Tag Archives: Fraud

What is Affinity Fraud?

At the beginning of Side 3 of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1970 Live Album, Mark Farner shirtlessly tells the audience this (edited for clarity):

Brothers and sisters, there people out there that look just like you, or maybe your brother…but they’re not. And when they hand you something, don’t take it. Don’t take it, okay?

Now, Mark was referring to the kind of party supplies that might circulate at a rock concert in 1970, but he also could have been talking about affinity fraud almost fifty years later.

Affinity fraud targets people who are members of a group, and uses that group identity to lure victims into the scam. Some of the most common targets are religious groups or church members, people with a shared ethnicity, or those who have served in the military. The con artist will be a member of the targeted group, or will claim to be, and attempt to recruit others to help bring in more victims.

Generally, these scams take the form of phony investments or Ponzi schemes.

There are a variety of ways to identify affinity fraud. Here are a few things to look for:

Is the person offering the investment using membership in your group as his “in?”

A shared identity can be a great way to build community, but remember that the human tendency to trust those we see as similar to ourselves can be used against us. Just because someone claims to be a member of your group doesn’t mean they are. There is no physical barrier to lying; “I’m the same as you” can be uttered by anyone, whether it’s true or not.

Are the investment materials (brochures, flyers, etc.) filled with symbols or phrases familiar to your group?

A con artist targeting members of a church might festoon his written information with symbols or scripture (some even go so far as to imply that the “opportunity” has been sent from above). On the other hand, a scammer going after veterans might use flags, ribbons or eagles. Humans are emotional, and we respond strongly to symbols, but be cautious around any kind of investment offer that seems to be hitting those symbols a little too hard.

 Are the promised returns extremely high, or is the investment presented as guaranteed or having little-to-no risk?

Real investments carry risk. There is always a non-zero chance you will lose some or all of your initial investment. An investment presented as “risk-free” or “guaranteed” is always going to turn out to be a scam, because that’s not how investing works. Any investment promising double-digit returns is to be taken with a grain of salt.

Do the returns hinge on you recruiting others into the fold?

That’s a Ponzi scheme. You will lose all of your money.

Is the broker licensed to sell investments?

Never invest through an unlicensed broker. Whatever your (or your group’s) opinion of regulations, licensing requirements, or government in general, anyone selling investments without a license to do so is breaking the law. What other laws is this person willing to break? What about the ones that make stealing illegal? And don’t fall for excuses like, “I’m not licensed because the government doesn’t want your group to have access to this amazing opportunity,” either. That’s just someone stoking your emotions to goad you into action.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a nice PDF available for download that goes into more detail about affinity fraud and how to report it to the SEC.

(However, it doesn’t contain a single reference to Grand Funk Railroad. You gotta read my articles for those.)

The Do Not Call Registry Doesn’t Stop Scam Calls (But Sign Up Anyway)

I’ve heard it dozens of times: so-and-so signed up for the Do Not Call Registry a year ago, but they keep getting scam calls, so obviously it doesn’t work. What’s the point?

And I’ve always replied: put your phone numbers on the list anyway.

Why?

Because it’s a filter.

When you put your phone number on the Do Not Call Registry, after a few weeks, you will stop getting calls…from legitimate businesses that use cold calls as their primary sales technique (telemarketers, in other words). Companies that do not want to be shut down for breaking federal laws.

You won’t stop getting calls from scammers. They’re not referring to the registry in the first place because they don’t care. At the same time, you will already know not to even bother picking up the phone, because you know that anyone calling once your phone number is in the Registry is willfully breaking the law. You already know they’re dishonest, without hearing a word they say. All you have to do it let it ring until it stops.

Utility Scams are an Ongoing Threat

It’s been a while since I brought up Utility Scams, so now is as good a time as any for a quick recap.

Utility Scams are an example of a distraction scam, and they generally target seniors. These scammers generally work in pairs. One will knock on the door and claim to work for the local utility company. He will claim they are testing something, or fixing something, or there’s some kind of urgent situation that requires the resident to allow him inside the house to do something with the circuit breaker.

