Facebook “check out your profile stalkers” scam

For what seems like the millionth time, a scam has made the rounds on Facebook purporting to reveal to users who has viewed their profiles, only to turn out to be yet another in a long line of malware attacks. Here’s the text of the wall post:

“OMG! Its unbelievable now you can get to know who views your profile. I can see my top profile visitors and I am so shocked that my ex is still creeping my profile every hour.”

If you click on it, it tells you to paste a line of code into the URL field…you know what? I’m not even going to go into it. Suffice it to say that it perpetuates the scam.

Here’s the thing: there is no way to see who has viewed your Facebook profile. There’s never going to BE a way to see who has viewed your Facebook profile. OMG! I KNOW, RIGHT?!

Here are the key takeaways from this information:

  • If you see a wall post claiming to link to an application or website that shows you who has viewed your profile, don’t even stop to wonder if it’s real. It’s not. It never has been, and it never will be.
  • You don’t NEED to see who has viewed your profile. What are you really going to do with that information? If you answer that question honestly, it’s “nothing positive.”
  • You also don’t NEED to see that, no, your ex is totally NOT “creeping” your profile “every hour,” because he actually couldn’t care less what you’re up to anymore. Just enjoy the (more than a little conceited) assumption that he’s pining for you, unable to sleep or eat, scrawling tortured poetry in a black notebook under a bare 40-watt light bulb. If that’s what it takes to get you through the day.
  • If you’re still worried about who is looking at your profile, set it to “private” already.
  • If you’re still still worried about who is looking at your profile, click the little X in the upper right corner of the screen (or wherever the X is on a Mac), shut down the computer completely and stand up. Put on some shoes. Now, walk out the front door of your house and look around. Go for a run. Or a walk. Or drive to the library. Call someone on the phone and talk. Arrange to meet and do something together. Repeat daily until you no longer care who is looking at your Facebook profile.

Who Initiated Contact?

When it comes to recognizing and avoiding scams, one question that can be helpful is, “Who initiated this contact?” In many situations, the answer can be the difference between a legitimate transaction and fraud.

Scammers are proactive if nothing else—they usually don’t set up shop then wait around for people find them. There is often a “sales” element to a scam, in which the con artist has to actively approach a victim in order to offer the bait.

In other words, if the other party initiated contact, your chances of falling for a scam are increased. Let’s look at a few scenarios.

Scenario #1: Home Repairs

Think about what usually happens when your home needs repairs. You, the resident, usually start out by noticing that something needs to be fixed. You assess what needs to be done, and then make a decision as to whether you’re going to perform the repairs yourself. If you choose the DIY route, you go out and purchase materials and tools, but if the work is beyond your abilities, you’ll call a contractor, roofer, plumber or other service provider.

Now look at a home repair scam: it starts with a knock on your front door. When you answer, a stranger informs you that your gutters need cleaning, your driveway needs to be repaved, or that your siding needs fixed. You weren’t even aware there was a problem. From here, the scam takes one of a variety of paths: they may start with a minor repair for a reasonable-sounding price, then start adding on tasks (never completed) until you’re stuck with a bill for thousands of dollars. In other versions, they’ll talk you into a major repair job, collect a large down payment for the service, and then never show up to perform the work.

Notice who initiated contact in both of these examples: in the first, you called a contractor. Of course, there are shady contractors, but in general you’re going to get the service you paid for. In the second, they contacted you, and it turned out to be a scam.

Scenario #2: Lottery Scams

Here’s how a legal, legitimate lottery works: you visit the nearest convenience store, grocery store or gas station, where you purchase a lottery ticket. You wait for the little TV segment with the big tumblers full of ping-pong balls, and check your numbers against the ones drawn on television. Then you throw the ticket away, because you probably didn’t win a dime.

During a lottery scam, however, you are suddenly informed via email that you have won some lottery in the U.K., Canada, Australia or South Africa that you didn’t purchase a ticket for. If you respond to this message, you will be told that you have to pay taxes and fees before you can claim the prize. You wire a few thousand dollars overseas and never hear from them again. You’ll always lose in this situation.

Once again, the question of who initiates contact is a strong indicator of the legitimacy of an offer.

