Holiday fraud: How to avoid seasonal scammers


polic lineup with santa, Rudolph the Reindeer and a pretty elf

If it’s December, it’s prime holiday fraud season!

Because it’s the busiest season of the year, scammers work double time to try to maximize their take. And as many times as we’ve issued warnings, thieves are very creative about thinking up sneaky new ways to separate you from your money. The Better Business Bureau is on the case. Here are some of the top scams they see around the holidays.

Delivery scams and package thefts this holiday season – While just plain old theft of shipped packages from your doorstep or workplace is common, there are a few other things to watch out for. BBB says that phishing emails pose as official notices from delivery companies. These either contain a “tracking link” or a message that the shipper is having difficulty delivering a package to you with a number to call. Or they affix fake “missed delivery” tags on your door, asking you to call a phone number to reschedule your delivery – all are just ruses to get your personal information.

Social media ad scams – Last year, the BBB found that online purchase scams were the most common cons reported to Scam Tracker and the category with the most victims, many involving Facebook and Instagram ads. Watch out for products claiming to support charity, free trial offers, counterfeit merchandise and apps of unknown origin. Social media is also a hub for illegal gift exchange pyramid schemes. BBB says these pop up every year with new twists. When an offer seems too good to be true, it almost always is.

Is that Santa App safe? Better check it twice. BBB says that the Apple and Google app stores list tons of holiday-themed apps: children can video chat live with Santa himself, light the menorah, watch Santa feed live reindeer, track his sleigh on Christmas Eve, relay electronic Christmas wish-lists, or play Hanukkah games like dreidel. But many of these are invasive and may violate children’s privacy laws in the information they collect. For more, see our post on protecting your kids from ID theft.

Don’t get scammed out of a gift card this season – the BBB says “Before grabbing a gift card for a favorite store or restaurant, know that thieves are just as eager to use these gift cards before they’re presented to the intended recipient. Also, some retailers have terms and conditions as to how the gift card can be redeemed.” See our post about new consumer protections for prepaid debit cards.

Tips for avoiding job scams this holiday season – Many of us are looking for extra money over the holidays and a part-time seasonal job is a common way to earn that cash. But it’s also a time when scammers exploit that desire. BBB reminds you that legit employers will never ask for payment upfront for a job. They say to be wary of big money for small jobs and job offers that don’t require an interview.

8 Tips for dealing with holiday pop-up shops – BBB receives hundreds of complaints a year about temporary retail locations, reporting everything from poor quality merchandise to difficulty obtaining refunds after temporary stores have closed their doors. Pop-up shops can be fun but follow BBB’s tips in mind if you choose to buy from one of them.

See more holiday safety tips from the BBB and use their Scam Tracker to identify common scams near you.

Here are prior posts about more common holiday fraud schemes:

 

How to avoid rogue tow truck scams


couple watching their car loaded on a tow truck

Bad enough if you are in an auto accident – that’s stressful enough. You might be injured or at the very least, shaken up. Suddenly a tow truck appears on the scene saying they are from your insurance company. While that might seem like lucky timing, it should actually raise your suspicions. High pressure tactics from rogue tow truck operators can lead to exorbitant towing and storage fees or your car being taken to a body shop that is in league with the tower. The National Insurance Crime Bureau recently released a public service announcement to raise awareness about rogue tow truck operators and how to avoid becoming a victim.

NCIB offers these tips:

  • Never give permission to a tow truck operator who arrives unsolicited to take your vehicle.
  • If you or law enforcement did not call a tow truck to the scene, do not deal with that operator.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with your insurance information.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with personal lien holder information.
  • Determine that the tow truck signage is identical to what appears on any documentation the tow truck operator provides (they may say they “work with” your insurance company).
  • If the tow truck does not display signage identifying the name of the tow company, ask for company identification.
  • If a tow operator’s legitimacy is in doubt, call the police.
  • Do not give a tow truck operator permission to tow your vehicle until they:
    –Provide a printed price list, to include daily storage fees and miscellaneous charges that will apply if they tow your car (if the prices seem too high, ask the police or your insurance company to call a towing service for you).
    –Provide printed documentation indicating where the vehicle is being towed if it is not a location of your choosing.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud offers more information on tow truck cons and scams, as well as extensive tips to for what to expect and what your rights are.

