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Overpayment Scams

Burn this into your memory:

“Cash this check, then wire money back to me” always equals scam.

I’ve said it a million times before when discussing secret shopper and lottery scams, but the actual context just does not matter. Anyone who gives you a check to cash so you can wire cash back to them is a con artist.

 It’s pretty easy to remember that when you’re looking at a letter from a Nigerian Prince, or an email that says you won the “Microsoft Lottery” or something, but there are versions of the overpayment scam that target businesses, too.

Let’s say you’ve got a property for rent. You get a call from someone who seems really interested in the space. They agree to send you a deposit to hold the property for them. You tell them it’s $800 (I’ve never been in this business, so I don’t know if that’s a realistic number or not).

A couple days later you get a cashier’s check for $3,000. You call the renter about the overpayment, who tells you to just wire the difference back to him. The check will turn out to be counterfeit.

And there it is; you are about to fall for the same old scam, just in a new context.

The same thing happens on Craigslist and online classified sites. You’re selling an item. Somebody contacts you with the intent to buy, so you agree on a price of $500. You get a check for $3,000, with instructions to wire the excess back. Exact same story.

Think about this: would you send a extra couple thousand dollars to an online seller, and trust this stranger to give you back your change? Online classifieds are risky enough without handing over four times the cost of the item you’re hoping to receive. My online classified rule is: whether buying or selling, if you can’t meet in person, you’re not interested. The short version (and homage to the Surf Punks) is: Locals Only!

There are versions of this scam that target business owners, too. The details just do not matter—those checks are always going to turn out to be counterfeit, and you’re always going to end up losing money.

Adobe Reader phishing emails: this is not how Adobe sends updates

According to a recent alert, phishing emails regarding updates to the Adobe Reader have been making the rounds.

This is where knowing a little something about software can help you avoid a scam, because Adobe doesn’t send out update information via email. In fact, I can’t think of a software company that does. This is one of those cases where people who might otherwise never click a link in an unexpected email might let their guard down. Don’t do it. There’s a reason I always say “never”.

When a new security patch for the Reader, or a whole new version becomes available, the program itself will detect it automatically. Or, if you want to download it manually, you can visit http://get.adobe.com/reader/. I would uncheck that “Free McAfee Security Scan Plus” box on the right, though. I’m not a fan of “bonus” software like toolbars and other junk when you download things, so that’s sort of a matter of principle. Plus, if you’ve got a different brand of security software installed, the McAfee download might fight with it. Virus scanners always seem to detect each other as viruses.

There is a possible security issue with the Adobe Reader that you should know about. For some reason, they decided to add JavaScript functionality to the Reader. This was later shown to be an easy avenue for hackers to access your computer. I’m pretty sure the latest versions have fixed this issue, but I still turn it off just in case.

All you have to do is click “Edit” at the top of the screen, then select “Preferences…” Find “JavaScript” in the menu on your left. Click that, and there will be a box that says “Enable Acrobat JavaScript.” UNcheck it, click “OK”, and you’re done.

Another alternative is to just use a different software altogether, which is what I do. I like the Foxit Reader, but I disable JavaScript there as well.

Don’t get me wrong—I love most of Adobe’s other products (Illustrator and Photoshop in particular). I just don’t quite grok why they put this functionality into the Reader.

How to Avoid Lottery Scams

Below is the text of my column for The Chronicle that appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition.

Q: I got a letter that said I won the lottery in the United Kingdom. It included a cashier’s check to cover taxes and fees. Is this for real?

A: Not even a little bit. Sorry.

What you have is a Lottery Scam letter. These have been circulating for years, and thousands of people have lost incredible amounts of money.

It usually works like this: you receive a letter than informs you that you have won a foreign lottery in which “no tickets were sold.” The lottery is most often based in the United Kingdom, but South Africa, Australia and other countries have been used as well.

The letter further states that, to claim your prize money, you have to pay some sort of taxes or fees up front. The cashier’s check included is supposed to cover this amount. You are instructed to cash the check at your bank or credit union, then take the cash to Western Union and wire it back to the sender.

A few days later, your financial institution informs you that the check was counterfeit, and that you’re now on the hook for the amount you cashed it for – usually in the $3,000-$4,000 range. The problem is that you have already wired this money out of the country. Once you make a wire transfer, you cannot get that money back.

Some people are under the impression that the financial institution that appears on the check will cover the loss, but that is not how it works. They did not issue the check – they had nothing to do with it at all. If someone made fake checks with your name on it, would you feel responsible to cover them?

Others believe their own financial institution will cover the loss, but once again, that is just not the way it works. From their perspective, all that happened was that you came in, you presented a monetary instrument, you received cash in exchange for it, and that check turned out to be counterfeit. They have no way to verify where it came from – you could have printed it yourself. They handed the cash to you. You are the one who has to pay it back.

