All posts by FPU

But seriously folks, what is the deal with wiring money?

Looking back over the different types of fraud and scams I’ve been covering these past few months (and the ones I’m going to cover soon), I can’t help but notice that an inordinate amount of them involve wiring money.

Mystery Shopper Scams: the victim wires money to the thief.

Grandparent Telephone Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Craigslist Overpayment Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Job Interview Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

Lottery Scam: the victim wires money to the thief.

So this has me thinking…what is the deal with wiring money? There just seems to be an aroma of seediness around the whole industry.

I’m not trying to throw Western Union under the bus here. I know the vast majority of people are using it and similar services for legitimate reasons, but still. Why is it so easy to commit crimes using money-wiring services, and could providers do anything to make it less so?

In all honesty, probably not. The crook is the one committing a crime. The victim is just wiring money, which you can pretty much do at will. It’s not a crime to fall for a scam. Limiting users’ ability to wire funds would just create extra hassle for customers and drive down business.

So that means it’s on you to not become a victim in the first place. Be knowledgeable about different types of scams. Most of all, just think before you act.

For example, I can’t think of a single legitimate case in which someone would mail you a cashier’s check and ask you to cash it, then wire money back to them. If someone is telling you to do this, it is a scam. 100% of the time. Just take that as a general rule, and you’ll reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

Telephone scam targets grandparents

There’s another antique scam currently experiencing a renaissance: the telephone “Grandparent Scam.”

This one is really simple: thieves will call elderly people, posing as a grandchild and asking for money because of a car accident, arrest or other emergency. Alternately, they may claim to be a police officer or lawyer and tell the victim their grandchild has been hurt, arrested or in need of legal counsel. In either case, the victim is instructed to wire money to the thieves.

It’s a simple scam because it’s so easy to find out the names and ages of family members online. In fact, a single obituary might provide everything a crook needs to victimize family members of the deceased. However, an experienced “social engineer” might be able to pull it off cold, with very little information to start with.

Thieves using this technique are working under a set of assumptions:

  1. Grandparents will be less judgmental if a young person is in trouble with the law, which is why the “grandchild” is calling them instead of a parent
  2. Grandparents will be quick to panic if they think a grandchild is injured
  3. Elderly people can’t hear well, which means the thief doesn’t have to work very hard to disguise his or her voice
  4. Older people are less informed and less tech-savvy
  5. Elderly people may be ill or on medication, which can affect their judgment

Of course, in any individual case, none of these might be true, some of these might be true, or all of these might be true. Crooks use stereotypes as a way to select potential victims, knowing that one group (grandparents) will have a statistically higher rate of return than another (parents or siblings).

If you are a grandparent, be extremely wary of anyone calling who claims to be a grandchild in trouble. Ask questions that only the real grandchild would know. Hang up the phone and call him or her directly, or the parents. If the caller claims to have been arrested in Tijuana, but his parents say he’s in the living room in Des Moines, you’ve pretty much got your answer right there.

Don’t wire money to someone who calls just because they asked you to. Don’t panic. Take a breath or two, and figure out how you can verify beyond reasonable doubt who that caller is. Ask questions (the crook will likely hang up immediately). Call the parents. Call the grandchild. Do whatever it takes to verify the identity of the caller.

In all honesty, if someone is calling and asking you to wire money, I’d put 90% odds on it being a scam right away.

Not even the FBI Director is above falling for a phishing scam

I spend a lot of time on this site repeating (explicitly or implicitly) these two ideas:

  1. You can take steps to vastly reduce your chances of becoming a victim of fraud or identity theft
  2. That said, nobody is ever 100% safe, and nobody is “too smart” to walk right into a scam

The following is an excerpt from a recent speech by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III:

Most of us assume we will not be targets of cyber crime. We are not as careful as we know we should be.  Let me give you an example.

Not long ago, the head one of our nation’s domestic agencies received an e-mail purporting to be from his bank. It looked perfectly legitimate, and asked him to verify some information. He started to follow the instructions, but then realized this might not be such a good idea.

It turned out that he was just a few clicks away from falling into a classic Internet “phishing” scam—“phishing” with a “P-H.” This is someone who spends a good deal of his professional life warning others about the perils of cyber crime. Yet he barely caught himself in time.

He definitely should have known better. I can say this with certainty, because it was me.

