“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.

Department of Veterans Affairs warns of scam targeting veterans

Well, this is just gross.

According to a warning released by the VA, scam artists have been targeting veterans over the telephone. They claim to be VA workers, telling victims that the VA has new procedures regarding prescriptions, and that they need the veterans’ credit card information.

Of course, the VA will never call veterals asking for credit card numbers or any other personal information.

It just illustrates the Number One Rule of Fraud Prevention:

Never give any personal information to an unsolicited caller, no matter who they claim to be.

If you have friends, family or neighbors who are veterans (especially elderly veterans), make sure they know about this scam, and that they know not to give out personal information.

The source for this post is “Scam targets veterans’ credit card info, VA warns,” published at CNN.com on 9/18/09.

How to avoid spyware and adware

I’ve said before that I don’t have the tech chops to get into an extremely detailed description of computer security issues, but I think its important to at least understand the basics. The minutiae of VBS or C+ programming doesn’t matter for our purposes here much as the following facts:

  1. There is a lot of malicious software out there
  2. It is important to know how to recognize it and how to avoid it
  3. It is important to keep your security software updated, and to make sure it is legitimate software from a trusted source

Let’s dive right in. Warning: this is one of my longer posts.

Basic Definitions

Malware: This is sort of an “umbrella term” for software intended to harm your computer. It includes (but is not limited to) spyware, misleading adware, viruses, worms and trojan horses.

Spyware: This is a term for software that, in some form, sends information from your computer to another entity without your consent. This information can be anything from words typed into search engines (Google, e.g.), websites visited or even keystrokes. Spyware can pose a serious identity theft risk, as it can relay financial account information (account numbers and passwords) to a third party.

Adware: Adware is software that displays advertising in some form. Not all adware is necessarily malicious (the free version of the Eudora email client contains benign adware), but sometimes it is. Often, spyware and adware are bundled together.

How Spyware and Adware Infect Your Computer

Some spyware is intentional. Some companies install keyloggers on their computers to keep tabs on employee computer use. I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet every letter you type into an FBI computer is logged.

However, the spyware I’m talking about is the kind that installs itself on your computer without your knowledge or consent. These programs can install through a variety of channels. Some of them are:

Backdoor: These programs exploit “holes” in your web browser or computer’s security features. You can become infected simply by visiting a website that has been set up to install malware, and you probably won’t even know it at the time.

Piggybacking: Sometimes software you want is bundled with software you might not want. Adware often shows up in this form, but other malware uses this method as well. I mentioned the free Eudora email client earlier. This is pretty benign adware—in return for not paying for the full version of the software, you put up with some banner ads, from which the software company earns revenue. However, you’ve also got examples like Bonzi Buddy, which was designed to appeal to children (and secretly send information about their web browsing habits to a third party). Bad scene.

Trojan Horses: A trojan horse is software that poses as useful or desirable software, but is actually spyware, adware or other malware. Some of the most common examples right now are Fake Virus Scan Pop-Ups, which I talked about a couple weeks ago. While visiting a website, a window pops up with a frantic message telling you that your computer is infected with a virus, and to click “OK” to run a scan now. This downloads software, some of which may actually even look like a real virus scanner, that can wreak havoc on your computer, to say nothing of the financial threat it could pose if it contains some really nasty spyware. I want to touch on a few examples of trojan horse software here:

MS Antivirus: This is a fake virus scanner that can disable your real antivirus and anti-spyware programs. Other than that, it’s mostly just annoying, but turning off your security software opens the door to all kinds of other infections. MS Antivirus goes by about a million different names, and it is constantly being updated to evade detection by legitimate security software, which just illustrates the importance of keeping your antivirus software updated. Pay for the subscription. It is worth it.

No-Adware: This was a trojan horse designed to confuse you with a name similar to Ad-Aware, which is a legitimate product. No-Adware is supposedly no longer considered “rogue” software, but you know what? I still haven’t forgiven them.

Tattoodle: This is an application that usually gets installed (intentionally) through Facebook. I don’t know yet if it’s malicious or just annoying, but I don’t think I care: it changes your browser’s homepage, makes itself difficult to remove and its logo is designed to make you think it’s related to Google. If it looks like malware and acts like malware, I call it malware. Just my opinion.

