All posts by FPU

Avoiding Pet Adoption Scams

Emotions can be manipulated, and every scammer knows it.

Usually, they go for fear. Sometimes, they try greed. But pet adoption scams target a different set of feelings: love for animals, sympathy, and the instinct to want to take care of something.

These scams tend to follow the same pattern: put a listing on the internet for a puppy that needs a home, convince everyone who answers the listing to wire money (repeatedly if they can), disappear.

(For whatever reason, these scams usually involve puppies.)

The short version of avoiding these scams is this: only adopt locally. If you can’t see the animal in person, and meet its current caretaker in person, don’t do it.

Getting into the details a bit more, these fraudulent ads will usually be posted on classifieds websites or social networks. Sometimes they entice victims with a too-good-to-be-true price (a couple hundred dollars for a purebred), or after a few emails, tell the victim they need only pay for the dog to be transported on an airplane.

In any case, payment will be requested either by wire (Western Union) or by prepaid gift card, where the victim purchases the card and then relays the numbers to the scammer.

In some cases, it ends there. In others, the scammer will create new complications that need to be paid for in advance; the puppy needs shots before traveling, they need to purchase an expensive crate, there is a third-party courier involved, etc. They’ll say anything to get the victim to continue sending money until the point when the scammer disappears entirely.

Not all online pet adoption listings are fraudulent, but stick to local listings only, or contact a local organization that helps find homes for pets. Any stranger asking you to wire money or purchase prepaid gift cards is trying to take your money. There are plenty of people looking for pets everywhere—there is no reason a dog would need to be flown thousands of miles to find a home.

Remember: The IRS doesn’t threaten you with arrest over the phone

As April 15th nears, fraudulent IRS robocalls are bound to proliferate. Many of people get a tax refund around this time of year, and the scammers want a chunk of that money for themselves before it gets used for something else.

Consider this your yearly reminder: if someone claiming to represent the IRS calls you, informs you that you owe unpaid taxes, and then threatens you with arrest if you don’t pay up, that’s a scam.

Every single time.

Just hang up the phone.

Every single time.

The IRS doesn’t call people on the telephone as a first point of contact—if someone does contact you by phone, it’s regarding an issue you are already aware of and are in the process of resolving.

They also don’t keep the police waiting on the other line, ready to storm your house as soon as they get the word that you didn’t pay.

They also also don’t accept payment by wire transfer, prepaid gift card, iTunes card, or over the phone with a debit or credit card.

(They’re really not even all that big on throwing people in jail, other than for crimes related to tax evasion. If you owe money, they want the money.Putting people in jail would be counterproductive.)

Don’t let anybody trick you into a fear response over the phone.

Fraudulent Calls that Don’t Make Sense

I am going to present a few fraudulent phone call scenarios that exist in the real world and that claim numerous victims, and you see if you can determine what the scammers are doing that actually doesn’t make sense if you stop and think about it:

  1. A caller claims to be a Social Security Administration representative calls and warns you that your benefits are about to be suspended because of some problem or other. The caller ID shows the correct SSA customer service line. She needs you to verify your Social Security number in order to fix the issue.
  2. A caller claims to represent a credit card company. He says that your card has been deactivated due to suspicious activity. In order to get your card working again, he needs the card number, expiration date, and three-digit code from the back of the card.
  3. A caller claims to be a Medicare representative and informs you that your benefits are going to be suspended because of an issue. Before he can fix the problem, he needs you to verify your Medicare ID number.

Did you catch it?

In every case, the caller is asking for a piece of information that the claimed agency or company would already have…because they created that piece of information in the first place.

  • The Social Security Administration has your Social Security number. They’re the ones who assigned it to you.
  • Your credit card company assigned your card number and other details to you. They already know it.
  • Medicare already knows your ID number because they gave you that number. If there’s a problem with your account, it’s one piece of information they don’t need.

(You could also make the more general observation that these all involve a stranger attempting to alarm you and then asking for personal information, but these specific questions should really tip you off that the caller is not who he or she claims to be.)

Blood and Cocaine Discovered in Your Rental Car (in Texas)?

There are endless variations on the “scare someone over the phone so they give up personal information” scam motif, and most of them are pretty familiar at this point, but every now and then a new angle emerges. This is one.

The scam involves someone posing as a law enforcement agent (usually FBI), calling to inform the victim that they rented a car in Texas, and that the car was found with blood and cocaine inside. The victim is then pressed to give details such as his or her Social Security number, financial account numbers, and so on.

There appears to be another version in which the caller claims to be a Social Security Administration representative, and in addition to the car filled with evidence, they have also found an offshore account in the victim’s name holding a large amount of cash, and that his or her Social Security benefits are going to be suspended. The caller then proceeds to attempt to wheedle the same personal information from the victim.