While the homeowner is busy with this person in the basement, his partner will enter the home and look around for cash, jewelry or other valuables to steal. After a few minutes of pretending to work on something, the first person will claim the job is done and leave. By the time the resident notices the robbery, the scammers are long gone.

Your utility company should always contact you in advance if there really is an issue that requires someone to enter your house. However, such scenarios are extremely unusual. If someone appears at your door claiming to represent a utility, politely ask to see an ID badge. Regardless of the response, ask them to wait a moment. Close the door and lock it, make sure any other doors are locked, and call the utility company directly if you’re still unsure, or call the police if you’ve got a bad feeling. Do not simply let a stranger into your house on his word.

It’s also not a good idea to let on that you think this person is trying to commit a crime. This is an in-person scam, and it carries risks that aren’t really present with a scam phone call from the other side of the globe. They might just run, but they might not. It’s better to pretend to play along. Most likely they’ll take off as soon as you close the door—the point of most scams is to get in and out quickly. Standing around on someone’s porch in broad daylight for more than a couple seconds isn’t going to appeal to someone who doesn’t want to be seen.

Greed and Fraud

A few weeks ago, I posted an article about the relationship between fear and fraud. Basically, if someone is trying to make you afraid, then asking for money or personal information, it is very likely that they are trying to steal from you.

There is another emotion that scammers will often prey upon: greed. That all-too-human desire to get something for nothing, and to be the one with the most.

The most obvious example I can think of is the old Lottery Scam. By stoking greed with the promise of vast, out-of-nowhere riches, the perpetrators of this scam hope you won’t notice how suspicious the hoops they’re asking you to jump through are. The promise of millions of dollars is misdirection; while you’ve got your eyes on the prize, you might not remember how unwise it is to wire a few thousand dollars to a stranger, or that “cash this check and wire the money back to me” is a weird request to begin with.

Other examples include the Car Wrap Advertising scam, the Pigeon Drop scheme (“I found money, let’s share it!”), and of course the old Nigerian 419 scam (“I’m an exiled prince; help me retrieve my fortune and I’ll share it with you,” which at this point isn’t even a “classic” scam; it’s positively an antique).

It’s the same tip as with fear: if someone is trying to spark greed, then asking for money and/or personal information, they are trying to scam you.

Avoiding Vacation Rental Scams

So you’ve found the perfect vacation rental for an amazingly low price. You contact the owner of the property and, unbelievably, the price shown on Craigslist is correct and the unit is available for the dates you need. The owner was a bit hard to reach, but he travels all over the world for business (and of course he does—who else but a successful international businessperson could afford such a house in such a location to begin with?).

Payment is arranged by wire transfer (a little unusual, you think, but again—world traveler business type, right? He probably has reasons for his preferences, and they’ve obviously served him well, right?).

You make your payment and pack for your vacation, still not quite believing the deal you’re getting. Oceanfront! And that pool…

You arrive at the property on a Sunday morning and are delighted to find it looks even better than the pictures. You ring the doorbell to be greeted by…the permanent residents of the house, who aren’t renting it out to anyone, and who are wondering why there are a bunch of weird people with suitcases at their front door.

You’ve been taken in by a classic vacation rental scam, and good luck getting your money (that you wired to a stranger) back. What could you have done differently?

First, you could have been more wary of a price that’s too good to be true. There’s no real reason for the owner of a rental property in an extremely popular location to offer a huge discount as long as that demand exists.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of Craigslist for finding vacation rentals, but I’m also not a huge fan of Craigslist in the first place due to the overall potential for fraud. I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate rental listings. However, Craigslist should not be the only place the property is listed. Check vacation rental websites in the area and make sure the property is represented elsewhere as available.

The owner being hard to reach or unresponsive is a red flag. If the entire conversation takes place via email, that’s also suspect. There should always be a phone number with a name attached to it that you can verify with a search. A legitimate business should want to be easy to find and reach. If you find yourself leaving a message every single time you call, that can be another sign of trouble.

Finally, the unusual payment method is a warning that something is not right. You should never wire money to a stranger for any reason. Some rental scammers request that you purchase gift cards and pay by relaying the card information to them. Don’t do it. You want a payment method that leaves paper trail and has some fraud protection, and you want a buffer between the transaction and your deposit (checking/savings) account. In other words, if you can’t pay with a credit card, look elsewhere.