What To Do About Spyware and Adware

Sometimes spyware doesn’t have a whole lot of symptoms. A sudden increase in popup advertisements, constant frantic popups that claim your computer is infected, or just a sudden decrease in system performance can all be signs of a malware infection. I suppose having your identity or financial account information stolen could also be signs, but we’re not going to let it get to that point, are we?

First and foremost, it is of vital importance to install good antivirus and anti-spyware software, and to keep this software updated, even if that means paying for a subscription every year. Second and also foremost, it is vital to make sure this software is the real thing. Here are what I think of as the “Big Three” real, actual, non-malware computer security programs, along with some other software:

Norton: This is what I use. It currently comes in three versions for home users—AntiVirus, Internet Security, and 360, which range in price from $39.99 to $69.99 (although I’m pretty sure 360 is normally $79.99). As with all security software, you also have to subscribe to the updates every year, but it is well worth it.

McAfee: The Pepsi to Norton’s Coke, McAfee is another good one. It’s not my favorite, but I think that has to do more with the look and feel of the software than its actual functionality. As of this writing, its home computer versions range from $29.99 to $39.99, so it’s definitely more of a “budget” option. It works fine, though.

Kaspersky: This one actually originates from Russia. It is excellent antivirus software, and I’m pretty sure at one point years ago it was absolutely free to download and update. Alas, you have to pay for it now; prices are similar to Norton, ranging from $39.95 to $79.95.

Spybot Search & Destroy: This is free software that I highly recommend. It is not a replacement for any of the three antivirus softwares above, as it only concentrates on spyware and adware, but it is a great little backup program to have on hand. You’d be surprised how much potentially harmful stuff slips past your antivirus software. Beware of trojan horses with similar names—only get it from the website I’ve linked here.

Ad-Aware: This is similar to Spybot Search & Destroy. There is a free version still available, but you can also buy software from their site. To be honest, I haven’t used this one in a long time. Again, beware of imitators.

One final word on avoidance: I think there are certain types of websites that tend to contain more malware than others. You’re mostly safe when it comes to the giant corporate sites like Amazon, but I would never suggest you stick only to huge corporate sites.  You miss out on the whole democratic, DIY side of the Internet if you do that.

However, any time you’re viewing sites that offer pirated software, movies or music, or sites that appeal to the…ahem…prurient interests, you’re going to run into a lot more malware, especially in the form of trojan horses, than you might otherwise. So my advice is to go forth and browse, have fun and don’t be afraid to venture outside the “mall,” but try to avoid the seedy side of town.

Watch Out For Census Scams

What do economic stimulus packages, Cash For Clunkers, tax refunds, and the U.S. Census all have in common?

Besides the obvious fact that they’re all related to da gubbermint, they’re also things that people have turned (or could turn) into scams.

The 2010 Census is already in its early stages, and workers are already going door-to-door to verify addresses. However, you know as well as I do that there are also going to be some con artists out there, trying to get personal information for fraudulent use.

Ask any Census worker to show you his or her identification and badge before you answer questions. They will not ask for your Social Security number, credit card or bank account information, or donations. Anyone attempting to get this information from you is attempting to commit fraud. Politely refuse to answer their questions, close and lock your door, then contact police immediately. A Census worker will also never ask to enter your home.

Also, Census workers will only contact you by telephone, in person or by U.S. Mail (meaning envelopes-with-paper-in-them). They will not use email in any circumstance. Immediately delete any emails that claim to be from the U.S. Census.

Why don’t they use email, and why will they never do so?

Well, it’s because of people like me. I have six email addresses that I can think of offhand. There are probably another five or six that I don’t even remember. One of them is just so I can use Google Reader, and another is a leftover from an old blog, but my work email and two out of my three home emails are pretty active. Within a single household, there might be twenty email addresses, including young children. Can you imagine the mess that would ensue if they tried to use email to conduct a Census? There would be panic on a heretofore unseen level when the results came out that the population had rocketed up to 2 billion people over the last ten years.

The core information in this post was taken from “Be cautious about giving info to census workers.