Tag Archives: BBB

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.

Alert for businesses: beware of fake BBB complaint emails

I received an email recently that highlights the importance of business owners and employees being aware of various types of fraud activity:

From: Better Business Bureau <[redacted]@newyork.bbb.org>
Subject: Case #28475466
Owner/Manager

The Better Business Bureau has received the above-referenced complaint from one of your customers regarding their dealings with you. The details of the consumer’s concern are included on the reverse. Please review this matter and advise us of your position.

As a neutral third party, the Better Business Bureau can help to resolve the matter. Often complaints are a result of misunderstandings a company wants to know about and correct.

In the interest of time and good customer relations, please provide the BBB with written verification of your position in this matter by January 17, 2013. Your prompt response will allow BBB to be of service to you and your customer in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. Please inform us if you have contacted your customer directly and already resolved this matter.

The Better Business Bureau develops and maintains Reliability Reports on companies across the United States and Canada . This information is available to the public and is frequently used by potential customers. Your cooperation in responding to this complaint becomes a permanent part of your file with the Better Business Bureau. Failure to promptly give attention to this matter may be reflected in the report we give to consumers about your company.

We encourage you to print this complaint (attached file), answer the questions and respond to us.

We look forward to your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

BBB Serving Metropolitan New York, Long Island and the Mid-Hudson Region

There was a 102KB file attached to the message named “Complaint Case  #28475466.zip”. Except for the fact that it appeared to come from a Better Business Bureau office a thousand miles away, it looked pretty legitimate.

However, looks can be very deceiving.

According to a report from Cisco, the attachment is an executable file that contains malicious code. They don’t specify what that malware is, but given the nature of the message I would guess it’s designed to log keystrokes or use some other method to steal online banking credentials from businesses. Once they’ve got account numbers and passwords, they wire thousands of dollars out of payroll, expense and other accounts, then use their network of (unwitting and witting) money mules to launder the ill-gotten funds.

So here’s the lesson today: if you receive a message like the one above, do not under any circumstances open the attached file. If you think there might be a legitimate complaint from the Better Business Bureau, contact them directly. It’s a general rule, but in this case it applied more specifically to business owners and their employees.

BBB launches Scam Source website

The U.S. Better Business Bureau has launched a new website called Scam Source.

The new site features a channel for consumers to report scams they’ve encountered, a “Scam Aggregator” with links to articles around the web, and email alerts.

I encourage you to poke around the site and sign up for the alerts. It’s still new, so it will be interesting to see what scams they uncover.

Holiday reminder: beware of charity scams

The holiday season is a time when many people think about ways to help those in need. However, scam artists have been known to exploit this tendency and set up fraudulent charities to skim money from generous people.

Never give money or personal information to a person who calls, emails or approaches you out of the blue. If you receive a request to donate, research the charity before you respond. www.bbb.org and www.charitynavigator.org are a great place to start.

Beware of charities with names that are similar to well-known organizations, and never make a check out to an individual. Also never make a check out to “CAS,” no matter what “CAS” allegedly stands for; a crook has simply to add an “H” and they’ve got a check from you made out to “CASH.”

Better yet, decide now which charities you’d like to support, and make your donation early. When asked to donate to others, politely explain that you’ve completed your budgeted giving for the year.

Locksmith Scams

If it hasn’t already happened to you, it will: you’re going to lock your keys in the car, lock yourself out of the house or find out that a lock rusted shut over the winter.

You’re going to need a locksmith.

It happens to everyone, and yet it’s a need now complicated by con artists; it seems locksmith scams are on the rise.

Typically, victims start by searching online for a locksmith. They call a random listing and get a reasonable-sounding estimate over the phone. When the “locksmith” actually shows up, however, they start adding charges until the price is completely out of line. Since most people in need of a locksmith are in a tight spot, they often end up paying. Sometimes, as a bonus, the phony locksmith will damage your property.

How do you avoid this scam? Choose a locksmith now, before you need one. Either get one you’ve used before and already know to be trustworthy, or check out the Better Business Bureau and online reviews. Make sure you’re dealing with an actual local business instead of having your call routed to a national number, and refuse to use any locksmith that only accepts cash payment.

Once you’ve got your locksmith, save the number in your mobile phone and keep it handy at home.

