Category Archives: General Scams

Don’t Fall for the Inevitable Western Union Settlement Scams (OR: Distant Early Warning)

In January of this year, Western Union reached a $586 million settlement with the FTC to refund some of the money people lost to scams between January 2004 and January 2017, and to create a functional fraud prevention program.

Consumers who can prove they were a victim of a scam that involved wiring money through Western Union between those dates, and who can back up their claims with documentation, may be able to get some money back. Not all of it, but some, which is better than none. The refunds will be handled through the Department of Justice, once they have the money from Western Union. It may take a year or so to verify and pay out claims after that.

So here’s your preemptive scam warning: don’t fall for the inevitable scams based on this settlement. At some point, somebody is going to start attempting to trick people into sending money in advance to claim their share of the settlement.

There will be a claims process through the DOJ. There will not be any prepayments made on your part, you will not be able to “speed up the process” by sending money, and the DOJ or FTC won’t ask you to purchase any gift cards (the preferred method of fraudulent payment these days, now that Western Union has taken enough of a hit to actually start paying attention to the problem). Nobody will contact you out of the blue by phone, email, or any other channel (I predict well-organized scammers who kept their victims’ contact information going after the people they already tricked once). You will submit a claim through the DOJ, wait a long time, and hope for the best.

In the meantime, if you were a victim of a scam that involved Western Union, keep any documentation you have from the incident. How much you can get back will depend on how much you lost and how many people file a claim, but getting something back is better than the nothing you were left with before.

Sources:

Scam Calls from Local Phone Numbers (OR: Let It Be, Let It Be)

A few years ago I wrote about lottery scams originating from Jamaica, and I basically said, “Don’t even answer a call from the 876 area code.”

Which is still decent advice, although area codes will begin to have less and less geographical meaning as time goes on because we’re running out of numbers; new phone lines will be assigned whatever ten-digit string is available at the moment, and the old idea of “area code” = “whence the call originates” will begin to blur.

That said, not answering calls from unknown numbers? Still a good rule of thumb. If it’s legitimate and important, they’ll leave a message.

But what if the call almost looks familiar? For example: your phone number is 219-555-1234, and a call shows up from 219-555-5678? Even with all that stuff about area codes and running out of phone numbers, the same area code AND prefix is bound to be someone local, right?

Not in the age of caller ID spoofing.

A favorite new tactic among scammers is to pick an area code, a prefix, and a random set of four numbers, then robocall everyone within that area code and prefix. The call looks local, and potential victims will be more likely to pick up, thinking someone they know is calling.

Treat it like any other unknown caller and consider not answering it. Once again, if it’s legitimate and important, they’ll leave a message.

I remember when screening calls was sort of…frowned upon. Like you were arrogant, paranoid or trying to weasel out of paying your debts. But call screening is just good personal business these days. Screen away!

Now, eventually this is going to happen: the spoofed caller ID is going to appear to come from a number you do recognize. There is a non-zero chance it will happen someday, and in this case, you’ll probably pick up. End the call without explanation as soon as you realize it’s a scam call. (If you can’t tell the difference, get new friends.)

There is a second step to dealing with the same area code/same prefix scam calls: after you’ve ignored the ringing phone and found that they either left no message or a prerecorded pitch on your voicemail, do NOT call the number back to ask about the call or to accuse someone of running a scam.

Think about it: caller ID spoofing means the call did NOT come from the number that shows up on your phone. That means the actual owner of that number did NOT call you. You’re going to end up reaching a victim whose phone number was chosen at random by criminals, and if you start in on them you’re just causing stress to another person who doesn’t deserve it.

Don’t do that. It’s not nice. You avoided a scam by screening your calls. That’s enough of a victory. Let it be.

Two Quick Ones: Popups and “Please Open”

Just a couple very, very short fraud prevention tips to keep in mind:

  1. In most cases, legitimate websites will not ask for your username and password in a popup window. If you’re looking at a popup window that’s asking for this information, it’s time to double- and triple check that you’re actually on the website you thought you were visiting.
  2. If you get an email with the subject “Please open,” don’t. I know….rude, since they asked all polite an’ stuff. But don’t open the message, or any attachments. Just don’t do it.

The IRS doesn’t tell you to load up MoneyPak cards

Today’s post is real simple:

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to represent the IRS, informing you of all the trouble you’re in due to unpaid taxes, you are almost definitely dealing with a scammer.

If the next thing they tell you is “don’t tell anyone” and “go load up a bunch of MoneyPak cards and call me back and give me the card information,” you are DEFINITELY, without any shadow of a doubt, dealing with a scammer.

The correct response is to hang up the phone. This latest round of IRS telephone scams appears to involve particularly aggressive callers, but remember: it’s just a voice on a phone. They can’t freeze your assets or confiscate your property because they’re not the IRS.

