July Scams Roundup

Scam Computer Key

The following are some of the scams reported to Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest in July. In most instances names and locations have been omitted to protect the victims’ privacy.

Alaska 

Sweepstakes/BBB Affiliation Scam

An Anchorage man reports he received a call from someone named “James Stewart” from American Sweepstakes. The caller wanted the Anchorage man to fill out tax documents in order to deposit the money. The caller also stated he was working with BBB. Better Business Bureau does not offer sweepstakes prizes. Fortunately, the man did not lose any money in the encounter.

Idaho 

Phishing Scam

A Nampa woman reports someone called her home claiming to be with the DISH Network. She was told the company needed to make updates to her software. The woman was prompted by the caller to reveal the last four digits of her social security number in order for them to make the updates. She was then asked to pay a $99 fee. This alerted the woman and she refused to pay the money. She reported the scam to BBB and the Attorney General’s office.

Craigslist Scam

A Boise woman reports she was nearly scammed when she tried to sell her car on Craigslist. The woman states she received an offer from someone claiming to be a Marine in Quantico, Virginia. He wanted to pay through PayPal. The woman reports his texts and email had a lot of misspellings and information he revealed about himself turned out to be untrue. Fortunately, she didn’t complete the transaction with him.

Government Grant Scam

A Nampa woman reports she was notified she had won a government grant for having good credit. She was told she’d receive $7,000, but needed to provide her city, state, zip code and age. The woman stopped speaking with the callers, but continued to receive calls from them throughout the day.

Oregon 

Home Improvement Scam

A Sherwood woman reports she lost $1,100 in a home improvement scam. The woman claims she knew the person doing work on her home and had hired them in the past. She agreed to pay half of the $2,200 cost the home repairs would need. However, she reports the workers avoided her calls and failed to show up to do the repairs.

Advanced Fee Loan Scam

A Hillsboro woman reports she was contacted by Triple Services LLC who said she had outstanding debt from 2011. She states the caller had her personal information including her social security number. The company told her it needed to collect $2,547 for a $500 loan. The Oregon woman reports the callers kept changing the amount of money owed, leading her to believe it was a scam. She reported the company to BBB.

Montana 

Fake Invoice Scam

A Bozeman woman reports she received a large order to her online store. The buyer requested the seller use a different shipping company called DXB Logistics. The Bozeman woman contacted DXB and was told to wire a payment that was higher than the original shipping fees. The seller stopped doing business with the buyer and cancelled the customer order.

Washington 

BBB Affiliation Scam

A Kent business owner reports someone called her company asking to speak with her about her financials. The woman claims the caller was insistent and harassing with her employees. She called the person back and they told her they were working with BBB. However, the caller could not answer her questions truthfully so she ended the conversation.

IRS Scam

An Issaquah woman reports someone called her claiming to be with the IRS. The caller told her there was a warrant out for her arrest for tax evasion, but it would be cleared up if she paid $2,950 in iTunes gift cards. The woman did not pay the money.

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Watch Out for IRS Scams

Image courtesy of Adamophoto | freerangestock.com

During the final two weeks of the tax filing season, scammers are increasing their efforts to impersonate the Internal Revenue Service in attempts to steal money or personal information from consumers.

Taxpayers should be alert for these two common IRS scams.

1. The Phone Scam

You receive a phone call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent. They demand immediate payment via prepaid card or wire transfer, and they threaten you with jail time, deportation or driver’s license suspension. They may even know the last four digits of your Social Security number or other personal information.

The truth: The IRS will never call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill or giving you the opportunity to appeal the amount they claim you owe. They will not ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone, nor will they require you use a specific payment method. They will not threaten you.

How to spot the scam:

  • You have received nothing in the mail from the IRS.
  • They demand payment immediately.
  • They threaten to get the local police or an immigration agency involved.