Regardless of who the caller claims to be, these features appear to be repeated in every case:

  • The car was allegedly rented in Texas
  • Police found blood and cocaine in it
  • We need your Social Security number

These are the details currently used in the scam, but don’t be fooled if they eventually change Texas to Florida or cocaine to heroin (I have a feeling the “blood” part is going to stay…”you’re a murder suspect” is almost guaranteed to get a strong emotional reaction).

Remember these points:

  • If a stranger is trying to make you afraid, then asking for money or personal information to make the fear go away, something isn’t right.
  • The Social Security Administration already has your number. They’re the ones who gave it to you in the first place. Law enforcement agencies easy access to it, too.
  • If the FBI really finds blood and cocaine in a car associated with you, they’re probably not going to call you on the telephone.
  • While the SSA does make phone calls, it’s not generally the first point of contact, and it’s almost always going to be regarding an issue already known to the person receiving the call.
  • This scam hinges on fears about identity theft—most people’s first reaction is “I didn’t rent a car in Texas!” and then make the connection to identity theft themselves. Recognize the tactic for what it is.

Money-Flipping Scams

The “money-flipping scam” started appearing on Instagram and Facebook, among other places, a couple years ago, but given most social networks’ track record when it comes to deleting fraudulent accounts, I’m sure it is still around.

It works like this: someone will claim to have access to a “flaw” in some monetary transferring system, usually Western Union or one of the prepaid debit card providers. All they need is for you to give them $100, wait few minutes, then they will send you back $1,000 (sometimes $300, but usually they go for the larger amount in the pitch).

That’s the whole thing. And you can guess what actually happens: you wire money away (or load up a prepaid card and reveal the digits to the scammer), then you don’t get anything back, ever.

There are a few things to know. First, there is no “flaw” in any of these systems that allows someone to just create money out of nothing. More than any other error, these payment systems are designed specifically to not allow that. Even money that’s been turned into ones and zeroes in a computer has to come from somewhere, and their entire business depends on outgo not suddenly being ten times the input.

Second, if there was a way to make this happen, you would be attempting to commit a crime by exploiting it. There is a persistent myth that any error by a financial provider (like the old “large deposit went into the wrong account” tale) entitles you to keep the money, and it simply is not true. Even if you did find yourself in some magical realm where a software bug allowed this scheme to work, you’d better be able to pay back that $900 when the error was discovered. They’ve probably got Loss-Prevention Wizards working for them over there.

Don’t Fall for Ads Promising Huge Discounts on Premium Goods

If you use Facebook or Instagram, you’ve probably already seen an ad, shared by someone you know, promising 80-90% off on things like Ray-Ban sunglasses, Nike shoes, Apple devices, or some other premium brand.

And I get it. Who wouldn’t want a pair of Wayfarers for $25? Looking like you might be friends with rock musicians, for an eighth of the cost? What’s there to lose?

Unfortunately, there can be a lot to lose, and somewhere between “nothing” and “a goofy-looking pair of counterfeit Ray-Bans” to gain, because these ads will lead you to nothing but scams, ripoffs, or even worse.

The best-case scenario is receiving fake goods, as long as they don’t use the banking information you gave them to keep making additional charges. You still can’t actually wear that stupid pair of plastic sneakers in two different sizes with the upside-down logo, but at least you’re only out $20 or so.

However, many of these websites are loaded with malware that can infect your computer or mobile device, or they will try to harvest your social network credentials to take over your account and further circulate their scams. Others may simply take your credit or debit card credentials and make fraudulent charges without sending you anything.

This would normally be where I remind you that it’s a good idea to always use a credit card instead of debit when shopping online, but in the case of these “90% Off Nike Jordans!”-type schemes, don’t even let it get that far. Those ads are some kind of scam, 100% of the time. Don’t even consider clicking.

If you did click, it’s time to run a virus scan. If you made a purchase, it’s time to have that card deactivated and get a new one as soon as possible.

Don’t Let Down Your Guard against Identity Theft

It’s just human nature: you hear about the same negative thing often enough for long enough, you’ll start to become a little numb to it. You may even check out entirely. And identity theft certainly crossed over into “Things We’re Tired of Hearing About” territory quite some time ago.

However, that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Identity theft is still happening to millions of people every year, and if anything, the thieves are becoming more sophisticated.

Some of the best ways to protect yourself have been written about thousands of times. Use a crosscut shredder to destroy documents containing personal information. Don’t click on links in an unexpected email, and completely ignore any email that says “click here to re-activate your card.” Use strong passwords, and never reuse them across different sites. Freeze your credit, then temporarily lift the freezes any time you need to apply for a loan or a credit card.

There are also some ways to protect yourself that don’t get as much attention (yet). If an account gives you the option of using Two-Factor Authentication, take that option. Beware of unfamiliar phone numbers that share the first six digits of your phone number. If a financial account allows you to set up alerts via text message or email, do it.

In any case, don’t become desensitized to information about identity theft just because you’ve heard about it a million times before. There might be a new threat, or a new twist on an old threat, or a reminder about a good habit you’ve let slip. And even if it is old news to you, remember that nobody is ever 100% safe from identity crime. Keep that in the back of your mind during any interaction where personal information is involved.