After changing all our passwords, I tried to pass the incident off to my wife as a “teachable moment.” To which she replied: “It is not my teachable moment. However, it is our money. No more Internet banking for you!”

If I didn’t dislike vapid clichés like “it really makes you think” so much, I’d probably say that right now. I mean, it would be funny (but not ha-ha funny) enough if someone like myself fell for a phishing email, but the FBI Director?

I think the Soup Nazi-esque “no online banking for you!” response is extreme, although I can see how a high-profile figure like Mueller could have his reasons beyond just his own personal finances for going offline—namely, his very credibility.

For the rest of us, though, online banking and bill payment is still very safe, as long as you’re informed when it comes to the dangers. If you get an email that appears to be from a financial institution, don’t click on any links within that message. Go directly to that bank, credit union or credit card company’s website by typing the URL manually, or by running a search on Google, and log in from there. Of course, if it’s from an institution you don’t even have a relationship with, you’re pretty safe in assuming it’s phony.

The full text of Mueller’s speech is an interesting read, if you have a few minutes, by the way.

“Debt Crisis in America” Commercial

On Monday, I posted about an incredibly sleazy debt counseling commercial, and promised to find out who it was and post their BBB rating and some other information.

Well, apparently this ad is a “turnkey” job, where an advertising agency creates the commercial, and then plugs in the phone number of whatever company buys the ad from them. In other words, the company running the advertisement here in Northwest Indiana might not be the same company that uses it in Cleveland or Las Vegas or Anchorage.

Basically, that means I can’t call them out by name and post their BBB ratings, because it could be many different debt counseling companies.

However, what I can do is post a couple screenshots, so you’ll recognize it when you see it.

This is not a real news broadcast:

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Subtle, isn’t it?

Everything I have said or am about to say is my opinion. In other words, if your debt counseling company has been using this ad, save your time, money and breath. I’m not going to soften my position on this out of fear of litigation, because you haven’t got a case.

I believe that any debt counseling company that is using this advertisement is deliberately misleading consumers. They are running an advertisement specifically designed to trick people into thinking it is a genuine news broadcast (fine print or not), and that the President endorses their services. I would not give this advertisement a second glance, but if you want to figure out who is running it and what their BBB rating is, just for fun, try catching the phone number and Googling it when it appears on your TV.

If you are running a legitimate debt counseling company and have been using this commercial, I would stop running it immediately. You are going to damage your credibility because of people like me throwing you under the bus with the scumbags. You may be providing a wonderful service to those who need it, but your advertising is telling a different story.

If you are running a legitimate debt counseling company and have been considering using this commercial or similar, don’t. I don’t care how cheap it is. You don’t want to paint yourself with the same brush as the crooks. Looks sleazy? Is sleazy.

Facebook IQ Tests: Yes, they’re a rip-off

I did a couple presentations to some eighth graders this past Monday on the topic of common email scams like lottery and mystery shopper schemes, as well as having their parents check their credit reports to make sure nothing shows up.

I was surprised at how many of them had already encountered these emails, and I hope my message got through.

Another topic came up, however, during the Q&A portion of the presentations: those IQ tests that always show up on Facebook.

This isn’t the “Which Variety of Traditional German Sausage Are You?” tests. (Knackwurst, by the way, in case you’re wondering.) I’m talking about the IQ tests that appear as banner ads, with a few of your friends’ photos and the “score” they allegedly received, challenging you to beat them.

My quick advice is: don’t even click on those links. End of story.

The longer answer is this: if you click the link, it will take you to a website (not affiliated with Facebook) that asks you for your cell phone number, allegedly to give you your score. What it’s actually doing (if you read the fine print) is signing you up for a “service” with a monthly fee of $29.99. Then you take an idiotic IQ test, which is not even a little bit official, and wait until the charges show up.

I guess it’s not technically a scam, since you’re told (in very tiny text) that it will charge you, and I guess you’re signing up for something (though I’m not sure what). However, it’s sort of a dirty trick, if you ask me. These ads are aimed at teenagers, most of whom aren’t going to read the fine print.

This was the only real disconnect I had during the presentations. Some of the kids apparently believed that their parents wouldn’t mind paying an extra $360 per year for their kids’ cell phones. “It’s only a dollar a day,” one protested. Tough crowd. “Is this thing on?”

