A Consumer Action News Alert • November 2019
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!
  How to lose your mind in 10 days  
  Imagine this scenario: The clock is ticking down. You have 10 days to prove to a recalcitrant bank that hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars were stolen from your account by scammers through the new(ish) digital payment app Zelle. Now imagine that the banker on the phone hasn't even heard of Zelle, and the institution investigating your claim does not want to lose a dime. This is the kind of frustrating financial fiasco that many people--including those who have never heard of Zelle, let alone downloaded the app--are increasingly experiencing. The scenario? Scammers have heard of Zelle, and are downloading the app, signing up in the name of a bank customer, instructing that a text code designed to combat fraud be sent to the customer's phone, and then (and here's the clincher) calling the customer, pretending to be with the bank and obtaining the code. The con artists then use this "multifactor authentication" texted code to log in to Zelle, connect to the consumer's bank account and drain the funds. We're sure there are additional ways to gain access, but NBC details the above in a shocking article that outlines just how many customers never knew of the app before checking their bank accounts and finding that thousands had been siphoned out. And, as if this weren't enough, journalist Bob Sullivan reveals how the banks are less than helpful when this occurs. Sullivan has been "writing about the mishandling of Zelle fraud claims by big banks for more than a year now," so if you find yourself in a Zellish situation, check out his tips for how to dispute the fraudulent transaction and, hopefully, get your money back!  
  It didn't look anything like the photos  
  Airbnb has its work cut out for it after the once-snarky, now serious reporting vehicle VICE published an in-depth article on how the online home/room rental service has seemingly knowingly allowed a massive web of scams to proliferate for years on its platform. The article would have been totally devastating if it weren't for the author's reassurance at the end that she would still be using Airbnb, because why stay in a Marriott when you can relax in a fashionable hobbit house nestled into a hillside along the "breathtaking Columbia River Gorge"? We get it. But Airbnb really does need to get its you-know-what together. The "web of deception" that VICE discovered "appeared to span eight cities and nearly 100 property listings" and revolved around hard-to-identify criminals working within "large rental companies" that "profit off Airbnb by creating pseudonyms that helped them appear to be normal homeowners." These "homeowners" advertise attractive properties, only to claim, after the customer has booked, that there is a problem (e.g., "plumbing issues") and the customer must stay at a neighboring property (i.e., a total flophouse.) Fortunately, Airbnb, likely freaking out, took only a week to respond to the article with the following policy change: "Beginning on December 15, 2019, if upon checking into a listing it does not meet our accuracy standards, Airbnb will rebook the guest a new listing of equal or greater value, or they will get 100% of their money back." This, of course, begs the question: "Why were defrauded Airbnb users not being refunded in the first place?" Also, moving forward, will Airbnb's standards be high enough to clear out the internal rot? And is the company really going to be able to investigate all 7 million of its listings, as they've also promised? We hope so. Good luck, Airbnb!  
  Insidious impersonators  
Shut up and take my money! We've written about how the unregulated world of cryptocurrencies is pretty much the Wild, Wild West of investing. These digital dollars include Bitcoin, Ether and the like, and are typically kept in online "wallets" and traded/used to purchase goods via online platforms. Now that cryptocurrency investing is huge, digital currency crimes are as prolific as the day is long, and include among their ranks what some are calling "the biggest financial fraud in history." But one type is particularly insidious: the impersonator scam. This con is often committed via Twitter, as thieves create lookalike accounts for "cryptocelebs" like Elon Musk and, more recently, Litecoin creator Charlie Lee and ex-Facebook founder/"Bitcoin Billionaire" Cameron Winklevoss. The digital doppelgängers will use the public figure's real photo/likeness and a similar profile name to "advise" followers to deposit their cyber-cash into accounts that they can control. Unfortunately, thinking it's a "big deal investment opportunity" recommended by an expert/celeb, many followers enthusiastically jump at the chance. Fake social media accounts abound (and many look pretty convincing), so, as a rule: Do not invest or give access to your cryptocurrency from a link or message that you come across on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever cool new platform the "kids" are using these days.

