For Safe Travels, Take Precautions to Avoid Scams

Image courtesy of fito | freerangestock.com
Image courtesy of fito | freerangestock.com

‘Tis the season for summer vacations! Whether traveling in your home state, throughout the U.S. or to a foreign country, taking precautions and knowing about potential scams could save you from a ruined vacation.

Book Online Securely

When booking travel arrangements and hotels online, it is safer to go to a company’s official website or call them directly. Do not click on online ads or links from emails. If using travel search engines, be wary of sites that offer prices significantly lower than other sites. If you choose to book through a third-party booking company, follow up directly with the hotel, airline or rental car company. You don’t want to find out after you arrive at a destination that the reservations were never made!

secure
URL security

Make sure you have a secure connection before entering your personal or financial information; the web address or URL should start with “https” and show a lock icon.

Always pay with a credit card when booking vacations, and make sure you receive confirmation in writing. In the event that something goes awry with your vacation, you may be able to file a chargeback with your credit card company. If you are asked to wire money for a rental, that’s a big red flag that the deal is probably not legitimate. Never wire money to someone you do not personally know and trust.

Do Your Research

BBB has seen numerous reports of vacationers arriving at their destination only to find that the rental doesn’t exist or does not resemble the photos online. Use trusted websites, ask friends for referrals or use a travel agent to ensure you’re going to get what you pay for.

Be skeptical about vacation packages that are offered online, by email or on the phone. If a cruise or resort price sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Victims are often saddled with hundreds or even thousands of dollars in additional “fees,” or the accommodations may be totally inadequate.

Also watch out for promises of “free” airline tickets—there’s always a catch. Victims are often lured with promises of free plane tickets to attend a seminar, which usually involves spending thousands of dollars to buy into a vacation club. Those tickets turn out to be only vouchers with fees that often cost more than a regularly priced plane ticket. And the vacation club? If you did buy in, you might find there are many barriers to actually booking a vacation unless you upgrade your membership or pay additional fees.

Travel Safely

Remember to notify your credit card companies before you leave, especially if you are traveling to foreign countries. There aren’t many things more frustrating and inconvenient than having your credit card declined while traveling because the company thinks it’s being used fraudulently.

During travel and once you arrive at your destination, surf cautiously on public Wi-Fi networks (e.g. hotels, airports, coffee shops, libraries). Avoid file sharing and financial transactions, and disconnect when not in use. Be wary of hotel lobby computers available for guests. Identity thieves have been known to add keyloggers onto public computers that track passwords. Believe it or not, your smartphone’s 3G or 4G may be more secure.

While staying in a hotel, carefully scrutinize any menus that are slipped under your door. Fraudsters sometimes use phony menus to trick a guest into calling them to order food, and the consumer ends up giving his credit card information to identity thieves. And of course, no food will be delivered.

Beware of fake front desk phone calls, especially late at night. A scammer pretending to be hotel staff will claim there was a problem with your credit card, and ask you to confirm your card details over the phone. Don’t do it! Personally check with the front desk in the morning to correct any billing issues.

At the end of your hotel stay, check your final bill. Watch for fees that you didn’t incur, such as minibar purchases or TV on-demand movie rentals.


Be vigilant and careful when planning your vacation, and then go and have a wonderful time!

How My Dream Wedding Gown Turned into a Nightmare

Image courtesy of Rosen Georgiev | FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Rosen Georgiev | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I love to save money. So when it came time to buy my wedding dress, I was determined to get the deal of a lifetime.

My quest took me to the Internet where I dutifully typed in the designer and style number of the gown of my dreams. Immediately tons of search results filled my screen with prices that were incredibly cheap. All of a sudden, my $3,000 gown could be mine for a mere $400. Done! I entered my credit card information, name and address and hit the “Buy” button. The website warned me that it would take up to a month before my dress arrived. No problem—I’d placed the order well in advance, so I figured I had plenty of time.

Three months later, I was still waiting for my gown.

Panicked, I started emailing the company, asking when I would receive my dress. No response. I called and got the runaround—not to mention the language barrier that comes with buying from an online retailer overseas.

Then, by some miracle, the dress finally arrived at my doorstep. But my relief quickly vanished when I saw that the gown was stuffed into a dingy bag barely bigger than a freezer bag and smelled like a musty basement. Inside I found a cheap, counterfeit dress that looked nothing like the pictures of the gown I had seen online. The material was flimsy, the sewing was poorly done and it didn’t fit.

Sadly, it was too late for me to get another dress, and of course no one returned my calls when I tried to get a refund.

Learn from my mistake. Get your gown from a trusted bridal shop—or if you order online, do your research first and read reviews. I wish I had known back then that BBB has a list of Accredited Businesses specifically in the wedding industry. That would’ve saved me a lot of trouble and heartache.

Counterfeit gowns are just one of the many areas engaged couples need to beware of as they’re planning for their big day. You can read all about the latest wedding scams and how to avoid them here.

