments.” They are NOT calling it a “stimulus check” or a “stimulus payment.”

If you qualify, you will simply receive it. The direct deposit will show up in your account, or you will get a paper check in the mail. Other than depositing or cashing the paper check, that is where it ends. There will be no additional steps to verify that you received it. If you recall the 2008 stimulus package, it will work a lot like that.

If you get the payment, it’s because you qualify, and the government already has correct personal information for you. You will NOT be asked to call a phone number back to verify anything. Or email, or text.

You will NOT receive emails or text messages about the payments.

Nobody will be going door-to-door handing out the checks or anything else, or asking you to sign anything or provide personal information.

I cannot find a straight answer at the moment as to whether or not the payments will be counted as taxable income for 2020 (every website I checked, including the IRS, only talks about “who is eligible?”); however, I can tell you this with confidence: you will NOT be asked to send money right away to cover taxes. Not by wire transfer, not by purchasing prepaid cards or reloadable gift cards, PayPal, Venmo, or any other method. Any caller who says otherwise (I am predicting this will be a big telephone-based scam) is not telling the truth.

Basically, for the vast majority of people who pay taxes, getting your payment will involve doing nothing more than waiting for it to arrive. Any instructions outside of that are highly suspect.