All posts by FPU

$500/week to wrap your car in ads? Better think again.

I still haven’t encountered anything that contradicts this fraud prevention axiom:

“Cash this check then wire the money back to me” is a sure sign of a scam.

It’s a fairly easy pattern to spot when it comes to things like lottery scams, because the scammers almost literally use that exact wording. But there are other times where the “wire the money back to me” stage is a little more obscure.

One such case is the Car Wrap Advertising Scam. Below is a scan of an actual letter used to initiate this scheme after the would-be victim responded to a random email or text message offer. This letter came with a cashier’s check for $2,390.00 (click to enlarge):

In this case, they’re not directly saying “wire the money back to me,” but they are telling you to give it to someone else, in the form of setting up a payment to a “Decal Specialist.”

What happens when you contact this person? You’re instructed to wire the money from the check, which will eventually be returned as fraudulent, putting you on the hook for the cash you gave away. It’s the same pattern as a lottery scam, only with an additional step in between.

One reason this scam continues to work is that there are actual wrapped cars out there. We’ve all seen them. However, even in cases where these aren’t company-owned vehicles, legitimate car wrap advertisers share certain features:

  • They don’t randomly contact you out of the blue via text message or email
  • They don’t take everyone who applies; they’ll want to know how far you drive each day, where you drive, what kind of car you have, and your driving record
  • They’re not going to pay you $500 per week. About $1,000 per month seems to be the ceiling, and that’s for absolute ideal (for the advertiser) circumstances (i.e. you drive hundreds of miles per day in an area extremely densely-populated with people within the ad’s target demographic; I’m guessing your car has to meet certain visibility criteria as well, because I’ve mostly seen these ad wraps on lifted, customized 4×4 pickups)
  • You don’t pay them at any point, and you’re not responsible for passing along money to whomever applies the decals (“Hey stranger we’ve never met in person, here’s a few thousand dollars to give to someone else for us. We’ll just trust you to not keep it.”)

If you’re truly interested in turning your vehicle into a billboard, there are a few links to apparently legitimate agencies in this Penny Hoarder article. But before you act on anything online, be sure to do a lot of research first, and always get in writing what you are agreeing to do and how you will be compensated. If it’s too easy to get the gig, it’s probably a fraudulent offer.

What is ‘Brushing?’

In theory, getting free stuff sounds great. But what if it’s stuff you don’t particularly need or want, and it just keeps coming?

A new scam called “brushing” involves exactly that. Reports are growing of people receiving shipments from Amazon of items they didn’t order, sometimes the same item over and over, with no real mechanism available to stop the unwanted deliveries.

What exactly are they up to?

Shady sellers are creating fake Amazon accounts, then buying their own products and shipping them to random addresses. They then post five-star reviews of their own products. Since the system shows the item was actually bought by the reviewer, this review appears as a “Verified Purchase,” which makes the review more prominent, and the great average customer rating boosts the item’s rank in Amazon’s search function. The ultimate goal is to sell sub-par products to consumers tricked by the high average product rating.

What should you do if unordered shipments start showing up?

First, contact Amazon to let them know you’re getting them. Amazon will attempt to figure out who is behind the scam and delete the seller.

For the most part, Amazon has been telling people to either keep, donate or discard the actual items shipped. That part is up to you.

So far it doesn’t appear that the people receiving the shipments have had their accounts compromised. However, if you start getting things you didn’t order, go ahead and change your Amazon password (which you should do now and then anyway). The addresses used for shipping seem to be chosen at random, though there may be a link between previous purchases from overseas sellers using the Amazon platform. When you’re shopping on Amazon, pay attention to the “sold by,” “fulfilled by” and “ships from” information, and favor domestic sellers (or Amazon itself) and orders that are fulfilled by Amazon.

Fakespot.com is a good resource for checking out products on Amazon for fake reviews (it also works with Yelp, TripAdvisor and the Apple App Store). It’s not foolproof, but it can at least give some insight as to how trustworthy an item’s reviews are. All you have to do is paste the URL of the Amazon item into Fakespot, and it will give a letter grade and a percentage of high-quality reviews as determined by the site’s algorithm. Anything with less than 80% high-quality reviews, I would avoid. Pay attention to the negative reviews, too, to see what customers who didn’t like the product are saying. If fewer people buy items with tons of fake five-star reviews, the motivation for the brushing scam might dry up a little.

Spear phishing

The standard-issue phishing attack relies on sheer numbers as the key to its success; by sending tens of millions of emails, the chances of hooking a few thousand victims is pretty good, regardless of how sophisticated the message itself is.