Earning money online: if they say it’s easy, it’s a scam

Even in 2019, the dream of lounging on a beach somewhere and sipping umbrella drinks while a large, steady income rolls in from an online business still lives on in the popular imagination.

And it’s true: there are a few people who have built online businesses that rake in huge amounts of cash and allow them to live pretty much anywhere they choose, travel when and where they want, and buy nearly anything they want as soon as the notion hits them.

But there’s a difference between what those folks did and what you might find if you just searched “how to make money online” and went with whatever popped up: they put an absolutely massive amount of work into their businesses from the beginning, they continue to do so, and if there’s one word that does not apply to anything about their path to success, it’s “easy.”

In fact, in every case it was way more difficult than getting a traditional job working for someone else. Longer hours, higher stress levels, near-zero income in the beginning, and at some point, the question of leaving a stable job for a much riskier venture that may or may not pay off someday.

This is not to say it can’t be done. But if you’re looking for ideas to start an online business or earn extra side income, ignore anything that someone else created that claims it will be “easy” or “fast” or “guaranteed,” especially if you have to buy your way into it. A lot of multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes operate on these promises.

If you’re interested in going the digital entrepreneur route, you’re going to have to create something from the ground up. You can use other people’s platforms (for selling e-books or running an online store, for example), but the actual thing you’re selling? You’re probably going to have to create that yourself. That’s where the massive amounts of time, energy and resourcefulness come in.

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism for 2019

2019 is going to be a lot like 2018, and a lot like every other year in recent memory: there will be a couple new ways to become a victim of some form of scam or fraud, there will be a boatload of old, tried-and-true scams still making the rounds (some with slight variations that make them seem new), a few “latest threats” frantically shared on social networks that turn out to be hoaxes, at least one or two major data breaches (and dozens of minor ones), and a whole lot of information, both accurate and inaccurate, about all of it.

And so, as we approach the new year, my advice is to stick to one basic principle, and to always ask yourself, “Is this the way the world really works?” That little bit of skepticism can be your best friend when it comes to avoiding scams and rip-offs, as well as not being the person who spreads false information and hoaxes online.

A lot of people make health-related resolutions this time of year. But before you spend money on a dietary supplement being hawked by some A-list celebrity, ask yourself how you think that A-lister got into the shape he or she is in. Does it seem more likely that they took a pill (that’s only been on the market for a few months, mind you), or could it be the full-time nutritionist on staff, the live-in chef, the million-dollar in-home suite of workout gear, the live-in personal trainer and the fact that their entire job description, when not actively working on a project, is to stay looking as perfect as possible?

When you read a story breathlessly shared on Facebook about robbers using fake perfume samples to subdue victims in parking lots (an urban legend that’s been repeated in various forms since around 1999), take a moment to notice how unlikely the whole scenario seems in light of how quickly most criminals prefer to operate (to say nothing of how ether and chloroform actually work). Notice how many of the “I narrowly escaped this!” stories boil down to, “I saw a man in a parking lot, and then nothing happened.”

When you get an email telling you that you’ve won the Powerball Lottery, remember how lotteries actually work in the real world. You buy a ticket and wait for some ping pong balls to pop out of a big tumbler. You don’t just “have an email address and wait until you win.”

When the phone rings and the caller claims that he’s from the IRS, you didn’t pay your taxes, and that you’re going to be arrested today unless you pay up immediately by purchasing some iTunes cards at the drugstore and calling back with the information, ask yourself if any one part of the situation squares with how the IRS actually functions. (Hint: none of it).

You don’t have to become a cynic, but just remembering to think about a new claim or information before you act on it can be a powerful ally. And remember this: if someone is trying to make you afraid of some immediate (or even abstract) threat, and they tell you the only way to make the fear go away is to give them something (money, personal information, etc.), they are probably not telling the truth.

Avoiding Charity Scams

I sometimes repeat myself, and occasionally I’ll say something I’ve said before, too. But even if you’ve read or heard about charity scams before, it never hurts to have a quick reminder. It’s already November, and charitable giving comes up a lot this time of year.

I’ll keep it short: decide in advance which charitable organizations you wish to support instead of waiting for others to approach you. If you’re looking for a new cause, research before you donate.

When you already know whom you’re giving to, it makes it much easier to turn down those who call or email out of the blue because you won’t feel pressured. You can explain to callers that you’ve already done your giving for the year (and you can just ignore emails—I would hesitate to trust an out-of-the-blue request via email).

If you’re checking out a new charity, the go-to resource is CharityNavigator.org. This website tells you how much a charity spends on marketing and how much money makes it into their programs, gives executive salaries and other financial information, as well as an overall rating of the organization. No mainstream charity manages to have 0% operating expenses, but if you see one that devotes 99.5% of its revenue to salaries and marketing, with only 0.5% going toward programs, you know it’s one to avoid.