The above is sort of the “classic” version of a Lottery Scam. Like most fraudulent activity, this scam has been adapted to new technologies. While some people still receive Lottery Scam postal mail that includes a counterfeit check, e-mail has become the main channel for this crime.

It starts the same way – you get an email that informs you that you have won the lottery in a foreign country. Since they cannot send you a check through e-mail, crooks will attempt to convince you to call a “claims agent” for further instructions, or to e-mail personal details back to the sender.

Next, they either mail you a counterfeit check with the same instructions as before – cash it and wire it back – or they will simply attempt to get you to wire money directly to them, skipping the check altogether. This second scenario often turns out much worse; while the counterfeit check usually nets the crook around $3,000 one time from each victim, if they can string you along and get you to keep wiring more cash, they can bilk you out of much more. There are people who have lost tens of thousands of dollars to this scam – victims’ entire life savings wiped out before they realize they have been had.

Like so many forms of fraud, this scam can be avoided by just remembering a few simple facts. First, you have to play the lottery to win the lottery. They do not just draw random names or e-mail addresses out of a giant hat.

Second, any time someone sends you a check and tells you to cash it and wire the money back to them, you are looking at a scam. There is no scenario in which this is a legitimate request.

Finally, if a stranger is offering you large amounts of money for free, do not trust them. What seems like the answer to your prayers could turn out to be the start of a financial nightmare.

The Fraud Prevention Unit in print

It’s official: I’m making the leap from blogging to print media. The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Portage, Valparaiso, Chesterton and Hobart, has picked me up for a monthly column on the topic of fraud prevention.

The column will run on the fourth Wednesday of each month, and will feature the same kinds of material I cover here, albeit in a more formal style (alas, the print medium comes with a word limit and established stylistic traditions…no room for the usual tangents and obscure references).

The first one goes out tomorrow (July 28, 2010). Be sure to check it out.

Another good resource: Scam.com

If you’re looking for some information about specific businesses, offers, emails or other things, check out the forums over at Scam.com. You can search, ask questions or help other people with your own knowledge. You have to create a user ID to sign in, but it’s free.

Make sure you’re at the correct site…”scams.com” is one of those fake sites that will only lead you to malware and actual scams.

A caveat about Scam.com: since it’s an open forum, there are users with vested interests in defending certain companies. A discussion about Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc., which on one hand is a BBB accredited business with an A+ rating, and on the other hand functions exactly like every other multi-level marketing business in the world, rapidly evolved into a three-year-plus pie fight (still active as of today), with people who work for PPL (understandably) defending the company against all charges, and people who felt they’d been wronged (understandably) claiming the company is the biggest sham since The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault, for which I’ve never forgiven Geraldo Rivera, incidentally.

My point is that some Scam.com users are less than trustworthy. You’ll figure out who is who pretty quickly, though. I’m probably going to create a user ID soon. When I do, I’ll let you know who I am, in case I end up posting anything.

There is also a section for political discussion, which is probably an excellent way to make your blood pressure hit 250/180 in about ten seconds, since for every single political belief you hold, no matter how based in fact, somebody else will think it’s a lie and that you’re an idiot. I would avoid it, personally.

“Religious Scams” is another section that has nothing to do with fraud prevention and everything to do with loudmouths screaming at each other about evolution vs. creationism. Endlessly. Over the course of months and years. So avoid that mess, too. Unless you like to get all worked up. Hey, in that case, knock yourself out.

Ten reasons you should stay at home and shop online this Friday.

Well, the day after Thanksgiving is fast approaching, at least here in the states.

Now, I’ve managed to weasel my way out of shopping for anything on this day for the past several years, and this year will be no different. I’m a fan of a low-key sort of Christmas, where the main event is having everybody get together, rather than the emphasis on loot.

However, not everybody shares my flip attitude towards tradition, so I know a lot of you are planning to head out and join the fray. I’d like to encourage you to consider staying at home and shopping online this Friday, though, for the following ten reasons:

  1. Online retailers, especially the major companies, have unbelievable security these days. It is safer than ever to shop online. In fact, it’s probably safer than shopping in person.
  2. When shopping with your credit or debit card, you’re not liable for any fraudulent charges (unless your contract is set up really weird, which might occur but should be very rare).
  3. Shoulder surfers: It’s impossible for someone to sidle up and take a photo of your credit card if you’re not in the store to begin with.
  4. Skimming: you can’t be tricked into sliding your card through a skimming device if you’re not even in the vicinity of an ATM or other card-reading machine.
  5. Theft: it’s also exceedingly difficult for someone to steal (or “find”) your wallet if you’re at home.
  6. Scammers: I know you would never be tempted to buy a TV from some dude in a gas station parking lot at night, but you’ll never even see him if you shop online from established retailers (he might be lurking about on Craigslist, though, I guess).
  7. A lot of Black Friday sales are bait-and-switch schemes. Stores use the frantic nature of the day to unload items that are…almost what you were looking for, but not quite. Online, it’s easy to closely check an item (without some nutjob trying to tear it out of your hands).
  8. Also, a lot of stores will advertise an item at a wildly discounted price, with fine print that states they have a “minimum of four per store.” You realize that means there are only four per store, right? This generally doesn’t happen online.
  9. You’ll save money just by not driving your car around all day, forlornly circling parking lots in search of something, anything, that looks like a space your car might fit into.
  10. You’ll spend less money, because you won’t get caught up in the insane “get yours before somebody else gets it” mentality the stores depend on.