But there is another type of phishing attack, known as spear phishing, which exchanges quantity for quality, by using insider information to target businesses. Spear phishing attacks are smaller in scale but arguably more effective than their poorly-spelled, randomly-selected cousins.

In a spear phishing attack, you might get a message at your job that appears to come from someone you work with, often a member of management or from another department. This message may request information about financial accounts, login and password information, ask you to open a file or link, or ask that you authorize a wire transfer from your employer’s account. If you comply with these directions, you will make your company vulnerable to financial or data loss.

Most established businesses have a website that reveals the names of management, the board of directors, and people from various departments, which gives would-be cybercriminals the information they need to impersonate an insider.

Communication is the key to preventing spear phishing attacks. Think about any request received via email – is this how the head of the IT department or the CEO really talks? Why are they sending you a file out of the blue? Is it your job to initiate wire transfers? The best defense is to simply confirm with the apparent sender if the message is legitimate or not. Spear phishing attacks use some of the same techniques as regular phishing emails, such as disguised links or infected file attachments. It pays to double-check before you take any action.

What is a ‘Reshipping’ scam?

Last time, we looked into Money Mule scams and how they could potentially land you in legal trouble for being an unwitting accomplice to money laundering. This time, we’ll look at the ‘reshipping’ scheme, another type of work-at-home scam.

Reshipping scams work almost identically to money mule schemes, except that instead of receiving electronic deposits and making outgoing wire transfers, victims are lured into accepting shipments of goods (usually electronics), repackaging them, and sending them to someone else. The criminal organizations recruit through job websites and via unsolicited emails, and may set up legitimate-looking websites to give the appearance of an established company.

Where did the reshipped goods come from? When cybercriminals steal things like credit card information, they have to have a way to turn that available credit into cash. Creating fake cards and getting cash advances in-person isn’t practical, so consumer goods are purchased using the stolen payment information. These goods are laundered by way of reshipping schemes, then sold off into the black market around the world. The cash generated from this is subsequently laundered via money mule scams and other methods.

Just as with money mule schemes, just being a victim of reshipping fraud can get you into trouble because you’re the only domestic, easily traceable link in the chain.

The internet is great for job hunting, but you have to be wary of offers that seem a little too easy or where the bar seems to be set too low. Remember that the majority of work-at-home offers are not legitimate employment opportunities. Anyone instructing you to, “Take this item, then give it to these other people for me,” is trying to conceal the origins of whatever it is they’re asking you to touch, whether money or consumer goods. They want you as the only traceable step in the transaction, and they’ve got a reason for wanting it that way.

What is a ‘Money Mule’ scam?

Cybercriminals rake in a lot of cash from their activities (such as mystery shopper scams, lottery and romance scams, and identity theft), which creates a problem: for the most part, they can’t simply start using the funds for personal gain because financial institutions generally ask questions when dealing with amounts in the hundreds of thousands or millions. They need to launder the money to give the appearance of legitimate origins.

Enter the “money mule.”

Criminal organizations set up fraudulent businesses and recruit people with online work-at-home advertisements. These victims are hired under titles like “Transfer Agent” to act as intermediaries between non-existent business entities, supposedly to legally circumvent bureaucratic requirements, fees or taxes.

Anyone who responds to one of these offers will be instructed to open a new account, usually at a specific large bank. The victim receives incoming wire transfers in the $10,000 range, keeps a certain percentage, and then wires the rest (in chunks of around $3,000) to various (fraudulent) companies around the world. Repeat this for a few cycles between a few hundred victims, and the original source of the money becomes obscured.

Unlike the majority of scams, you may notice a difference here: in this case, the mule actually can make a profit. So why not look for a “Transfer Agent” job online and become a “victim,” make a quick couple hundred bucks and then get out?

Because, also unlike other scams, there can be legal consequences for the victim. In an effort to crack down on this type of activity, financial institutions are getting good at noticing suspicious wire transfer activity, and you could end up getting arrested when (not if) you get caught. Not worth it.

The key is to be very suspicious of any job opportunity that seems like it pays too much for the work required, shows up out of the blue (even if you’ve posted a resume on a job website), and steer clear of anything that involves receiving funds via wire, then disbursing those funds to others.

Three low-tech scams and how to avoid them

For all the attention given to cybercrime like phishing and data breaches, there is still a lot of fraud that occurs outside of electronic channels. Here are just three low-tech crimes and how to steer clear of them.

Dumpster Diving

Big data breaches are alarming due to their sheer scope (and infuriating because the victims did absolutely nothing wrong to cause the theft), but remember that a lot of identity theft still begins with someone digging around in a garbage can for credit applications or documents containing personal information.