What to do:

  • If you know or suspect you do owe taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040. They can help you with a payment issue.
  • If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to believe that you do, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 800-366-4484 or report it online at the IRS Impersonation Scam Reporting Page.
  • File a report through the Federal Trade Commission’s FTC Complaint Assistant. Include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

2. The Email Scam

You receive an email that claims to be from the IRS, telling you that you’re eligible to receive a tax refund for a given amount. It instructs you to click on a link in the email to access a form for the tax refund. The form requires the entry of personal and financial information.

The truth: Taxpayers do not have to complete a special form to obtain a refund; refunds are based on the tax return they submit to the IRS. The IRS does not initiate taxpayer contact via unsolicited email or ask for personal identifying or financial information via email.

How to spot the scam:

  • The email requests detailed personal and financial information.
  • It dangles bait to get you to respond to the email and threatens a consequence for not responding.
  • It gets the Internal Revenue Service or other federal agency names wrong.
  • It uses incorrect grammar or odd phrasing.
  • It links to a site that’s not the actual IRS website (www.irs.gov).

What to do:

  • Do not open any attachments or click on any links in the email.
  • Contact the IRS at 800-829-1040 to determine if the IRS is truly trying to contact you.
  • Forward the suspicious email to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov, then delete the email from your inbox.

National Consumer Protection Week

Your ‪BBB‬ is partnering with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to celebrate National Consumer Protection Week from March 1-7. Below, we’ve compiled warning signs and tips on 6 of the most common scams we’ve seen affect local consumers.

Be an informed consumer; avoid scams and fraud!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zak/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/zak/

1. Phishing emails ask for personal info and may contain links to malware. Antivirus software can help, but the best protection is a good sense of judgment. Legitimate companies and government agencies never ask you to confirm personal info via email.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rreyes-2010/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/rreyes-2010/

2. Don’t fall victim to an advance-fee loan scam. Check out the company at bbb.org/search. Be skeptical of any offer where you have to pay money up front. Walk away if you’re asked for money immediately, especially if it’s supposedly for “insurance,” “processing,” or “paperwork.”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/

3. With overpayment scams, a buyer “accidentally” sends you a check for more than the amount they owe. They ask you to deposit it and wire them the difference. The original check turns out to be a fake, leaving you on the hook to pay the bank for any money withdrawn. Always wait for a deposit to clear before writing checks against the funds—it can take weeks to uncover a fake check.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/filterforge/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/filterforge/

4. Identity theft scams come in all shapes and sizes—grandchildren “stranded” in a foreign country, the hotel front desk “verifying” your credit card in the middle of the night, “charity” solicitations from groups you’ve never supported in the past. Never give your Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers to someone who has contacted you to ask for them.

winner5. In a lottery/sweepstakes scam, you get an unsolicited phone call, email or letter stating you’ve won a prize, but in order to collect the winnings, you have to wire a small sum of money to pay for “processing fees” or “taxes.” You never get your “winnings,” and the scammer has your money. You never have to pay to receive legitimate winnings.

Wixphoto.com | FreeRangeStock.com
Wixphoto.com | FreeRangeStock.com

6. Itinerant contractors move around, keeping a step ahead of the law… and angry consumers. They knock on your door with a story or a deal: a roofer spots missing shingles on your roof, a paver has leftover asphalt and can give you a deal on driveway resealing. Then you can’t track them down after they’ve left you with a shoddy or incomplete job. Never agree to do business with someone you haven’t researched first. Start at bbb.org/search.

Go to ncpw.gov to find more consumer tips and free materials from government and private organizations.

Don’t Throw Your Money Away: Recognizing an Online Scam

1024px-Flickr_-_boellstiftung_-_Laptop_auf_dem_Schoß_(1)
© Stephan Röhl / Wikimedia Commons / BY-SA 3.0

First guesses are usually right—just ask any student who has ever taken a multiple choice test and changed an answer halfway through. Not surprisingly, this logic also applies when making purchases, and Better Business Bureau can help determine if gut feelings are accurate.