What stresses you out the most when it comes to planning your wedding? Take our Facebook poll!

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.

Cyber Security Is Important for Small Businesses

Image courtesy of Pexels.com
Image courtesy of Pexels.com

Reposted from my column in the Portland Business Tribune.

We’ve all heard about the cyber attacks on large businesses—including Home Depot, Anthem and Target—but small businesses are actually the most common targets of online scam artists.

According to StaySafeOnline.org, 71 percent of data breaches happen to small businesses, and nearly half of all small businesses have been the victim of a cyber attack. Visa Inc reports that 95 percent of credit card breaches it discovers are from its smallest business customers.

Criminals are attracted to small businesses for three reasons:

  1. Due to a lack of resources, they are less equipped to handle an attack.
  2. The information hackers want—credit card credentials, intellectual property, personally identifiable information—is often less guarded on a small business system.
  3. Small businesses’ partnerships with larger businesses provide back-channel access to a hacker’s true targets.

Protecting personal information should be a high priority for any business. A data breach is not just a financial problem, but it will make customers lose trust in a business. Your customers will stop coming to you if they don’t believe their information is safe in your hands. Among small businesses that suffer a breach, a staggering 60 percent will go out of business in six months, according to Experian.

To protect your business and your customers, it is imperative you have safe-measures in place as well as a plan for recovery in the event of a cyber attack. Consider the tips below, and read Better Business Bureau’s comprehensive guide on data security for businesses at bbb.org/data-security.

Minimize what you save. Don’t collect or keep any information you don’t absolutely need. When information is no longer needed, make sure it is destroyed responsibly.

Restrict access. Limit access to data to only the people who need the information in order to do their jobs. Sensitive electronic information should be encrypted, and portable electronic devices should be secured. Any paper records should be locked up when not in use.

Use strong passwords. Never use the default password provided by your IT person or service provider. Each computer user at your company should have his or her own unique password. Never use simple passwords such as your name, your business name, “12345,” “ABCDE” or “password,” and never use the same password for multiple accounts. Strong passwords include a combination of numbers, letters and symbols, and they should be changed every 60 days.

Block intruders. Use up-to-date antivirus protection and firewalls. Most antivirus programs will automatically update the software as new viruses and spyware become known, but you should also run a full scan for viruses and spam at least once a week. Make sure your Internet connection is secure, and keep any guest Wi-Fi networks completely separate from the rest of your networks. Be aware that personal websites, including social networks, can be a gateway for malware and viruses; use business computers for business-only purposes.

Share with caution. Use a secure connection, such as SSL technology, when transmitting data over the Internet. Do not transmit sensitive information via email unless it is encrypted. When mailing physical records, use a security envelope, request package tracking and require the recipient to sign for the package.

Back up information. Back up data on all computers automatically, or at least weekly, including word processing documents, spreadsheets, databases, financial records and human resources files. Store backups in a secure location that is offsite or in the cloud.

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.

New Scam Targeting Soldiers with USAA Hits Instagram

Reposted from Guardian of Valor.

We received several emails about people on Instagram posing as Soldiers and telling others that they can make them a lot of money if they used USAA Banking. So we went to Instagram and reached out to one of these scammers just to see what they would say.

The person goes by the screen name ladyusaa, and claims her real name is Ciara Taylor and she is currently serving in the Army Reserves. So we looked up the name, and no one by that name is currently serving in the reserves. The account has several photos of a female, one in uniform, more than likely the photos are stolen.

We initiated contact by requesting to follow her on Instagram as her account is private, it took no time for her to approve and we noticed she had more than 3k followers. We took some snapshots of the account which you can see below.

We also found the photo of the female in uniform, which looks to be a legit Soldier, just doesn’t belong to the person running this account. I am sure someone will recognize this Soldier and let her know her photos have been stolen and used in a scam.

The account was full of screenshots of real USAA accounts with supposed deposits of different amounts. We blocked out the account numbers as we don’t know who these accounts belong to.

This person makes it a point to reach out to Military personnel, we initiated contact by sending a few direct messages through Instagram, they responded and asked us to text them.

The number itself comes back to a Sprint/NexTel phone out of Davenport, Iowa. So we played along and began texting them to get more information.

We stopped communicating when they asked for our Username and Password for our online USAA account. This scam is rampant on Instagram and Facebook at the moment, and yes people are falling for it. Never give your UN and PW to anyone for anything; USAA will also never ask you for that information. I am not exactly sure what these scammers are doing, whether its cleaning out the accounts, or depositing fake checks that later bounce causing the account to go negative.

If they have access to your account, they can use mobile deposit, deposit a fake check, then have you send them half of the money. Once the check bounces you are responsible for the amount plus overdraft charges.

Remember, nothing in this world is free! If it sounds to good to be true, it more than likely is! Share this around so we can make sure no one else falls for this scam.