When you’re away from home, it’s a little trickier to choose one on the fly, but you can still watch out for warning signs like rapidly-escalating costs and cash-only operations.

Employment Scams: a perfect illustration of what to watch out for.

Quite some time ago, I posted an article about words that signify a probable scam.

This recent article from the Puget Sound Business Journal illustrates that concept beautifully.

In this story, the Better Business Bureau is slamming (yeah!) schemes called  “Search Profit System” and “Money Mastery,” both operated by the same company.

Both of those names contain red-flag words: “profit” and “money,” respectively. Right away, if you know what to watch for, you know you’re dealing with something that’s probably not legitimate. The fact that it’s a “work-at-home” program might also cause your “scam detector” to go haywire.

You’d be right, too. People who signed up for this program found themselves paying $1.95 for a starter packet, and then $49.95 every month for absolutely nothing. When they tried to cancel their accounts, they found it impossible to do.

However, if the names of the programs didn’t tip you off, this should: 

“Quit living paycheck to paycheck, get rid of debt, and have enough to retire when you want to. Pay off all of your debt including your mortgage in three to nine years.”

That’s a pretty hefty claim, isn’t it? It’s not exactly screaming, “Become a millionaire instantly!”—it’s a little more subtle than that—but it is promising an answer to all your problems.

Think about that first sentence. When was the last time you were hired for a legitimate job where the interviewer used the phrase, “quit living paycheck to paycheck?” It’s a weird thing to say when you’re advertising a job.

No, a phrase like that is designed to lure people who are desperate for money and have reached that “any port in a storm” point. However, if you pursue a claim like the ones being made by this advertisement, you’ll quickly learn one hard lesson: if there’s one thing worse than being broke, it’s being broke while getting charged $50 per month for absolutely nothing.

The Top Ten Scams of 2009

A couple days ago, the Connecticut BBB released its list of the top ten scams for the past year. I’ll summarize the list below, or you can read the full press release by following the above link.

  1. Acai Supplements and Other “Free” Trial Offers
  2. Stimulus/Government Grant Scams
  3. Robocalls
  4. Lottery/Sweepstakes Scam
  5. Job Hunter Scams
  6. Google Work from Home Scam
  7. Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance
  8. Mystery Shopping
  9. Over-Payment Scams
  10. Phishing e-mails/H1N1 spam

None of these come as any sort of surprise, really. I can’t help being a little proud of the fact that I’ve pretty much covered almost all of these, and I’m planning to cover the few that I haven’t touched on yet. The fact that so many people still fall for these schemes tells me that my work has just begun, though.

Avoid charity scams this holiday season.

The holiday season is a time when concept of “giving” seems to come up a lot.

Hey, I’m all for it, too. Every single one of us, without exception, has something we could use to help someone else in our community, our country, or our world (“We are all connected,” after all). If “giving” was my main topic today, I would probably mention that there are people in need all year round, not just during November and December, but since it’s not, I won’t.

Instead, I’m going to talk about charity scams.

You see, two forces collide during the holiday season:

  1. The fact that a lot of people are thinking about “giving” more than usual
  2. The fact that there are people in the world who will do literally anything to line their own pockets.

It’s sort of a perfect storm.

However, there are some incredibly easy steps you can take to make sure you’re donating dollars to people who are in actual need, instead of donating to some crook’s wallet.

First, you could just decide ahead of time which charity or charities you’re going to support, and contact them yourself. If other organizations ask for donations, simply explain that you’ve already given what you had budgeted for the year. Legitimate charities will understand. Anybody who won’t accept this explanation is not to be trusted.

Secondly, consider donating something other than money. Food banks (like this one) can almost always use someone to help out at their distribution centers for a few hours, and there’s always the classic “helping out at the Soup Kitchen” scenario. Call or email organizations in your area and find out what sort of in-kind donations they’re looking for.

These two methods of giving are pretty safe. Scammers are looking for the easy money—they’re not going to set up an entire working food bank in hopes of skimming a few hundred dollars. However, there always seem to be a lot of opportunities that spring up on the spur of the moment this time of year.

First off, be cautious of charities that contact you via email. Most legitimate charities aren’t going to seek new donors this way. However, if you’ve given to an organization before, they might use email, since it saves them money on postage. Still, never respond directly to an email soliciting donations—use the organization’s official website or phone number, which you should use a source other than the email message (phonebook, Internet search, etc.) to find.