When consumers check with BBB to research a company, sometimes there is no report. Most of the time this simply means BBB hasn’t had a reason to interact with the business, but occasionally, it means that it is not legitimate.

For example, I recently spoke with a consumer who called BBB to verify a company’s legitimacy before making a purchase. After I was unable to locate a BBB Business Review I analyzed the business’s website. Upon inspection I noticed several red flags that made me wary of the company’s intentions:

  1. There was no contact information available.
    There are no requirements for businesses to display their contact information on websites; however, honest and transparent businesses understand that the more contact information they provide the more at ease their customers, and potential customers, will be.
  2. Everything was marked at more than 50 percent off.
    Businesses have the authority to set their own prices as long as they stay within the limitations of the law; however, legitimate businesses will be unable to stay afloat while continually selling items at a loss. This particular store sold overstock at unrealistic discounts: $2,000 items were priced around $750.
  3. BBB Accreditation couldn’t be verified.
    Eligible BBB Accredited Businesses may display their accreditation online if certain criteria are met—like displaying the correct seal and having it link directly to the appropriate BBB Business Review. While reviewing the website in question, I noticed that every page advertised BBB Accreditation, but the seal was outdated, did not link to a review and could not be verified through the BBB national database.
  4. The only accepted payment method was prepaid debit or money cards.
    Businesses have the ability to decide how they want their customers to pay for merchandise, and may refuse certain types of payment. In this case, the website only accepted Green Dot cards. Prepaid debit cards are easy money for scammers and should only be used when handling personal funds.

Any one of these red flags alone wouldn’t necessarily mean that a company is trying to scam people, but all the factors together bring suspicion. Remember, never ignore your gut and report anything that gives you hesitation.

After seeing all of the red flags on one website I strongly advised the consumer to be cautious about doing business with the company. He was inclined to agree.

It’s satisfying to know that I was right. I checked the website a few weeks later and it had already been taken down. It’s likely that the “company” collected some money from unsuspecting shoppers, left them high-and-dry and then set up a new site somewhere else.

Full Disclosure: Green Dot Corporation is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Pasadena, California.

Congratulations! You’ve Been Scammed!

Photo by Psychonaught [public domain]
Photo by Psychonaught [public domain]
I’ve always pictured my parents as invincible—two superheroes who not only gave me sound advice growing up, but were always there to pick me up when I fell. They also taught me to make smart decisions and be skeptical of too-good-to-be-true offers. So you can imagine my surprise when I received a call last week about their major life-changing event. Apparently, my Mom was the “lucky” recipient of a $500,000 sweepstakes prize! All she needed to do was pay $2,000 to cover the administrative fees.

Luckily, they called me first and never wired money or disclosed any personal information. But that one phone call really got me thinking: What if my parents had caved-in and wired money? What if they had given the caller personal information? What could have happened if the bad guys accessed my family’s bank accounts?

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens every day to unsuspecting and trusting people. Sweepstakes and lottery scams are real. The scams prey on emotions and people are quick to buy into the idea of instant wealth. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans spend more than $100 million a year on foreign lottery sweepstakes.

At this point, it’s unclear how my parent’s contact information got into the hands of the con artists; they followed the proper procedures—always researching businesses with Better Business Bureau, reading the fine print, ignoring phishing emails and telemarketers, et cetera. The worst part is that we may never know how this caller obtained the phone number. But, learning the red flags of these types of scams can reduce the likelihood of falling victim.