Don’t Lose When It Comes to Buying Gameday Seahawks Tickets

Image courtesy of sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com

Have you seen the price for Seahawks playoff tickets? It’s crazy—some are going as high as $5,000 each! I don’t blame people for resorting to the online classifieds to find cheap tickets or wheeling-and-dealing with a scalper at the stadium. But I do question how often people let their guard down and throw caution to the wind.

Last year I worked with a news station on a story about fake tickets being sold to the NFC Championship game against the Niners. The station interviewed a guy who bought tickets from someone posting on Craigslist. The buyer thought he was doing everything right. He arranged to meet the man in public on game day, obtained a copy of his driver’s license and inspected the tickets before handing over several hundred dollars in cash. But when the unlucky fan went to the ticket gate, he was turned away because the tickets were fake.

Surprisingly this happens a lot every year, and most cases seem to go unreported. Even though the buyer did everything right in his mind, he still got ripped off. Not only were the tickets fake, but so was the seller’s ID.

The message here is simple. If you buy tickets from an individual or non-verified reseller, you’re rolling the dice. I mean, is it really worth the extra hundred dollars you might save on a ticket if you’re not 100% sure the tickets are real? I guess it depends on whom you ask.

I know one person who made a scalper walk into the stadium first before buying the ticket. He wanted to verify if it was the real deal. It was a gutsy move that worked—but I seriously doubt any ticket seller, legitimate or not, would actually take the time to do that. My suggestion is to stick with the basics:

  • Look for BBB’s seal when buying tickets from an online broker. Use verifiable ticket sellers and resellers that hold vendors responsible to ticket authenticity.
  • Avoid shady transactions where sellers fail to provide contact information or prefer to conduct business in private. Never wire money or fill up a prepaid debit card as a method of payment.
  • Know how an actual playoff ticket looks and feels. Steer clear of tickets printed on flimsy paper, with smeared ink and uneven margins. When in doubt, just walk away.

Sometimes our emotions get the better of us and we want to believe the deal we are seeing is legit. But I caution anyone interested in buying playoff tickets to first take a deep breath, come up with a plan, prepare to call an audible and don’t get blitzed by a scammer wanting to make a buck. Don’t be like the guy interviewed on the news last year—he ended up listening to the game on the radio on his way home from the stadium.

To see more tips on how to avoid getting ripped off during football season, check us out on Facebook and BBB’s Social Hub.

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.

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.

7 Tips for Writing Good Online Reviews

Writing an accurate and effective review can be tough.
Writing an accurate and effective review can be tough.

Are you interested in writing reviews that people will actually read? Are you interested in helping people make better-informed purchasing decisions? As with any skill, understanding the fundamentals is key.  And as my elementary school principal use to say: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

More and more people are turning to online reviews when researching products and services; and with thousands of new reviews posted every month, it’s an unfortunate truth that many of them are just plain unhelpful. BBB offers seven tips for writing good online reviews:

  1. Never write anything while upset. This may seem like obvious advice, but take some time—at least 24 hours—before sitting down to draft that sternly-worded review. A good review conveys objective facts about experiences; venting anger, frustration and sarcasm can make you feel better but will cloud reviews with emotions/opinions that probably won’t be very helpful to readers.
  2. Be realistic. It’s unlikely that the meal you just had was the “WORST THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE;” if your experience was less than perfect, explain why. Choose descriptions that actually describe and avoid subjective terms like “best/worst” and hyperbole.
  3. Talk about the entire experience. If the staff was unfriendly, include that in your review; but also add that the facilities were clean and the service was prompt. A lie of omission is still a lie. Again, readers of your review are seeking accurate descriptions of what to expect and this is where you can really shine.
  4. Leave out names. It’s tempting to blast the employee that was rude or the server that brought the wrong order, but that information does little to help readers. Focus on what happened rather than on who was involved.
  5. Highlight your credentials. Why should someone take your review more seriously than the one right after yours? Take a sentence or two to explain who you are and why you are an authority on this industry. On the other hand, stating that you are new to this type of transaction will help others avoid similar mistakes or misunderstandings.
  6. Address the other side of the story. Place yourself on the other side of the issue and consider the possible reasons for your experience—good or bad. Showing a little bit of understanding can go a long way in validating your review as honest and authentic.
  7. Check your spelling. It’s silly that this point makes the list, but a quick scan of any review site makes it obvious that many people to not take the time to edit properly. Obvious spelling and grammar mistakes distract readers from the review’s message. I personally skip to the next review at the first spelling mistake; I figure that if the person doesn’t care enough to make a professional effort, then the review probably isn’t that important.

A good review will tell a story about a personal experience; others may have significantly different stories. Remember, the most important part of writing a good review is being honest.

Do you feel empowered to write some effective and helpful reviews? You’re in luck! BBB now accepts customer reviews—positive and negative—on more than 360,000 local businesses. Get started at bbb.org.