You can report the fraud at http://www.treasury.gov/tigta/ if you feel like it, but the main thing is: hang up the phone.

Source:

http://www.ic3.gov/media/2014/140925.aspx

Talking to children about fraud prevention

I’ve been doing fraud and identity theft presentations for adults and high school and middle school students for several years now, but recently I realized I’d never presented to elementary school-aged kids, and had nothing prepared if the opportunity would arise.

Kids need to know this stuff, too. Sure we can all say, “Well, the parents shouldn’t let them on a computer without constant supervision in the first place,” but that’s not how it generally works in reality. Kids end up downloading things and talking to strangers and everything in between, and they work fast. You look away for five minutes because staring at a kid playing Minecraft in the name of “constant supervision” is one of the most boring things human beings are capable of doing, and suddenly your browser’s homepage has been hijacked and some weirdo knows your phone number.

So they need to learn, but what to tell them, and how to present it in a way they’ll understand?

I’ve been working on those questions while trying to come up with a fraud prevention presentation for the elementary school crowd, or at least the 3rd through 5th grade set. I’ve narrowed down a few things that I think are important:

1. Everything you see online was put there by a person

Kids trust everything and everyone. When they go online, they assume everything exists by benevolent magic. Show them a “Click here for free _____!” popup with Mario on it and they’re going to install anything it asks them to. What they need to understand is that everything they see was made by a person they don’t know and can’t see, and that not every one of those people are good. People lie because they make money tricking children.

2. Popup windows are not to be trusted

A popup window is probably bad news, especially if it offers free games, powerups for games, or prizes. Kids will accept anything if you tell them it’s a prize. Ask the tiny blue plastic mug I won at the school carnival in 1984. I still had that thing five years later.

3. A “virus” is a type of program that hurts your computer, phone or tablet

I’m still working on how to explain this one, but the gist is that the people who make things for you to download sometimes hide other programs inside it, and these can hurt your computers and devices, or even steal money from you.

4. Keep your passwords secret!

Parents need to know their kids’ passwords, but the kids need to know NOT to let anyone else know them. Not even their best friend. Not someone who asks for it really nicely. Nobody.

So this is a work in progress right now, but those four points seem like something a kid would be able to understand if explained properly. I’m sure I’ll rework some of these and add to it, but it’s a starting point.

 

Overpayment scams affect businesses, too

I thought I was onto some clever application of the “duck test” for the title of this post, about how “if it looks like a scam and quacks like a scam,” but I really couldn’t make it sound anything other than monstrously insane, so I dropped it and went with the title you see above.

Anyway, the old repayment scam has been explained a thousand times here, there and everywhere. You’re selling something on Craigslist (for example), and a buyer contacts you, usually from out of state. They send their payment, but instead of $200, it’s a cashier’s check for $3,200. “Cash it and use the extra for shipping, then wire the rest back to me,” they say when you contact them.

What happens next is fairly predictable: you cash the check, send the item, wire the excess money (thousands of dollars) to someone, then find out a week later that it was a counterfeit check and that you’re on the hook for the loss caused to your financial institution.

But did you know that scammers also target businesses with the same tactic?

And if you’re a business owner, you might fall for it because what might strike you as suspicious during a private sale might seem less so in a business context. I’ve heard of several cases where retail businesses, attorneys and rental property owners have been victimized by this scam.

However, the principle applies in every context, whether in a person-to-person or a business transaction: if someone sends you a cashier’s check and tells you to cash it and wire money back to them, you’re almost always dealing with a con artist.

How law enforcement doesn’t operate: scam alert from the BBB

If you live in the United States (I can’t vouch for other countries), there are certain ways in which law enforcement is carried out, and ways in which it generally is not.

Here’s one way law enforcement doesn’t work: if there’s a warrant out for your arrest, they usually don’t call you first and tell you.

Here’s another: if you’re accused of a crime, you can’t pay a fine to avoid charges (if you can, it probably means you’re bribing someone, and they’re accepting the bribe, and you’re both in a lot of trouble, mister. Bribing the police. That’s not right!). The fines (and other consequences) generally happen after you’ve been convicted, which is supposed to occur via due process.

The Better Business Bureau is warning of an active scam that has already claimed several victims. The fraudulent phone calls use spoofed caller ID to extort “fines” from victims, by money orders and prepaid debit cards. They’ve got the full lowdown here, but the proper response is one you’ve seen before: don’t give any money or personal information (even if they have some already—victims have reported the callers having information about loans), hang up, call the real police (because others are likely getting the same calls).

The problem is that such phone calls can incite a moment of panic, and panic makes it hard to think rationally. But if you’re aware that such scams exist, you’ll be able to stop, take a breath, calm down and remember how reality works before you become a victim.