Sign Up for Activity Alerts Everywhere You Can

Receiving and paying your bills online instead of through postal mail is a good idea. It’s not only convenient, but it also helps fight identity theft and other types of fraud (the fewer pieces of paper floating around in the world with your personal information on them, the better).

But your financial accounts may offer online features you’re not taking advantage of just yet. Most credit card providers and deposit institutions (i.e. credit unions and banks) that offer online access also offer alerts that let you know when activity has occurred on your account. Alerts can be an important tool in detecting unusual transactions or changes as early as possible.

Every financial provider is different, but many will offer alerts for new charges or withdrawals. Other options may include notifications for a change of address, phone number, email address or other contact information. Remember that identity thieves will sometimes attempt to change these details in an existing account in order to hide their activities from the victim. If you get an alert that your address has been changed (and you’re not the one who did it), it’s time to contact that institution and report the suspicious activity.

Fear and Fraud

Humans are an emotional animal. No matter how advanced our technologies or societies become, no matter how objective or logical we believe we are, primal emotions can still affect our behavior, and when someone manipulates those feelings into a heightened state, we find ourselves at risk of making mistakes.

Many types of fraud work by stoking one of our most basic emotions: fear. The assumption goes: if you can make someone afraid, they’ll believe anything you say, even if it makes no logical sense.

Here is a list of several common scams and how they use fear to trick victims into handing over money or personal information:

  • Phishing: uses the fear of losing access to money (“your debit card has been deactivated”) to trick victims into visiting a website that harvests personal information
  • Medicare scam: uses fear of losing access to health care to convince victims to reveal personal information
  • Tech Support scam: uses fear of malicious software to trick victims into handing over control of their computer
  • IRS scam: uses fear of imprisonment to get victims to load prepaid gift cards, then pass along the card information to the scammer
  • Missed Jury Duty scam: uses feat of imprisonment to obtain credit or debit card information
  • Grandparent scam: uses fear of loved ones’ safety to lure victims into wiring money or loading prepaid cards with cash
  • Lottery scam: mostly appeals to greed (another primal emotion), but also stokes fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to trick victims into falling for a counterfeit check scheme
  • Ransomware: uses fear of losing access to important files to extort payments from victims

In other words, a lot of scams operate by inciting fear.

The key is to understand that the use of fear is an extremely common (if not the most common) tactic, and to be able to recognize when someone is trying to make you afraid. This requires a certain amount of self-awareness, and I’m not really sure how one goes about developing that, other than to just slow down and take a moment whenever a stranger is presenting you with alarming information, instead of reacting immediately.

Unless they’re shouting “duck!”

$500/week to wrap your car in ads? Better think again.

I still haven’t encountered anything that contradicts this fraud prevention axiom:

“Cash this check then wire the money back to me” is a sure sign of a scam.

It’s a fairly easy pattern to spot when it comes to things like lottery scams, because the scammers almost literally use that exact wording. But there are other times where the “wire the money back to me” stage is a little more obscure.

One such case is the Car Wrap Advertising Scam. Below is a scan of an actual letter used to initiate this scheme after the would-be victim responded to a random email or text message offer. This letter came with a cashier’s check for $2,390.00 (click to enlarge):

In this case, they’re not directly saying “wire the money back to me,” but they are telling you to give it to someone else, in the form of setting up a payment to a “Decal Specialist.”

What happens when you contact this person? You’re instructed to wire the money from the check, which will eventually be returned as fraudulent, putting you on the hook for the cash you gave away. It’s the same pattern as a lottery scam, only with an additional step in between.

One reason this scam continues to work is that there are actual wrapped cars out there. We’ve all seen them. However, even in cases where these aren’t company-owned vehicles, legitimate car wrap advertisers share certain features:

  • They don’t randomly contact you out of the blue via text message or email
  • They don’t take everyone who applies; they’ll want to know how far you drive each day, where you drive, what kind of car you have, and your driving record
  • They’re not going to pay you $500 per week. About $1,000 per month seems to be the ceiling, and that’s for absolute ideal (for the advertiser) circumstances (i.e. you drive hundreds of miles per day in an area extremely densely-populated with people within the ad’s target demographic; I’m guessing your car has to meet certain visibility criteria as well, because I’ve mostly seen these ad wraps on lifted, customized 4×4 pickups)
  • You don’t pay them at any point, and you’re not responsible for passing along money to whomever applies the decals (“Hey stranger we’ve never met in person, here’s a few thousand dollars to give to someone else for us. We’ll just trust you to not keep it.”)