Scenario #3: Employment Scams

When you’re looking for a genuine job offer, you research local employers who are hiring, update your resume, write cover letters and send these out. If they’re interested in hiring you, they call you in for an interview (or several), and they make a decision based on your qualifications.

Employment scams work the other way around: you just check your email one day, and there’s an offer for a high-paying, work-at-home style job waiting for you, from some company you’ve never heard of. If you jump on this out-of-the-blue job offer, you’ll eventually be asked to cash a fraudulent check and wire the funds out of the country, leaving you with a loss of thousands.

“Who initiated contact?” isn’t always a foolproof method, and it doesn’t apply to every situation, but it’s a good idea to keep the question in the back of your mind. You might be glad you did one day.

Thank the scammers

Remember the good old days when a cashier’s check was beyond repute?

If somebody paid you with one of these documents, you could take it to your bank or credit union, present it to a teller, and walk away with cash in your pocket. It usually didn’t even matter how large the check was.

Not anymore. At an increasing number of financial institutions, holds are placed on cashier’s checks now, even the ones for moderate amounts. Do you find that annoying or inconvenient?

Thank a con artist. Because of rampant lottery scams, secret shopper scams and advance fee fraud (not to mention people just creating their own fake cashier’s checks and taking them to the bank), many financial institutions no longer treat these items as cash. You’ll have to wait for that check to be verified as legitimate—sometimes five or more days, and possibly even longer for large amounts.

How about ATM deposits?

ATMs were the banking of the future, remember? You could make all your deposits and withdrawals electronically. It didn’t matter if the lobby was open, it didn’t matter if it was the middle of the night; you could do your banking on your time, at your convenience. It was so convenient and futuristic that if you made your deposits at the ATM, you’d get instant availability!

Watch for that to start disappearing, too. We recently stopped taking ATM deposits altogether because of fraud losses. Look for more financial institutions to follow suit, or to at least drastically modify how ATM deposits are handled.

Sure, I’d argue that making ATM deposits available same day was folly on the part of the financial services industry from the get-go, but a lot of people (who weren’t depositing empty envelopes and fraudulent checks) liked this service. It will disappear soon enough. If you find that inconvenient, thank a scammer.

How about that neighborhood bank or credit union you’ve been going to for 20 years? They know you, and they know whom you work for. Your payroll check has come from the same company that whole time (it still looks exactly the same, for that matter). All of a sudden, they tell you there will be a hold on your check.

Why? Because of skyrocketing fraud losses, watch for financial institutions to start treating every customer/member as a stranger, and treating every check like it’s the first time they’ve seen one. Sure, you can get mad and close your account, but you’ll get the same treatment at the place down the street.

Thank a crook for all these inconveniences. They’re the ones who are making it all possible.

I’m sure the financial industry will find a way to restore some services (electronic checks and direct deposit will play a major role). Right now, though, we’re all playing catch-up with the scammers. I always tell you to “stay vigilant,” but that goes for us, too: we have to adapt to the changes, or risk going gentle into that not-so-good night.

How to avoid tax season scams

This is an expanded version of a post I wrote last year. It’s a hot topic every winter/spring, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit.

* * *

I’m going to amend an old saying right now: in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and tax season scams.

It happens every single year now, from January through April: tax-related scams absolutely run riot, from emails and phone calls to shady tax preparers and rogue employees.

There are some easy ways to keep yourself safe, though.

The IRS Will Not Email You

There is no scenario in which the IRS is going to send you an email. Even if you used online tax software to e-file your return, they are never going to contact you in this way if there’s a problem with your filing. They will contact you via telephone or, in most cases, use postal mail.

This is a vitally important point to remember. Do you know what the #1 email scam was in 2009? It was phishing emails designed to look like they came from the IRS. If you get one, forward it to phishing@irs.gov and help them fight these scams, and never open attachments in an unexpected email unless you want to be infected with spyware or to allow a criminal to access and control your computer.

The IRS Will Not Ask You to Verify Information

Even if there is a problem with your return, or you’ve been selected for an audit, the IRS is not going to ask you to “verify” your personal information. This goes for any mode of communication, electronic or otherwise.

Here’s the deal: they’re the IRS. They don’t need to ask you for your personal information. They already know who you are, when you were born and what your Social Security Number is.