File Under “Things That Were Just a Matter of Time.” New scams using Affordable Care Act to harvest personal information.

Okay, so if you live in these United States, you may have heard of a controversial little thing called the Affordable Care Act.

Yeah, okay, before you head to the bottom of the page to sound off, I’ve already turned comments off for this post. I’m not here to express my opinion of the legislation, and I’m not fielding others’, either. Our opinions are irrelevant for the moment. Besides, certain post topics generate TONS of bot-generated spam comments, and I have a hunch this might be one of them (you should’ve seen how many came in when I wrote about Açaí berry scams a few years ago…it was seriously ridiculous).

Here’s all we need to know, and it’s pretty easy to agree upon: The Affordable Care Act is a Thing That Exists. (That’s only a matter of opinion if you’re into really fabric-of-universe-level philosophical discussions.)

And, as a Thing That Exists, it was only a matter of time before someone started up a scam based upon it.

Lo and behold, the FTC is reporting exactly that. Scammers are calling potential victims to “verify” information. For example, “So I see here that your routing number is __________, is that correct? Okay, good, so now we just need your account number…”

Here’s the deal with the Affordable Care Act: if you’re one of the people who is going to need to use the exchanges to obtain insurance, you’re going to be the one contacting them. According to the FTC report, “If someone who claims to be from the government calls and asks for your personal information, hang up. It’s a scam. The government and legitimate organizations you do business with already have the information they need and will not ask you for it.”

That sums it up pretty nicely, both in this specific instance and as a general rule.

2 people are not spying on you

Have you seen this (or something similar) show up on a website lately?

I said DON'T click on it!

If you use MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers Online, YouTube, or any of about a million other sites, chances are that you have.

Here are some things about which you can rest assured:

  • It’s just a stupid banner advertisement
  • It seems to be showing up a lot more often since this whole mess with the NSA started and got everyone paranoid about their online privacy
  • Nobody is spying on you*
  • It probably leads to a website that will infect your computer with spyware, at which point someone will be spying on you
  • Even if it doesn’t, you don’t want what they’re selling
  • It tells EVERYONE they have “2 people” spying on them
  • YouTube, MyFitnessPal, WeightWatchers, etc., have no way of knowing whether anyone is spying on you or not
  • Do not click on it, whatever you do

*Actually, there might be people spying on you. I mean, I have no idea who’s reading this. Spies do exist, right? You might be involved in all kinds of international espionage, sabotage, subterfuge, the works. You might be tuning in to those weird “numbers stations” every night and actually have the key to decode them for all I know. But in that case, you’d probably say, “Two? Ha! More like two hundred!” if you saw this particular ad.

Don’t try to get something for nothing

Sometimes you walk a fine line when you’re writing about how-to-not-get-swindled. On one hand, a victim is a victim, and it’s not nice to place blame on them. On the other, there are scams that prey upon some all-too-human tendencies  (which we all have within us, make no mistake about it) to be a little avaricious.

When it comes to this category of scams, here’s the rule: don’t try to get something for nothing.

Think about all the fake iPad scams you’ve heard about. A guy approaches you at a gas station and offers to sell you a brand new iPad for a super-low price. You find out later that the box contains a mirror or some other non-iPad object.

It’s no fun to get conned, but ask yourself: is there anything about a guy selling iPads at a gas station that doesn’t scream “This is not legit!” when you really think about it? Apple doesn’t sell its products from cars at filling stations.This is either a scam or an attempt to unload stolen goods. You’re almost better off with the mirror.

What about the Pigeon Drop scheme? Forget the whole “Let’s have this person hold your good-faith money while we do this-or-that to divvy up this satchel of cash we found” angle…how many movies do you have to watch to know that “satchel full of money” equals “drug dealers/hit men/bank heists/things you don’t want to get within ten miles of”? Honest people who find big stashes of currency contact law enforcement, because there’s no way that cash is not evidence of some major crime. It couldn’t be more obvious if it was in a big white sack with a huge dollar sign printed on it.

The rule applies to all manner of scams and rip-offs. $437 sounds a bit steep for an hour of work, doesn’t it? Then don’t fall for the secret shopper scams. Brand-name prescription drugs for a tenth of the cost? Sounds too good to be true! That’s because it is.

We’re all looking out for ourselves on some level. If I see a ten-dollar bill bouncing merrily down the sidewalk on a windy day, I’ll pick it up. But I’ll also check around me to make sure nobody was chasing it, or standing there with that distraught look that can only mean one thing: their tenner just blew away. (For the record: this never happens to me…I’m much more likely to be the one with the distraught face.)

However, moving forward, remember this: if someone approaches you offering something for nothing (or next to it), take warning. You’re either about to be scammed or become an accomplice.