A Consumer Action News Alert • May 2020
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SCAM GRAM is Consumer Action's monthly e-newsletter alerting you to the dirtiest players in the world of tech fraud, credit card scams, ID theft and general con-artistry. Don't be fooled by liars, cheats and crooks; wise up with SCAM GRAM!
Web of lies
Last month we told you about con artists recreating (or pulling content from) genuine websites to offer "jobs" through fake, lookalike sites. The jobseekers "employed" by these criminals aren't only losing money. Sadly, they're operating as money mules, unwittingly transporting funds from other defrauded victims as part of their "job" (thereby helping scammers evade law enforcement). We've learned that this double-whammy deception has become much bigger than the one website we highlighted. It's a convincing (and profitable) con in the age of COVID.
SCAM GRAM spoke with Ariel Schur, head of Manhattan-based ABS Staffing Solutions, to find out exactly how these scams transpire. Schur's website was one of the latest to be "rebuilt"--using her site's own logo and "a lot of the same verbiage"--by criminals who immediately sent texts to unsuspecting recipients from coast to coast with ABS Staffing's "new" URL and, of course, a phony job offer. (We think the scammers were probably using an automatic dialing system to send the texts in waves--known as robotexting--since Schur got handfuls of "heads up" messages from savvy recipients warning her they'd been tricked into visiting "her" website, where they were directed to send "job applications" for a "part-time personal assistant" position that required no experience, yet paid $35/hr.)
Although the concerned recipients (standouts among perhaps thousands of recipients) quickly researched the real Ariel and tried to warn her, the speedy scammers were so "on it" that they sent their texts before Google even had a chance to index the fraudulent website they'd just created. (Schur couldn't find the site when she searched for it.) And by the time she'd asked Wix (her web hosting company) to shut the site down, the digital dead ringer had already done its dirty deeds, defrauding at least one Florida woman out of $5,000!
"They gave this poor woman some tangible tasks to do--to take photos of homes under the guise that they were a real estate company," Schur explained. "They sent her a fake check and instructed her to distribute some of the money to various accounts as part of the job, allegedly to pay for 'vendors.' They also told her to Venmo them money back, and to keep the rest as her 'salary'." (Learn more about how check fraud like this works: To make a long story short, the fake check bounces, and the victim is on the line for the real money they've lost.) "The only way I found out about the fake website was because some people were smart enough to do their due diligence and contact me prior to providing information to the scammers," said Schur.
The craziest part? After Wix took the bogus site down, the scammers rebuilt it again (using none other than...Wix, which now has removed it for what will hopefully be the last time).
Schur wants jobseekers to know that they should thoroughly research any staffing agency or open position--particularly ones that come to you out of the blue. In the meantime, she's going to continue to help those who've lost their jobs during the pandemic. And, she added, "I'm going to every news outlet I can, to make sure that nobody else becomes victimized!"
The business of bilking billions. Entrepreneurs don't create their own businesses just to see profits drained by clever criminals. But since incomes have gone down due to the 'rona, many have been open to accept "assistance" (read: government funds) through such stimulus efforts as the recently-passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPA). Claiming "I'm with the government, and I'm here to help," scammers sell struggling CEOs on paying "fees" or "taxes" up front to access thousands of loan dollars (when, of course, no upfront payments are required). Or, they use government logos in emails instructing the businesses to fill out "applications" for the aid--applications that then contain banking and other sensitive information. And scammers aren't just honing in on head honchos; it's important to warn all staff not to respond to unsolicited communications (or open email attachments). Got a question about federal funding, or want to apply for it? Contact the SBA directly. Also, the Main Street Alliance, a non-profit organization working to help small businesses, has an excellent resource center with links to free mentoring and legal aid, answers to business owners' debt relief questions, and more. (And if you're reading this and thinking it's a worthwhile venture to pretend to be a small biz owner to get that government cheese, think twice. Two middle-aged dudes named David were the first to be busted for attempting it, and they surely won't be the last.)
Come and "Get My Payment"! The IRS announced that last Wednesday was the deadline for taxpayers to provide bank account info through its beleaguered "Get My Payment" tool in order to receive electronic deposits of federal economic stimulus payouts. No worries: If you didn't enter your sensitive financial info in time, you actually might be better off than those who did, because they have to worry about data breaches and stolen account information. Still, you should probably go to the site just to find out if someone else entered your info to steal your stimulus money. ("Get My Payment" remains up for users to track where their money did, or didn't, end up--now without providing bank info.) Unfortunately, "It's common for the IRS to push out money and then worry about fraud after the fact," experts point out in an article calling the economic stimulus payments "a fraud target." A recent New York Times article backs this up, revealing how some individuals have already logged onto the IRS site only to discover that criminals claimed their payment for themselves. The article, which described the "pure hell" victims have endured, was, in fact, so damning that it reached reps in Congress, who are now calling on the IRS to "develop fraud prevention strategies" specifically related to the "Get My Payment" tool (among other things). Got questions about where your money's gone (or have reason to believe that it, and your identity, have been stolen)? The Federal Trade Commission may have answers. Or perhaps you're just kickin' it old school and waiting for your check to arrive via snail mail? In this case, we recommend you set up a USPS Informed Delivery Service account to track the check so you can grab it as soon as it hits your mailbox (before someone else does--and yes, people are doing this).