Always ask what percentage of your donation goes to help whoever the charity is supposed to help. If they’re on the up-and-up, they won’t mind the question. An angry or otherwise negative answer is a warning sign.

Donating by check is recommended over cash, as it gives you a way to track your donation for tax deduction purposes. However, never make the check out to a person—always write it to the organization.

I would also suggest going one extra step and paying by cashier’s check, to keep your checking account number out of general circulation, but if it’s an organization you trust, you can make that call yourself.

Watch out for fake charities using names that sound similar to real ones. Sometimes the difference between “foundation” and “center” can mean the difference between your money being used for the greater good, or just ending up in some dirtbag’s pocket.

Check out any charity with the Better Business Bureau before you donate, and I would also suggest doing a general Internet search. Sometimes you’ll find “Scrooge Lists” that call out charities who only pass on a tiny portion of their proceeds to the people they’re supposed to be helping. Be especially wary of any organization that claims to be raising money for disabled or retired police officers or firefighters or their families. A lot of these so-called charities are scams, plain and simple. What would you call a charity that keeps over 98% of its proceeds? 

Finally, as a general rule, never respond to an unsolicited charity request without doing some homework first, no matter who the person contacting you claims to be. Know who you’re donating to before you send a single dime.

Once you’ve verified that you’re dealing with a legitimate charity, however, have at it—give as generously as your conscience dictates.

Do credit repair companies work?

You see the advertisements on the Internet, in your inbox and even on television; “We can fix your bad credit!” All that negative stuff on your credit report—gone in a flash. These companies know how to take your hot mess of a credit report and turn it into a bright, shiny, new credit report with no negative information.

Fine. Dandy. Except that no, they can’t.

First, let’s get our definitions straight: there is credit counseling and credit repair. The first can be a legitimate way to fix the situation you’re in. The fact that you’re in credit counseling shows up as a negative hit on your credit report and will lower your score for a while, but when you’re in over your head, it’s probably worth it.

The second one is basically a sham.

You see, while the Fair Credit Reporting Act gives consumers the right to challenge (and ultimately have removed) inaccurate or outdated items on their credit reports, information that is timely and accurate stays. There is no “secret” method to getting it removed; if you defaulted on a credit card two years ago, that’s going to haunt you for a while. If you’re staying afloat but have a massive amount of debt racked up, that’s going to show up on your report. There’s no way around it.

In other words, any company that’s promising to erase your bad credit history is scamming you.

However, that doesn’t mean your credit can’t be repaired. The thing is, you have to take the initiative to do it yourself, and it takes time—several years, in some cases.

This may not be the answer you wanted, but it’s the only true answer.

So how do you repair your bad credit on your own? First, pay off everything you owe. Don’t take on new debt if you can avoid it. If you have to take on some debt, pay it on time, every time. Visit a credit union, too—many offer small “payday alternative” loans that make those Payday Loans look like the rip-off they are. These loans are for small amounts, with very low interest rates and easy repayment terms. You’ll probably have to verify employment to show you can and will repay the loan—this is why credit unions weren’t a part or cause of Economic Crash-N-Burn ’08—they generally only gave loans to people who could handle them. REGIONAL calls its version of this loan the Step Up Loan, by the way.

At any rate, showing that you can repay a small payday alternative loan will help you re-establish your credit history and start to swing the pendulum back towards “good credit.”

Okay, I know…Dave Ramsey says that all debt is bad debt, so he’d probably bristle at my mentioning this route towards rebuilding your credit. Obviously, the ultimate goal is to not owe anyone and be able to buy most things with cash. However, you’re probably not going to hit that “able to buy a house with a briefcase full of C-notes” point for several years. In the meantime, you’re going to need to rebuild your credit so you can borrow a little here and there. And heck, if you can operate without credit once you’ve got your old debts paid off, more power to you. But let’s stay grounded in the here-and-now reality of most people for the moment.

If you’re at the point where your debts and bad credit are overwhelming, it may be time to call in a good credit counseling agency. Just be sure to remember these points:

  1. Only use credit counseling services that are not-for-profit
  2. Never pay a credit counseling service up front
  3. Make sure the agency is Better Business Bureau accredited
  4. Make sure they have an A or A+ rating from the BBB
  5. Remember that it takes time and effort on your part to fix your credit; there are no free rides.

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.