Don’t Trust Caller ID

I’ve never even heard of anyone getting a phone call from the IRS, but my sources say it does happen. However, the time when you could implicitly trust caller ID is long gone. It’s easy to spoof a caller ID display using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

If the caller ID says Internal Revenue Service, but they’re asking you to verify your personal information, bank account or credit card numbers, you’re dealing with a scam. Hang up immediately.

The IRS Keeps Pretty Normal Business Hours

In addition to being wary of caller ID, also know that the IRS isn’t going to call you on the telephone in the middle of the night.

This same rule goes for callers that claim to represent your banking institution. How many times have you seen a bank open at 3 AM? Not often. Phone calls at strange times are a sure sign of a scam.

Know Your Tax Preparer

If you’re paying someone else to prepare your tax return, only deal with people or businesses you know and trust. If it’s a friend or relative, make sure they know what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter who prepared your return—you are ultimately responsible for the filing.

Personally, I think it’s best to have a person you always go to. A couple years ago there was a case in Northwest Indiana where dozens of people had their identities stolen by some rogue employees of a national tax preparation company. If you’re not doing your own taxes at home, I recommend using a CPA you know personally (or can get to know over time).

Be Wary of Big Promises

When you’re shopping for a tax prep person or agency, be cautious of anyone making wild claims about the money they can get for you. Remember: you’re the one whose name and signature go on that tax return. If they put some giant fabrication on that form, and you sign it, that means you agreed it was accurate. You’ll be the one in trouble when you’re found out.

Don’t be greedy

There are a certain category of scams that prey on a personality trait that most of us have to some degree: greed. Some of us keep it chained up better than others, but on some (hopefully, deeply buried) level most people are a six-year-old who doesn’t want to share his/her birthday cake with anyone.

Hey, I’ll grab the last cookie without offering it to anyone else, too. If nobody’s looking.

But when it comes to con games and scams, not being greedy (or at least keeping it under wraps) can help you steer clear.

For example, let’s say you’re walking to your car when two people approach you. They tell you they’ve found a briefcase with a whole bunch of money in it, and they’re offering to split it with you. There’s always a complication, though, and they’ll ask you to provide some “good faith money” to throw in with the found cash. At this point, you’re supposed to withdraw a couple thousand dollars and hand it over to strangers. This is where being greedy—wanting to get something for nothing—will lead you into falling for a pigeon drop scam.

Look at all the “make money online” scams (some of which are so sophisticated they have their own late-night infomercials). You’re enticed with the promise of thousands of dollars per week (or even day), and all you have to do is send in your payment, sit back, and let the cash roll in. Again, you’re being greedy. You’re trying to get paid while providing zero value to anyone, and in the end you’ll be the one who loses.

Con artists and swindlers are nothing if not well versed in human nature. They know all about that inner Daffy Duck (“I may be a craven little coward, but I’m a greedy craven little coward”) lurking just under the surface of so many of us.

The reason they know all about it is that they’re giving it free rein over their own lives. Almost everyone has a weakness that can be exploited under the right conditions, especially when they’re not paying attention. When you find yourself in a situation, ask this question: “Am I trying to get something for nothing here?”

If the answer is “yes,” you might be gearing up to fall for a scam.

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.

Weight Loss Scams


soapRaise your hand if you made a New Year’s resolution that involves there being less of you on December 31, 2011 than there was on December 31, 2010.

Be honest, now. Nobody’s looking.

Losing weight seems to be one of those things almost everyone promises themselves they’re going to do at the start of each new year, a promise that seems to get broken by January 15th, more often than not. I’ve always wondered if there’s a slight uptick in running shoe sales at the beginning of January.

At any rate, odds are you’ve tried it yourself at some point, so you already know what I’m about to tell you: it’s hard.

A habit is a borderline-unstoppable entity. You can go big with overwhelming force, you can be subtle and try to outsmart it, but it usually ends up being a war of attrition; who can hold out longer—you, or the habit?

What makes losing weight even harder is the fact that it’s usually not a lot of fun for the first few months. Let’s face it—it’s a lot more fun to have a piece of cake than it is to not have a piece of cake, at least until you hit that magic tipping point where healthy choices actually start to sound better than junk food. It also involves a lot more conscious thought and physical activity, to say nothing of the social consequences (yes, losing weight can have positive social consequences, but you also can lose relationships if your old “eatin’ buddies” feel betrayed instead of following your example).