Check out the full article but here are a few tips from their list:

Think ahead: Join an emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. Also know your auto insurer’s roadside assistance program, with the tollfree number printed on your insurance card. They’ll set you up with reputable towing firms and repair shops.

Photos. Take a photo of the scene, including the tow truck. Use your cell phone or a disposable camera stored in your glove compartment.

Complain. File complaints if you’re scammed. Contact your insurer, state insurance department, local Better Business Bureau and the police.

Know your rights. State laws protect you if your vehicle is towed while you were away, such as while shopping. Confirm and complain if you suspect violations of these rules in most states:

  • The property owner or manager of a business that had your vehicle towed must be at the scene and sign the towing authorization in most states;
  • The operator must leave a small sign at the scene. It should have the firm’s name, address, phone, reason for towing, and who requested the tow;
  • Towing firms must take a photo of your vehicle in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Get the photos from the towing firm (though expect a fee); and
  • The towing operator must release your vehicle if you will not or cannot pay the requested towing free. This is true in most states, and then becomes a matter for civil courts.

Focus on Phishing: Take these quizzes to see if you are smarter than the criminals


illustration of emails for a post on preventing phishing

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, the time of year when cybersecurity experts from government, academia and industry remind us of the importance of safeguarding our digital information and reviewing our online safety practices.

One of the most common ways that crooks and criminals get your personal financial data is through phishing. Phishing is using email spoofing and other tricks to get you to give up personal info or click to a dangerous website that might expose you to a virus or a computer hijack. Never ever click on links or download things from a stranger!

But don’t just worry about bad emails from strangers – worry about bad emails from people and brands you trust. Many of the big brands we use everyday – Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, Amazon, Apple – are regularly spoofed and we are tricked into clicking when we see messages like “your account is being disabled” or “thanks for your recent purchase” when you hadn’t made one. Or from a friend or family member, emails saying “this is a riot – click here” or a boss saying “We need your bank credentials for direct deposit.” If something seems off or strange or odd, it probably is. It’s better to be safe and not sorry so double check if you have doubt. Phishers are good at gaining our trust or exploiting our fears.

It’s vital to learn about how to avoid being caught by a phisher. We’ve assembled some quizzes to give you practice. But be warned, these are pretty difficult. If you take the time, however, even wrong answers will teach you something about what to look for and how to spot a fake.

Our top tips for avoiding phishing scams

  • Don’t click any links or download anything from a sender you don’t know or trust. It’s always worth double-checking. If it’s a web link from your bank, instead of clicking, go to your bank website directly by typing in the Web address in your browser. If it’s a phone call, hang up and call your bank.
  • Get in the habit of hovering over links to see who the email is really coming from and where a link is actually sending you. Learn how. On a mobile device? It’s a little trickier but you can and should still learn the source of a link from someone you don’t know. Here’s how: How to Check Embedded Links on Your Mobile Device
  • Phishing emails often have poor grammar or spelling mistakes. That’s a big clue that it’s a fake.
  • Be suspicious of any email or phone calls that demand you take action right away or that threaten you. The IRS and Medicare don’t call or email to threaten you or demand money. Urgency and threats are hallmarks of fraud.
  • Avoid filling out forms in email messages that ask for personal financial information. You should only communicate information such as credit card numbers or account information via a secure website or the telephone.
  • Always ensure that you’re using a secure website when submitting credit card or other sensitive information via your Web browser. Look for “https” in the URL. How Can I Tell If a Website Is Safe? Look For These 5 Signs
  • Consider installing a Web browser tool bar to help protect you from known fraudulent websites
  • Regularly log into your online accounts to ensure that all transactions are legitimate
  • Ensure that your browser is up to date and security patches applied
  • Always report “phishing” or “spoofed” e-mails to the following groups: forward the email to reportphishing@antiphishing.org; forward the email to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov; when forwarding spoofed messages, always include the entire original email with its original header information intact
  • Take extra precaution when traveling. Don’t login to financial sites when on a free, public Wi-Fi..