Yeah, it’s only a dollar a day. For a one-time IQ test that is in no way official and is not administered by a professional. I tried to emphasize that just because it’s on Facebook doesn’t mean you should trust it, and that these tests are essentially idiotic, but in the end had to admit to them, “Hey; it doesn’t matter to me if you want to get ripped off to take an idiotic test. If you think your parents will be thrilled to pay an extra $30 per month in this economy just so you can get your fake IQ score, then have at it.”

I think that might have woke them up a little. There was a short “I’m still processing what you just said, and realizing that you’re probably right” silence. I took that as a good sign.

All in all, a successful presentation, I think.

Misleading credit counseling advertisements on television

I just saw what may have been the sleaziest credit counseling commercial I’ve ever seen.

It appeared on the Weather Channel around 2:30 PM local time (I was watching Full Force Nature; they had some really killer close-up tornado footy).  Now, sleazy ads during daytime television are nothing new, but this one was incredible.

It began with footage of the President giving an address about the economy. I don’t know the date or specific topic of the speech—I know he used the phrase “drastic action.” This was framed by graphics designed to closely emulate the look of a broadcast from a cable news channel. There was a headline at the bottom of the screen about debt counseling, with a ticker underneath that, the kind they normally use to give up-to-the-minute stock prices.

After the (out-of-context) presidential clip, it cut to a woman in front of a photo of either the White House or the Capital Building. She was dressed in a sharp suit like a news anchor, and was telling you to call now for information on debt elimination. The headline and ticker remained at the bottom of the screen. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might easily mistake it for a genuine news item. Naturally, the color scheme of the ad was red, white and blue.

Of course, it wasn’t real. Consider these facts:

  1. Real news broadcasts don’t tell you to call a toll-free number for information on debt counseling
  2. The government does not endorse any such service, nor did it create the advertisement
  3. The President did not create or approve the ad, nor does he endorse any such service
  4. Anyone can create a TV commercial using cheap graphics and public domain footage and, as long as they purchase the time, have it run on television
  5. Ads that run during daytime television are created under the assumption that you are jobless, directionless, desperate and not very intelligent. In other words, they’re insulting. Take them with a massive grain of salt.

I didn’t catch the name of the company, but I wish I had. I’d gladly post it here, along with their BBB rating and the advice to not use their services. If I catch the commercial again, I’ll make note of this information. If it is a legitimate, non-profit counseling service, they need to be told that their advertisements are misleading and unbecoming. If they’re not, they need to be called out on it and run out of business.

There are real, non-profit credit counseling services available for those who need them. REGIONAL has a relationship with Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Northwest Indiana. They’ve got an excellent BBB rating.

If you’re in a different area, start with the Better Business Bureau, and don’t use any service with anything less than an A rating.

Fraudulent advertisements: anybody can do it!

Here is a list of things that literally anyone can do:

  1. Run an advertisement in the classified section of the newspaper
  2. Start a website
  3. Send an email message
  4. Tape a poster or sign to a telephone pole

This is an important fact to remember when you’re considering whether or not to call a phone number or give your name and other personal information out over the Internet.

I was reminded of this when I heard that the U.S. Postal Service jobs scam I wrote about just the other day had showed up in one of the newspapers here in Northwest Indiana. An employee here at REGIONAL called the number, just to see if it was the same rip-off I posted about. She told me, “The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘It’s $129.95. Will that be credit or debit?'”

There is no vetting process in the classifieds. Newspapers do not check out alleged businesses before running their ads. I could call them up right now and, as long as I paid for it, run an ad that said, “Build your own flying saucer out of household materials! Capable of inter-planetary travel. Seats 4 adults. Plans only $99.95” and they would run it (just like they would also run one that said, “Be a secret shopper! $483/day!”). They just don’t have the resources to verify the claims of every advertiser.

The Internet is the same way, only worse. Anybody can create a website, and make it look very slick and professional. There is absolutely no physical barrier to lying on a website, or setting up a fake business that just steals money or personal information.

Heck, I could say this site is “as seen on MSNBC,” even though it hasn’t been. Yet.

Actually, when you link to a CNN.com article, as I’ve done a few times, a link to your article shows up at the bottom of their page in the “From the Blogs” section. So I could say the Fraud Prevention Unit is “as seen on CNN,” right?

Right?

Okay, fine. I’ll have to wait for my Larry King interview. Or maybe an hour-long special! Or…

U.S. Postal Service Job Scam

Finally, an employment scam post that isn’t about mystery shopping!

