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.

Mystery Shopper Scam: Kiboshed!

Last Friday afternoon, one of our Member Service Representatives here at REGIONAL helped a member avoid becoming a victim of a mystery shopper scam.

The member let us keep the check, and I spent quite a while examining it.

It was a very good counterfeit. The kind of thing that might slip right by if you weren’t paying attention (or even if you were). In this case, the member’s story tipped her off—he was going to wire almost the entire amount after he cashed it.

For one thing, the check was on genuine cashier’s check stock. It had all the security features, including watermarks and “fingerprint security” (where you hold your thumb over a symbol and it reacts to your body heat and disappears). So the presence of security features doesn’t prove anything anymore.

The check was from a company called Malteurop (more on that later), with an address in Milwaukee, WI. It was drawn on US Bank in Havre, MT. The routing number was a valid US Bank number, but for Minneapolis, MN. It just didn’t add up. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if those different cities are a reliable sign of fraud or not, but it did seem a little suspicious. A Milwaukee firm using a Montana bank with a Minnesota routing number?

Furthermore, Malteurop is a real company—one that supplies malt to beer companies all over the world. It would make no sense for this company to be checking out the customer service at Western Union.

At any rate, examining the check was interesting, but as I said before, the teller knew it was counterfeit just by talking to the member. I suppose that’s good advice for all financial institutions: have your frontline staff engage your members or customers in conversation. The information you gain could help save someone from fraud or identity theft.

I haven’t acquired the ability to read the fractional routing numbers on checks, to see if they agree with the routing number at the bottom, but I’ll be working on that skill soon.

I’d like to be like Frank Abagnale (remember Catch Me If You Can?), where you can hand me a stack of drafts and I can flip through them one time and say, “This one’s fake!” Only I’d like to get there without, you know, having committed check fraud or done time in prison for it.

Takeaways:

  1. Security features and a valid routing number on a check don’t mean a thing
  2. I can’t help but feel proud when one of our tellers makes a catch like this. Nice!

Fraud/Malware Alert: Intelligence Bulletin No. 267

Here is some text from a fraudulent email that’s been popping up lately:

INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN No. 267
Title: New Patterns in Al-Qaeda Financing
Date: August 15, 2009
THREAT LEVEL: YELLOW (ELEVATED)

THE INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN PROVIDES LAW ENFORCEMENT AND OTHER PUBLIC SAFETOFFICIALS WITH SITUATIONAL AWARENESS CONCERNING INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESIC TERRORIST GROUPS AND TACTICS.

HANDLING NOTICE: Recipients are reminded that FBI Intelligence Bulletins =ontain sensitive terrorism and counterterrorism information meant for us= primarily within the law enforcement community. Such bulletins are not =o be released either in written or oral form to the media, the general p=blic, or other personnel who do not have a valid ?eed-to-know?with=ut prior approval from an authorized FBI official, as such release could jeopardize national security

All the spelling errors and odd characters are exactly as they appear in the message.

Do I even need to tell you this one is fraudulent?

If so, it is.

Furthermore, the message often contains a file named “bulletin.exe.” If you open this file, it will install malicious software on your computer, which can lead to serious problems (like fraud and identity theft).

The FBI does not email official reports, nor does it send unsolicited email messages. If a document is confidential, they’re going to keep it that way.

Whenever you get an email message you weren’t expecting, from someone you don’t know, use extreme caution when dealing with it. My advice is to not even open unsolicited messages, and delete them right away. However, at the very least, never click on links or open attachments in emails unless you already know what the file (or link) is, why it’s being sent to you, and who sent it.

Scam Alert: Microsoft Awards 2009

Here’s one that seems to mostly circulate around Europe, but I’m sure some folks here stateside have ended up with this message in their inbox, too:

Microsoft Lottery Promotion
Unit 7, Metro Trading Centre,
Second Way, Wembley, Middlesex,
HA9 0YU – United Kingdom

DATE: 14th of March 2009

Microsoft Lottery! E-mail is pleased to announce you as one of the 10
lucky winners in the ongoing Microsoft E-mail Promotions.

Microsoft Lottery! is a free service that does not require you to register
or be a Microsoft registered user before winning.

This award program is conducted anually to promote the use of the
Internet.You have been awarded ONE MILLION GREAT BRITAIN POUNDS.