I reminded my parents to exercise caution and anyone who receives similar phone calls or letters should listen closely as well:

  • Never pay for a prize. It is illegal for any company to require a purchase or fee to play a sweepstakes; just ask the Washington State Attorney General. Also, processing fees or taxes will be deducted from prizes and will never need to be paid out-of-pocket.
  • Do not wire money. Wire transfers are a great way to transfer money when you need to quickly get cash to your sister in Iowa or your nephew in Florida; they are a terrible way to get money to people you don’t know and have never met in person, especially if they are “out of the country.” Once funds are transferred, it is nearly impossible to reclaim them. In this case, the scammer specifically requested a wire transfer from my Mom, but she recognized the red flag and didn’t do it.
  • Spot the fakes. Bad guys will oftentimes hijack the names of government agencies and the logos of well-known organizations in attempts to confuse and fool victims. Reputable organizations will not call or email winners; notifications will be delivered by certified mail and never by bulk-rate mail. When in doubt, call BBB or visit bbb.org to see if companies and notifications are legitimate.
  • Never cash checks. Even if checks look real, don’t cash them! Scammers often blast out extremely convincing bogus checks in hopes that even just one person will make a deposit and wire some of the money back—this is called an overpayment scam.

As awesome as it would be to win a ton of money out of the blue, it’s a pretty unlikely event. Nationally, complaints about prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries ranked #6 in 2013 with the Federal Trade Commission. Victims of mail fraud should contact their local postmasters or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by phone, toll-free at 1-800-372-8347, or online at postalinspectors.uspis.gov.

And while my blood is still boiling over the fact that someone targeted my parents, keeping a cool head is key. Whatever you do, avoid the gimmicks and hard sells and learn how to spot the red flags; this will turn you into the invincible superhero that helps others with sound advice.

Is the Amazon Refund Email in My Inbox Legit?

Exclusive

Attention readers! Any E-book purchases made between April 1, 2010, and May 21, 2012, may qualify you for a refund. And lucky for me I’m getting a whole $2.19 back!

According to the Alaska Attorney General’s Office, “Hachette Book Group Inc., HarperCollins Publishers LLC, Simon & Schuster Inc., Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, d/b/a Macmillan, and Penguin Group (USA) Inc. [have] settled the claims against them for a total nationwide payment of $166 million, of which approximately $750,000 will be distributed to Alaska residents.”

Oregon and Washington were not formally involved in the multi-state litigation process; however, residents of those states who made eligible E-book purchases are still entitled to refunds.

The case claims that the major publishers colluded—or secretly worked together in order to do something dishonest—to fix and raise the prices of digital books, which is illegal. The publishers deny the allegations but have agreed to settle the lawsuit. Note: Amazon is not a party to these lawsuits and is issuing refund credits on behalf of the publishers.

Better Business Bureau has received multiple inquiries from consumers across our service area about unexpected emails informing them of credits to their Amazon accounts. Being wary of phishing scams, many customers have reached out to BBB for verification. While BBB cannot guarantee that every email purporting to come from Amazon is legitimate, this settlement is real and refunds are being credited in March 2014.

An example of a legitimate notification email is pictured below; reports indicate that emails are also arriving from Barnes & Noble. Remember, these notifications are intended as information-only and although there may be links within them, recipients should avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments.

Amazon Settlement Email Large

A thorough FAQ from Amazon is available here. For more information on this settlement or your refund eligibility, visit ebooksagsettlements.com.

Alaska Attorney General Geraghty reiterated that “consumers are entitled to a fair, open and competitive marketplace. When a company violates the antitrust laws, consumers who have suffered as a consequence of that violation are entitled to compensation.”

Refund credit amounts are $3.17 each for New York Times Bestsellers and $0.73 each for other titles. All I can say is that this refund is perfectly-timed; I still haven’t read the latest Twilight book…

Full Disclosure: Amazon.com is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

BBB Scam Alert: Small Business Blackmail

Exclusive

When I started working at Better Business Bureau a few years ago, I considered myself a pretty sharp consumer; I knew the basic scam red flags: Requests to “verify” personal information, poor grammar, wire transfers out of the country, et cetera. But as with most things, the more I learned about effective scam tactics the more I realized how little I actually knew. The problem is that as soon as a new scam—or more often, a variation on an old scam—is recognized, the perpetrators are already moving on to the next scheme; but BBB is here to help.