 

Scam and Fraud roundup: The latest cons


young woman fraud victim looking distressed

Thieves are highly creative and spend 24-7 just trying to figure out ways to separate you from your money. Even if you are super safe and cautious, you can be a victim of a con, a phish or a fraud. Scams happen both online and off – but it’s quite efficient for criminals to mass target potential victims via the phone and email. Check our our roundup of some of the latest scams, according to some of our favorite security sources.

Social Security is not trying to take your benefits
The Federal Trade Commission posts a robocall of the latest scams which threaten to end your benefits. They offer this reminder:

  • Your Social Security number is not about to be suspended.
  • The real Social Security Administration will never call to threaten your benefits.
  • The real SSA will never tell you to wire money, send cash, or put money on a gift card.

American Express Phishing Attack Targets Customers
If you are an American Express cardholder, learn the email phishing and phone scams. Learn more about it and how to avoid it. Also remember this good advice:

Never click a link or download an attachment that you are not expecting
If the email came from your boss, pick up the phone and verify it. If it appears to come from a company you do business with, ignore the email and go directly to their website. From there, you can see if there is an issue with your account.

Don’t pay for help with student loans
If you have student loan debt, a program that promises to reduce or erase it might sound like just what you need. But some of these programs just take lots of your money and give you no help — or do only what you could have done easily by yourself.  Don’t pay for help finding money for College; Don’t pay for the Application for Federal Student Aid(FAFSA®) form – it’s free; Avoid scams for loan or forgiveness – you can contact the lender yourself. The Department of Education has a great resource on Avoiding Scams that offers detailed explanations of common scams and reputable sources for grants and scholarships. Also, see this one page handout: Don’t Get Scammed on Your Way to College

Don’t Fall for Equifax Settlement Scams
Scammers are looking to cash in on the buzz surrounding the Equifax data breach, specifically the ability for consumers to check their data and file a claim if they were affected. If you were a victim of the Equifax breach, learn how to avoid scammers and get to the legitimate sources.

The latest news on romance scams
People reported losing $143 million in romance schemes last year, more than any other type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission.

How not to get scammed, according to a former con artist
You may recall Frank Abagnale – or if not him, you may recall Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of him in the 2002 Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can. Abagnale was a highly successful conman until he was caught and served 5 year in prison decades ago. He later became a security consultant for the US government and FBI. Read his recent interview in Vox, where he talks about his latest book dealing with robocalls, IRS fraud, and good old-fashioned stolen passwords. He says these are still some of the leading ways that Americans lost $16.8 billion to scams in 2017. According to Abegnale, “Crime is basically the same; the only thing that’s changed is today there are so many forms of communication and the ability to scam someone from thousands of miles away without ever really having personal contact with them.” See our past post on Abegnale, A conman you should listen to.

Past posts on scams & fraud

 

Buying a used car? Don’t get scammed by title washing


used car lot

You see a nice used car at the local dealership that would be great for your college-bound son. You buy the car, and a few weeks later, you get a call that your son is being held by police on a charge of car theft. What!?! You spend considerable time to prove he is not a criminal and that you recently bought the car. You clear things up for your son but the issue of the car is not so simple. You are the victim of title washing. The car is indeed a stolen vehicle so you won’t get that back.

If that sounds like a far-fetched scenario, it’s not. It’s exactly what happened recently to a Chicago couple who suffered a $24,000 loss on a used car they’d recently bought. Both they and the car dealership where they bought it were victims of a title washing ring that is now under investigation.

A title washing scam might seem like a relatively obscure thing, but it’s not. It’s estimated that used car buyers are scammed up to $30 billion a year in what the National Association of Attorneys General calls the worst problem used car buyers face. Experts say that as many as 1 in 44 titles in some states have been washed.

In simple terms, title washing is a scam in which the paperwork for stolen vehicles is faked or forged. But it’s not just stolen cars – title washing is also a way to clear a troubled car’s history, a common way to re-market cars that have been totaled, salvaged or flood-damaged. This article offers a good overview of the practice: Title Washing in America – Lemons without the Lemonade  It includes a handy list of red flags to look for when buying a used car, which we’ve reprinted below.

One lesson to be learned from this is not to rely solely on the title when buying a used car. In buying a used car, be sure to check if it has been declared stolen or totaled by searching the car’s VIN:

Of course, there are other best practices beyond just checking the title when buying a used car. See these sources for more tips:

red flags for buying aused car