To file for your claim, do contact our accredited corresponding claims
agent as below for category “A” winners immediately with your Name and
Phone Number for the speedy release of your fund;

AGENT: Gabriel Phillip
EMAIL: g.phil.@live.com
Tel: +44 703 5963368

Warning!!! Winners that do not respond to this notice within seven days of
receiving this E-mail will authomatically be disqalified.

FOR VERIFICATION, PLEASE REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE WITHOUT MODIFYING THE SUBJECT.

There is no need to include any additional information in your reply.

Regards

Notification Department
Microsoft On-line Email Draws

Let me make this perfectly clear: This is a scam. Éste es fraude. C’est une escroquerie. Dieses ist ein Betrug. Ciò è un raggiro. This is a scam, innit, guv’ner?

(By the way, I used Babelfish for those translations. English is the only language I speak reliably well. If I’ve said something bizarre in your native tongue, please correct me.)

More specifically, this just is a variation on the old advance fee fraud. If you respond, you’ll be instructed to wire money or send a cashier’s check to someone. Then you’ll never hear from them again. Just like with a lottery scam.

As it turns out, Microsoft does give away awards every year. However, they give them to people like Peer Bork from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, not randomly to people like you and me (to be somewhat blunt about it). Unless you happen to be a research scientist of some renown, in which case you might be in the running for 2010.

But even then, they’re not going to notify you by email and say “Winners that do not respond to this notice within seven days of receiving this E-mail will authomatically be disqalified.” For one thing, Microsoft knows how to spell “automatically” and “disqualified.”

For another, they give their awards to people who are doing notable work and advancing knowledge. It’s not a random giveaway.

Telephone scam targets grandparents

There’s another antique scam currently experiencing a renaissance: the telephone “Grandparent Scam.”

This one is really simple: thieves will call elderly people, posing as a grandchild and asking for money because of a car accident, arrest or other emergency. Alternately, they may claim to be a police officer or lawyer and tell the victim their grandchild has been hurt, arrested or in need of legal counsel. In either case, the victim is instructed to wire money to the thieves.

It’s a simple scam because it’s so easy to find out the names and ages of family members online. In fact, a single obituary might provide everything a crook needs to victimize family members of the deceased. However, an experienced “social engineer” might be able to pull it off cold, with very little information to start with.

Thieves using this technique are working under a set of assumptions:

  1. Grandparents will be less judgmental if a young person is in trouble with the law, which is why the “grandchild” is calling them instead of a parent
  2. Grandparents will be quick to panic if they think a grandchild is injured
  3. Elderly people can’t hear well, which means the thief doesn’t have to work very hard to disguise his or her voice
  4. Older people are less informed and less tech-savvy
  5. Elderly people may be ill or on medication, which can affect their judgment

Of course, in any individual case, none of these might be true, some of these might be true, or all of these might be true. Crooks use stereotypes as a way to select potential victims, knowing that one group (grandparents) will have a statistically higher rate of return than another (parents or siblings).

If you are a grandparent, be extremely wary of anyone calling who claims to be a grandchild in trouble. Ask questions that only the real grandchild would know. Hang up the phone and call him or her directly, or the parents. If the caller claims to have been arrested in Tijuana, but his parents say he’s in the living room in Des Moines, you’ve pretty much got your answer right there.

Don’t wire money to someone who calls just because they asked you to. Don’t panic. Take a breath or two, and figure out how you can verify beyond reasonable doubt who that caller is. Ask questions (the crook will likely hang up immediately). Call the parents. Call the grandchild. Do whatever it takes to verify the identity of the caller.

In all honesty, if someone is calling and asking you to wire money, I’d put 90% odds on it being a scam right away.

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.

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.

Worst. Scam. Attempt. Ever.

Here’s an attempt at an email scam that nobody should ever fall for. Seriously, it’s like they weren’t even trying:

From: “Mr. R. Jan” <[removed]@gmail.com>
Sent 9/6/2009 3:21:48 PM
To: [removed]
Subject: ATTENTION NEEDED

My name is Mr. Jan and I am contacting you from Liberia for
a mutual business relationship and investment.
I have some funds realized through contract brokerage and I
need your cooperation to invest the funds.
The first stage requires transferring the funds to your
account for subsequent investment.
I therefore want you to work with me as a partner.  On
receipt of your response, I will send you full details of
the transaction and more information about myself.  I
am waiting for your prompt response.
Jan

I’m not even going to bother picking this thing apart. Yes, it’s a total scam. Yes, you should just delete it. No, it’s not a real investment opportunity.