Holiday Fraud Prevention Tips: Well, I’m officially published now.

This is an article I wrote that appeared in the most recent issue of Panorama Magazine here in Northwest Indiana. It’s almost exactly like the Video Dispatch I did on the same topic a couple weeks ago. Actually, I think I made the video the same day I wrote the article. Yes, this means I’ll be referring to myself as a “published writer” now.

Here’s the text, for those of you who would rather read something than watch a video:

Holiday shopping season is fast approaching, and it’s about to get nuts out there. Here are a few tips to keep yourself and your money safe.

Use Your Elbows

Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” With camera phone technology, it’s easier than ever for someone to sidle up to a store counter and take a photo of your credit card. Make sure nobody is standing suspiciously close before you whip out the plastic.

Use Your Head

Never write your PIN on your ATM or debit card, and never carry your Social Security card around with you. Both are bad news if you lose your wallet. Additionally, never let anyone write your Social Security Number on a check. Most stores have wised up, but you might encounter some that haven’t.

I’m Not Saying You Can Only Shop at the Mall, But…

Where to buy plasma TVs and other electronics:

  1. From an electronics store
  2. From a department store
  3. Online

Where not to buy plasma TVs and other electronics:

  1. From some guy in a parking lot at night.

If you go this route, the best thing you can hope for is to end up with an empty, weighted box. At worst, you could get arrested for receiving stolen property. Jail tends to dampen one’s holiday cheer.

Shop Online. Seriously

It’s more secure than ever. In fact, it’s probably safer than shopping at the store. Plus, you won’t have to deal with a mall full of desperate maniacs.

United Way of Central Indiana sweepstakes scam.

File this one under, “Well, that was an odd choice.”

Apparently, people are receiving letters (which claim to be) from the United Way of Central Indiana that inform them they’ve won some sort of sweepstakes, but they have to pay taxes on the prize before they can claim it.

The letters include a check for $3,200, which recipients are (you will not be surprised by this) instructed to cash, then wire the funds to an account.

It’s the same old Lottery Scam, with a new twist: how stupid was it for these clowns to use the United Way?

Here’s the deal: The United Way is a non-profit charitable organization. As such, they are in the business of raising money to support local causes that vary by location, depending on the specific need. Also as such, they’re probably eternally strapped for cash. One of the things you’ll never hear a representative from a charity say is, “Oh, things are great! Money is just pouring in. In fact, we’ve really got too much of it right now!” Seriously—have you ever heard anyone say this?

Therefore, one of the things eternally cash-strapped charitable organizations don’t do is give away thousands of dollars to random people.

See, that’s the opposite of raising money. If they give ten thousand dollars to some random jerk, that’s just ten thousand dollars more they have to raise to replace it. Most likely one dollar at a time at fast food drive-through windows and supermarket check-out lanes.

The thing is, most people know that charities don’t operate in this way, so it’s sort of a weird choice for whoever is running this scam.

However, I also know there are some people who will get this check and wonder if it’s for real. I hope your search has led you here and I’ve helped you make an informed decision to not cash this check.

By the way, it appears that there are some people out there who have a problem with the United Way itself. Comments about how you personally don’t like the organization will be deleted with extreme prejudice. This is not the forum for it. I’m talking about a scam that uses the United Way of Central Indiana’s name and logo, not the politics or the structure of the real thing. Got me?

Walmart Gift Card Scam: This one is for real.

Last week, I wrote about false reports of the Walmart Cash Back Scam, and how these hysterical emails are nothing to worry about.

A lot of people have been getting these messages, apparently—that article has brought in a lot of traffic to this site. I hope that means people are relaxing a little, rather than being nasty to Walmart cashiers because they let an email hoax frighten them.

However, I just heard about a new one that involves Walmart and is real—thieves are calling victims with news that they’ve won a $200 gift card from Walmart if they only pay $1 for shipping. The victim reveals their credit card information, and you know what happens next.

(In case you don’t: the card never arrives because it’s a scam. The crooks weren’t from Walmart at all. They just take the victim’s credit card information and use it to make purchases or get cash advances).

If somebody tells you you’ve won something, never pay in advance. Walmart doesn’t just give gift cards away, anyway.

The full story is over at The Money Coach’s Blog. It goes into a little more detail.