The simplest solution to prevent dumpster diving is to shred every single piece of junk mail or document that contains personal information before you throw it out. A cross-cut shredder is the way to go, and they start at under $20 for a small one that can do one or two sheets at a time.

It’s also a good idea to find out how any businesses you utilize store and discard sensitive information. Paper documents containing personal information need to be locked securely, and they need to either shred old documents themselves or contract with a licensed and bonded document destruction company.

Contractor Scams

When your home needs repairs, make sure the work is your idea to begin with. Don’t trust a stranger who appears at your doorstep offering to fix your roof or asphalt your driveway. Use an established contractor with a physical address and some form of online presence (if not a website, at the very least some reviews that indicate that other people have heard of the company before).

Only hire businesses that work under a contract, with the price agreed upon before any work is done. A lot of contractor scams start with a verbal agreement on a price, then when the (often shoddy) work is completed, the victim finds out the price has doubled, tripled or worse. Also watch out for demands for upfront payment – another popular home repair scam is to weasel a large “deposit” out of the victim, then disappear. Anything over 20% before work starts is suspicious. You’ll pay the rest when the work is done to your satisfaction.

Finally, be especially wary after a major weather event (tornado, flood, etc.) that causes damage to your house. Fraudulent contractors come out of the woodwork after disasters, and when you’re trying to put your home back together and get things back to normal, a walk-up approach can seem tempting, but remember: losing money to a contractor scam is only going to add to your problems. Stick with an established company to save headaches later.

Sticky Mailbox Lid

There are some scams that are so tacky, the perpetrators should be ashamed of themselves. This is one of those. These crooks target mailboxes with pull-open lids, coating the inside with a sticky substance so that anything someone drops into the box stays on the lid. The crook then walks up and takes the envelope in hopes it contains a check or cash. If you’re mailing something at a mailbox with a pull-open front, double-check to make sure your envelope went all the way down. So far the cases I’ve read about happened in New York City, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before this two-bit scheme makes its way across the country.

“Mailbox full” phishing attacks

When you get an email message telling you that your mailbox is full, or that your “quota has been exceeded,” it’s a good idea to double-check before you respond in any way. It might be a phishing attack designed to harvest your login credentials, infect your computer with malware, or both.

Most email service providers have a limit to how much space incoming messages can take up on the server. The size of this limit often depends on whether or not (and how much) the user is paying for the service (free providers give you less than ones you pay for).

If you leave hundreds and thousands of messages unread because you never check your mail, or don’t set up your email program to remove messages from the server after reading, you can reach this limit and new messages won’t get through.

That said, if you get a “mailbox full” message, chances are it’s not from your email service provider at all, and clicking on any links could lead to trouble. Here are a couple things to look for.

Bad spelling/bad grammar: these days, large internet service companies hire people who know how to spell and write to compose official messages. Strange grammatical constructions or misspelled words are an immediate tip-off that the email isn’t legitimate.

Who is it from? If you were really looking at an official message about your iCloud email account, you would think the sender’s address would be “[username]@icloud.com.” Same with att.net, hotmail.com, gmail.com or any of the others. Yet in a majority of cases, phishing emails appear to come from an address that has nothing to do with the service provider. Keep this in mind, though: some more sophisticated and/or targeted attacks might not have this flaw.

Where do the links go? You can see where a link takes you without clicking on it by hovering your mouse over the link and waiting for the little popup window to display the address. On a mobile device, you can hold your finger down on the link (instead of tapping) and a window will pop up showing the address. Again, if it’s from your actual email provider, that link is going to lead somewhere related to the business (and related to the sender’s address). A message about your Gmail account is going to point to something hosted at google.com, for example. Beware of lookalike addresses, though; the architects of these attacks will sometimes set up websites with addresses like “att.net-verification.com.br” where at first glance it appears to point to an att.net site, but the actual address is “net-verification.com.br.”

The best practice is to never interact directly with this type of message in the first place. If you think there might be a real issue with your email account, go directly to the provider’s website to find out if there really is a problem and how to correct it. If you did click on a suspicious link, run a virus scan to make sure you haven’t been infected with malware, and change any affected account passwords immediately.

Mystery Shopper Scams still exist

There are a few things you can always depend on. Light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum. Objects at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. “Cash this check and wire the money back to me” always equals “scam.”

I haven’t written about it in a while, but the old Mystery Shopper Scam and its variations are still out there. It’s time for a review.