Who stole my dole?? Per the NY Times article we mentioned above, vulnerable people are not only losing economic stimulus money to ID theft (via the federal IRS website), but also to ID theft associated with unemployment benefits (via state websites). An unfortunate 19-year-old even found herself the victim of both, perpetrated by one lone scammer! Unfortunately, most people don't realize just how easy it is for bad actors to obtain their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, current employers...all the stuff necessary to create an imposter account to file for something like unemployment (even while the potential victims are still employed). As a matter of fact, there are entire lists of identities on the dark web for anyone to buy for next to nothing (many collected from data breaches, which, lately, have been as numerous as the stars in the sky). And scammers are using the information they collect: Rhode Island alone is now investigating "2,000 coronavirus-related unemployment fraud claims"--ones similar to what happened in nearby Massachusetts, when a 21-year-old construction worker, whose employer had put him on "indefinite leave," used his SSN to log into the state's unemployment website for what he thought was the first time, only to find a "welcome back" message. Of course, the police are being inundated with complaints like his, so an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or, you know, the ability to pay your rent). What can you do? Try visiting your state's employment commission website (as if you were going to file for unemployment). In many states, you can enter your SSN to "start the process"--you don't have to go any further than this one step, which can tell you if there's already an account associated with your identity. If something looks fishy, report it to the police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If not, call the employment office now and ask how you can evade this scam. And if your name is Tupac Shakur, well, we don't know what to tell you.
Cruel intentions. The tried-and-true utilities scam has always been "popular," but it appears that customers--particularly those "already facing hardship due to COVID-19"--are being targeted at "a high rate" by cruel imposters calling from numbers that mirror the victims' utility companies. The callers typically claim the power's about to be cut off or that the consumers owe a late fee due to nonpayment. Don't fall for it: As we point out in our incredibly useful, frequently updated Resources for consumers impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, "Utility companies around the country are suspending service disconnections and waiving late fees for customers struggling to pay their electricity bills," and many states "have imposed a moratorium on utility terminations." Find out what's going on with your state here. And remember: Even if you're given a callback number to "pay your bill" (assuming you can pay it), check--and then double-check--to make sure that you're calling the correct billing department. Utility companies have reported that the spoofed calls are using recordings that sound similar to their real ones and directing callers to hang up and dial phone numbers that are similar to those of the companies' real billing departments. (The real number can be found on your billing statement or online account.)
Crap cures. Celebrities, pseudo-celebrities and other public figures have been hawking awful coronavirus "cures" since COVID-19 was just a sparkle in a bat's eye. Unfortunately, as the virus has spread, so has the prolific peddling of nonsense. The latest? An actor from the Iron Man movies has been arrested for soliciting investments--including $300K from an undercover FBI agent--for some sort of serum to cure coronavirus "within a day." And, in addition to the multitude of companies it's already approached, the FTC recently warned 45 new sellers to knock it off, or else. Among the coronavirus-related crap on the agency's (s)hit list? Products or services that promote "listening to a music CD of frequencies to resist the Coronavirus, taking high doses of intravenous vitamin C, using Chinese herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic treatments, ozone therapy, bio-electric shields, HEPA air purifiers, UV light therapy, and more." There's always more. For a full list of the companies that may soon be sued out of existence--with some of them earning a double-whammy disciplinary letter from both the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration (impressive!)--click here.
Quaranteeeny tiny puppy. Housetraining a puppy is easier if you're around all day to do it. Plus, who wouldn't want a cute little furball to cuddle with? And then there's the fact that your child is bored (and grating on your every nerve) so she deserves a new best friend. It may seem like there are a million excuses to adopt a puppy during the quarantine. But there's one very strong reason not to: Pet scams are rampant right now. The National Consumers League's Fraud.org has placed them at a 42% increase over the same period in 2019. Why? Consumers are doing their pet shopping online, and that's where fraudsters really shine. Fraud.org warns, however, that you should meet any potential puppy IRL before committing. Since that's pretty much impossible right now, hold off on any attempts at adopting until the economy reopens. Otherwise, you may be strung along by a crafty con artist who knows how to tug at your heartstrings, demanding more and more in "adoption fees," "shipping fees," "quarantine fees," "pet insurance" and the like--for an animal that doesn't even exist!
(S)extortion. There's been a big rise in extortion scams, which frequently occur via an email saying something like: Your computer camera has been turned on and you've been caught visiting a pornographic website because you've had too much time on your, uh, hands during the coronavirus lockdown (bad pun). Sometimes scammers have your email password and they instead send you a message displaying it (sending cold chills down your spine) before boasting that they've gotten into your email account and have seen that you've been engaged in some sort of romantic affair with someone you're not engaged to (they're often shooting in the dark here, but if you're guilty, that won't matter). If you don't pay up, the treacherous tattletales threaten to pop off to your partner, your boss or someone else who you really don't want finding out about your hapless hobbies. The worst type of scam is a combination of the two, which is now occurring. Wait, we take that back: The worst type is a variation on the sextortion email, where the con artist accuses you of accessing child porn (and claims to be with "tech support" to get access to your PC and "help"). According to the FTC, criminals employing these types of scams now also demand payments in Bitcoin (which should always be a red flag, even if the whole "threatening you" thing wasn't). If you get an extortion email, show the bad guys you're on the right side of the law by reporting it to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Then delete it.
Thanks for reading SCAM GRAM and, as always, feel free to send us your questions, comments and tips. Click here to email us.
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