A large part of my job is identifying, tracking and verifying emerging scam trends—like this phone scam, this charity scam and this door-to-door scam—that are likely to affect consumers or small businesses in Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington. Fortunately, there aren’t that many completely novel scams left, making my job just a little bit easier. However, every once in awhile I’m reminded that the scammers who commit these crimes are just as smart as the agencies that try to shut them down. The Negative Review Blackmail Scam is no exception. The following email showed up in my inbox:

A "Negative Review" Blackmail scam email.
A “Negative Review” Blackmail scam email.

TL;DR: “Pay me $1,500 or I will blast out negative reviews about your company.” and “Failure to comply means the end of your business.” Complete with a bunch of spelling and grammar mistakes…

Small Business Owners: Take these threats very seriously. Online reviews and word-of-mouth are significant factors that drive purchasing decisions and can have a considerable impact on reputations.

BBB offers advice to recipients of similar emails:

  1. Do not pay any money. It is unlikely that scammers will cease harassment once they realize that businesses are compliant.
  2. Collect all relevant information—like senders’ names, email addresses and any threats that are made—and print copies.
  3. File a report with the local police bureau; many areas have special departments for Internet crimes.
  4. File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
  5. Aggressively monitor online listings for new reviews and immediately flag those that are fraudulent or unverifiable; many review sites now offer options to report suspect reviews or blackmail. Google Alerts is a great way to monitor online mentions.
  6. Consider posting updates on social media, directory listings or other business websites to notify potential customers.
  7. Contact BBB. Many scams move from region to region and if this ploy begins to happen in our area, BBB can notify and protect other local small businesses from falling victim.

Remember, third-party review websites are not legally responsible for content that is submitted by their users so it is unlikely that expensive lawsuits would be successful; while most of these sites employ strict scrubbing policies to prevent fraud it is still estimated that fakes account for 10-30 percent of all online reviews. The most important tool that small business owners and employees have to protect livelihoods is learning how to spot fakes. Check out Consumerist’s article: 30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews

Encourage your customers to submit reviews at bbb.org, where they will be reviewed before they are posted. Verified reviews from a brand you trust.

If you have received an email like this, please share your experience in the comments.

Link Bait: The New Deceptive Advertising

© Pazo | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images
© Pazo | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

“Link baiting” is an Internet marketing tactic that is used to drive web traffic. Sometimes called “click baiting,” sensational headlines, “breaking” exclusives, popular celebrity names, numbered lists, infographics and controversy—to name a few—are the hook used to pique curiosities and compel people to click. The ultimate goal is to increase inbound links and boost search engine ranking—increasing the likelihood of showing up on the first page of Google search results, for example.

Currently, there’s a major de-bait—see what I did there?—within the marketing community about the validity of click baiting and I have to admit that I’m inclined to agree: Sensational headlines for sensational content and “breaking” exclusives for proprietary new articles are great, because that information probably can’t be found on other websites and deserves the exposure—yes, the fact that information is available other places matters because it often defines the difference between inspirational/exceptional/novel work that creates value for readers, and plain old average content.

Businesses should take notice: Link baiting can be extremely effective and completely harmless when used correctly and responsibly, allowing businesses to attract views and users to easily locate webpages they find relevant and interesting. A well-crafted title that accurately represents its content is what honest and ethical businesses should strive for and what users expect.

However, sleazy companies on the Internet understand the effectiveness of link baiting and often use this technique to trick users into visiting websites that they would otherwise never see. Many of the offenders are relatively benign, leading to low-relevance, off-topic pages full of flashy advertisements for weight loss pills and work-from-home opportunities, but on the worse end of the spectrum, link bait titles lead to dangerous foreign websites that host malware and harvest information for phishing.

Remember, think before you click!

Have you come across sketchy link bait? Share it in the comments.