The “classic” version of this scam starts with a job offer emailed out of the blue. If you respond to this message, you’ll be immediately “hired” as a Mystery (or Secret) Shopper. A cashier’s check for a fairly large amount of money (the old ones always seemed to be around $2,900, but there is a lot of variation) will arrive a short time later, with these instructions:

  1. Cash this check at your bank, keeping $100 or $150 for yourself
  2. Take the rest of the cash to the nearest Western Union location
  3. Wire it back to me
  4. Report on the customer service at Western Union

If you follow those instructions, a few days later you will be informed that the check you deposited was counterfeit and that you are now on the hook for the money you received in exchange. Unfortunately, you already wired that money to a stranger and can’t get it back.

Now, things are getting a little more difficult for the scammers. Financial institutions are placing more holds on cashier’s checks and are asking more questions to protect their customers, and after being slapped with a $586 million settlement for essentially letting these scams proliferate for so many years, Western Union is finally doing more to prevent this type of fraud.

But that only means this scam has evolved to work around these problems. Instead of Western Union, some versions involve prepaid gift cards (“cash the check, then buy iTunes gift cards and relay the numbers and PIN to me”), overpaying for purchases from online classifieds (“just wire the extra back to me”) or targeting businesses instead of individuals.

Still, the basic mechanism remains: if someone gives you a check and requests that you convert it to cash (i.e. placing the liability for that check’s authenticity on you, then transfer the money back to them electronically, they’re attempting to steal from you. Regardless of the initial pitch, the pattern holds true. Don’t fall for it.

The IRS doesn’t accept iTunes gift cards

The IRS doesn’t accept iTunes gift cards.

I’ll say it again: the IRS doesn’t accept iTunes gift cards.

“But wait,” some might say, “what about iTunes gift cards?”

NO. You can’t pay your tax bill with iTunes gift cards. Or any other gift cards.

The IRS has never allowed you to pay your taxes with an iTunes gift card. They are never going to let you pay your taxes with an iTunes gift card. iTunes gift cards come from Apple Inc. They are not money. They are not legal tender for any debts, public or private. They can only be used to buy digital goods from one company.

It’s Tax Season 2018, and the scam calls are already in full swing. “This is the IRS. You owe x dollars in back taxes and you’re going to go to jail unless you pay right now. Go buy some iTunes gift cards, then call me back with the numbers from those cards.”

That’s the gist of the calls. And they’re a scam. It doesn’t matter what Caller ID says, it doesn’t matter who the caller claims to be. The IRS doesn’t call you (or email) out of the blue demanding immediate payment. The IRS doesn’t open with “you’re going to jail.” And the IRS does not, has never, and never will accept iTunes gift cards (or any prepaid card) or wire transfers as payment for taxes owed.

This has been a very repetitive article, but the message is important and can not be repeated enough: the IRS does not accept iTunes gift cards.

Can you spot the advertisements?

Have you ever looked up something online and then been followed around for the next few weeks by online advertisements for the very thing you searched for?

That online advertising can be creepy and annoying is hardly a controversial statement, and with so many websites relying on ad revenue as their primary income source, it is pretty much everywhere.

But even when it’s not being creepy, it can be sneaky.  Often, online ads are disguised as regular “content” (which is a lame marketing buzzword for things like articles, news stories, videos, etc.) and if you’re not paying close attention, you could be drawn in, and not all ads lead to reputable sites.

Here’s a screenshot from the news feed at Yahoo.com from 1/15/2018 (note that I am not commenting on the content of these particular ads, and that I do not know what happens if you click on them because I didn’t):

Yahoo.com screenshot 1/15/2018

The first one isn’t too hard to spot, in the upper-right corner. The little blue symbol in the corner of the photo shows that this is an advertisement, and it shows a website other than Yahoo.com at the bottom of the photo.

Advertisement from Yahoo.com 1/15/2018
This is definitely an advertisement.

But there is another advertisement on this page, and it’s a little trickier. Did you notice the “article” about “People in Heavy Debt…”?

Advertisement from Yahoo.com 1/15/2018
This is also definitely an advertisement, just not as obvious.

See where it says “Sponsored” above the headline? That’s your cue that the “article” (and the two little sub-articles) is actually an advertisement. It’s easy to see once you know what to look for, but could they get the text color of the “sponsored” disclaimer any lighter?

Like I said, I’m offering no commentary on the products, services or websites being advertised in either case. I’m not even saying you should never, ever click on an advertisement.

But I’m not a fan of advertising when it tries to dress up as something else. It may not violate any laws or regulations, and it may not be a scam or fraud per se, and yes, if you’re really paying attention you should see the disclaimers, but I feel like everyone deserves to be told clearly and directly that they’re being advertised to. I don’t care how high-tech the delivery system is, most sponsored content is no more respectable than “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine” from A Christmas Story.