If you’re truly interested in turning your vehicle into a billboard, there are a few links to apparently legitimate agencies in this Penny Hoarder article. But before you act on anything online, be sure to do a lot of research first, and always get in writing what you are agreeing to do and how you will be compensated. If it’s too easy to get the gig, it’s probably a fraudulent offer.

What is a ‘Money Mule’ scam?

Cybercriminals rake in a lot of cash from their activities (such as mystery shopper scams, lottery and romance scams, and identity theft), which creates a problem: for the most part, they can’t simply start using the funds for personal gain because financial institutions generally ask questions when dealing with amounts in the hundreds of thousands or millions. They need to launder the money to give the appearance of legitimate origins.

Enter the “money mule.”

Criminal organizations set up fraudulent businesses and recruit people with online work-at-home advertisements. These victims are hired under titles like “Transfer Agent” to act as intermediaries between non-existent business entities, supposedly to legally circumvent bureaucratic requirements, fees or taxes.

Anyone who responds to one of these offers will be instructed to open a new account, usually at a specific large bank. The victim receives incoming wire transfers in the $10,000 range, keeps a certain percentage, and then wires the rest (in chunks of around $3,000) to various (fraudulent) companies around the world. Repeat this for a few cycles between a few hundred victims, and the original source of the money becomes obscured.

Unlike the majority of scams, you may notice a difference here: in this case, the mule actually can make a profit. So why not look for a “Transfer Agent” job online and become a “victim,” make a quick couple hundred bucks and then get out?

Because, also unlike other scams, there can be legal consequences for the victim. In an effort to crack down on this type of activity, financial institutions are getting good at noticing suspicious wire transfer activity, and you could end up getting arrested when (not if) you get caught. Not worth it.

The key is to be very suspicious of any job opportunity that seems like it pays too much for the work required, shows up out of the blue (even if you’ve posted a resume on a job website), and steer clear of anything that involves receiving funds via wire, then disbursing those funds to others.

Fraudulent Customer Service Phone Numbers

By now you’ve probably heard about Tech Support Scams, where someone calls you out of the blue and tries to convince you that your computer is infected with a virus, that they have somehow detected it remotely, and that the only way to fix the problem is to hand over money, control of your computer, or both.

It’s one of those scams that can easily be avoided with the question, “Who initiated contact?” If they called you, it’s fraudulent.

But what about when you’re the one initiating contact?

When you need customer service from a large company like Amazon, Facebook or Netflix, it’s important to make sure you’re getting their contact information from a trustworthy source. Internet searches might lead you to a correct number, but the internet is also brimming with hundreds of examples of fraudulent customer service numbers, posted by criminals in hopes that you will call them instead of the legitimate phone number.

What happens if you call a fraudulent number? They may try to get your password information to take over your account and lock you out, they may ask you to reveal credit card or other financial account information, or they may take over your computer (with your help) and install malicious software or commit other crimes.

If you need to contact customer service, make sure you’re getting your information from a reliable source. Don’t trust phone numbers that appear in online forums. If you notice zeros replaced with the letter “O” (1-8OO instead of 1-800, for example), that’s a sure sign of a fraudulent phone number.

With some companies, Facebook being the most prominent example, there simply is no phone number you can call. Any problems have to be resolved using online tools. Every single phone number you see listed on the internet as a Facebook customer service line is false information.

The best way to find customer service contact information is to go directly to the company’s website and look for links like “Help” or “Contact Us.” Sometimes there will be options for help via email or chat and no option for telephone contact, other times the phone number will be front and center. It depends on the company you’re dealing with. In any case, to avoid a massive headache and potential losses to fraud, always make sure you’re getting the number from the official source before you even pick up the phone.