I signed up for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office consumer alert messages a while back. I strongly suggest you do the same. I’ll just print the full text of today’s alert, since it’s short:

Attorney General Greg Zoeller and the U.S. Postal Service caution Hoosiers about a scam that offers a study guide to help pass a postal exam with the promise of a full-time job. There is no truth to this offer. The U.S. Postal Service is not currently hiring any full-time workers. Furthermore, the information found in the study guide priced at $129.95, is actually offered free of charge at libraries around the state.

This is a classic scam: charging money for information that’s available free of charge. Throwing in the promise of a full-time position is just a tactic to get people who might be looking for work to act quickly.

I’m guessing there’s a reason the Post Office isn’t hiring at the moment: anybody who already has a full-time P.O. job is going to hold onto it for dear life until the economy straightens out, even if they were considering quitting or retiring before.

I don’t blame ’em, do you?

Child Identity Theft: Why you need to check your child’s credit report today

Children are an attractive target for identity theft. Why?

Several reasons:

  1. Clean credit history
  2. Clean criminal history
  3. Clean employment history
  4. It may be many years before the theft is discovered

That last one can be especially damaging. If a child’s identity is stolen at age 10, it may be another eight years or more before he applies for a credit card, tries to open a checking account or attempts to obtain an auto loan. By then, his credit (or criminal/medical/employment) history can be incredibly difficult to repair, since the crime took place so long ago.

That’s why you’re going to check your kids’ credit reports today, isn’t it? Go to AnnualCreditReport.com like you would to get your own credit reports.

Basically, you’re making sure your child doesn’t have a credit report. If he or she does, you need to take a closer look.

There’s an article from the MSN Money site called “Stolen innocence: Child identity theft” that’s worth reading, despite its Lifetime movie-esque title. I’m not sure when the article was originally written (it refers to Hillary Clinton as “Former New York Sen[ator],” so I’m guess it’s not super-recent), but it’s mostly good information.

However, the article features a section in which some people are debating whether child identity theft is actually a significant problem, which strikes me as a little strange (especially considering the sources in question). Growing problem or not, isn’t it worth your while to at least check?

I mean, I don’t advocate living in fear on any level. But since you’re checking your own credit reports anyway (you are, aren’t you?), you might as well make sure your kids’ reports are clean while you’re at it.

More information about fake virus scan pop-ups: what the FTC has to say

Today I was checking out some articles at FTC.gov, and I came across a good one called “Free Security Scan Could Cost Time and Money.”

The article dates back to December 2008, but it’s still relevant. It covers the same basic topic as my post “Fake Virus Scan Pop-Ups” from a couple weeks ago, with some additional information I thought it would be wise to share.

For example, this article also says that when a window pops up offering a “free security scan” or telling you that “malicious software” or (for maximum scare value) “illegal pornography” has been found on your computer, not to trust the “Cancel” or “No” buttons on that pop-up window, since it usually does the same thing as the “Scan” or “Yes” buttons. However, they also give you specific directions, which I did not do in the previous article:

If you use Windows, press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to open your Task Manager, and click “End Task.” If you use a Mac, press Command + Option + Q + Esc to “Force Quit.”

The article further warns you, “Make it a practice not to click on any links within pop-ups” (my emphasis), which I think is pretty good advice.

There is one paragraph I disagree with (or, more accurately, only-sort-of agree with) in the FTC article:

If you get an offer, check out the program by entering the name in a search engine. The results can help you determine if the program is on the up-and-up.

I only take issue with this advice because, in general, I feel that if you’re getting an offer at all, it’s probably not legitimate, so don’t bother wasting too much time on a search.

Norton, McAfee and Kaspersky are going to advertise on the Internet, obviously. However, they’re never going to do it by running one of these pop-up traps. If you’ve got a “free scan” or “clean your registry” window, you’re looking at a scam. I’d consider that a zero-tolerance policy if I were you.

If you truly feel like an offer might be legit, go ahead and do a quick search on it. However, my first reaction is to not trust any offers that I wasn’t looking for in the first place. If you were looking for security software to begin with, it’s a different story; obviously, Symantec’s website might have special offers on it from time to time, since they’re the actual company that produces the Norton line. It’s when you’re looking for the latest Hollywood scandal photos that you’re going to run into trouble.