It’s no wonder people look for shortcuts.

Therefore, it’s no wonder other people set up weight loss scams.

It’s such an attractive thought, too. Don’t change your habits, don’t change your mindset, just take a pill or drink this stuff or wear a bracelet made of this material, and the pounds will just melt away! If it worked, who wouldn’t go that route?

The problem is, of course, that they never do. So, how do you tell the difference between a weight loss method that will work and a complete scam?

Who does the work?

If a weight loss product claims to work without you changing anything about your lifestyle, it’s a scam. The real products or programs always involve a lot of work, and you’re the one who has to do it. From measuring portions and keeping track of what you’ve consumed to those early-morning jogs in subzero weather, it’s you that has to put in the mileage. If the product claims to do all the work, avoid it.

Is it a pill?

I guess there are prescription drugs for weight loss, and at least one OTC out there. Those pills are up to you and your doctor to talk about.

The rest of them are scams. They either do nothing, contain prescription drugs (not listed on the label) that can harm you, or have horrid side-effects and drug interactions. I heard one on the radio this morning that basically said it cranks your heart rate up really high. This is not a good idea.

Does it use the words “fast” or “easy?”

This relates to the first rule above. Like everything worth doing, weight loss involves work on your part. There are no fast, easy solutions.

Is it being sold primarily on the Internet?

I love the Internet. I really do. But weight-loss products sold primarily online tend to be useless or dangerous. The bar for setting up a website is extremely low. Some of these nutters might even think their product works, but there’s no getting around the physical facts: the only way a copper bracelet is going to help you get in shape is if it weighs ten pounds, you have one on each wrist, and you’re doing arm exercises.

Is there an infomercial about it?

Late-night infomercials are a bad sign, for the most part. There are some exceptions in the area of exercise programs; for example, P90X looks like it would probably work (if you didn’t pass out thirty seconds into it).

 Infomercial weight-loss products, on the other hand, are usually junk. Maybe not scams per se, but rip-offs for sure.

Does it mention cortisol?

There is no single factor that leads a person to needing to lose weight. It’s usually a complex combination of intertwined factors, from “office job + new Xbox + burger joint opened down the street” to “bad habits from childhood + emotional issues + lack of information.” To say that a single hormone like cortisol is causing weight gain is to grossly oversimplify and a sure sign that someone isn’t telling you the truth.

So that’s the bad news. If you want to drop some poundage, you’ve got some work to do. It doesn’t have to be miserable if you go about it the right way, but there’s no getting around the fact that you have to put in the effort if you want to get the results.

The grandchild-in-trouble scam claims another victim

According to a story in today’s edition of the NWI Times, a local senior citizen lost $3,200 to an overseas scammer.

This time, the victim got a call from someone that claimed to be his grandson. The caller said he had been arrested in Madrid, Spain, and needed the victim to wire $3,200 to bail him out.

After the victim wired money the first time, he got another call saying the transfer hadn’t gone through. He was asked to return to Western Union and wire another $3,200. It was at this point that the Western Union agent noticed that the first transfer had been successful, and the scam was uncovered.

This type of scam seems to be showing up more lately, which is to be expected in a world economy that’s seen better days. And let’s face it—it’s an easy scam to pull off, and the chances of being caught are low, so it’s an attractive crime to a lot of people.

You have to make sure your older relatives are aware of this scam. It doesn’t take much work to find out the names of grandchildren these days. Plus, an experienced crook doesn’t even need to know the grandchild’s name in advance; they’ll get the victim to say it at some point.

Tell them, “If you ever get a call from one of us saying they’re in trouble in some foreign country, and they’re asking you to wire money, please call us at home before you do anything, because it’s probably a scammer.”

Grandparents are more likely to have trouble hearing than others (at least for now, until earbud headphones have their way), an especially on the telephone, so it’s easier to trick them into thinking a caller is their grandchild. This goes double if the child in question was seven the last time they saw Meemaw. Have your kids called their grandparents lately? Maybe it’s time.

Of course, that’s not just a fraud prevention tip.