Name-drop much? Most people ignore the trashy click-bait ads at the bottom of local news sites, but the editor of Consumer World decided to click on one touting singer Kelly Clarkson's "105 lb" weight loss. That led him down a virtual rabbit hole; first, to an article explaining how Clarkson "accomplished" such a feat via weight loss pills recommended by her friend Ellen DeGeneres, natch! Then, to an accompanying ad for the pills, where the curious consumer advocate promptly discovered that buying what were billed as $4.95 "Keto" capsules would immediately commit the purchaser to a 14-day "free" trial period, at the end of which they would promptly be billed a whopping $89.99 (every month, ad infinitum, until they called a toll-free number that no one would answer, in a futile attempt to "cancel" the payment). The Clarkson con isn't unique: Fake celeb endorsements of rubbish products plague the internet, with "Dr. Oz" apparently marketing "male enhancement" meds (poor fellow!) and "Tom Hanks" hawking the cure for diabetes (he's a good actor, but....). All this jives with a newly-released Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report showing that the most common type of mass market fraud is weight-loss products--a category including everything from supplements and creams to body wraps and "earrings"; we'll be honest, we're not even sure how this last one works. Remember: If the weight loss plan seems too good to be true, it is!
Santa maybe. Black Friday, Cyber Monday...These aren't actually days anymore; they've become entire weeks of mass consumption. While the internet delivers the season's many deals to your doorstep, fake retailers are also reaching consumers, particularly via social media ads and posts. Watch your back because they can be convincing! Even if it seems like Santa himself is making the sale this season, research the company selling the product before making that impulse buy; it's amazing what a simple Google search can reveal! But be careful about Googling a retailer and absentmindedly clicking on the first link that pops up, as it could be a bogus site, which is why it's best to doublecheck the URL and/or type it in yourself. Only make purchases on websites boasting "https" in the URL (the "s" means a secure, encrypted connection, so that a scammer can't intercept your credit card info over the World Wide Web). And if you get an out-of-the-blue call or email claiming there's an issue with your Amazon or other online shopping account, hang up or scroll on.
Bad influence(r). When you think "social media influencer," you may think "narcissistic Instagram addict," or simply "annoying buzzword," but influencers have a real, legal definition. According to the FTC, they are people who have a material connection, defined as a "personal, family or employment relationship, or a financial relationship," with a brand they're endorsing. The FTC has a message for these ultra-chic messengers: Remember, as you're #LivingYourBestLife, that you are still "subject to liability for false or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements, or for failing to disclose material connections."
Frequent liar. Fraud.org is cautioning that, due to the innumerable data breaches that consumers have suffered, travelers' 14 trillion frequent flier miles are at risk of being spirited away by criminals who purchase the fliers' usernames and passwords off the dark web. The underground selling of personal information means that even if you're confident that your frequent flier account has never suffered a breach, if you're using the same login info for this account as you've used for another that has been hacked, you could be in trouble. Fraud.org's parent, the National Consumers League, offers a few commonsense ways to avoid becoming a victim of frequent flier fraud, including one we find particularly appealing: Use your points! Maybe it's finally time to take that trip to the Bahamas that you've been putting off?
Heaven help us! Another day, another Netflix phishing scam. (First-time SCAM GRAM reader? Phishing involves emails that appear to come from a legitimate source, but...don't.) The latest email is targeting the millions of Netflix customers who just want to cozy up on the couch to watch the new season of The Good Place. Unfortunately, they'll be taken to a bad place if they believe their account has been suspended and click on a link to reactivate it. Don't believe us? Just try it! Wait--don't. These types of emails often download malware to your computer, which could siphon your personal or financial information or put you in a situation where you're locked out of your device and subject to a ransom demand if you want to regain entry. Or, they may simply take you to a site that looks like Netflix (but isn't), in an attempt to "log you in" to steal your username and password.
Be all that you can be. Veterans Day has come and gone, but scams that target veterans and members of the military are still booming. To combat this troubling trend, MilitaryConsumer.gov offers info on the crimes common to those who are serving or have served our country, including ones related to deployment, change of station, predatory lending, etc. The website also outlines your financial rights as a servicemember or vet. (Hint: You enjoy some "perks" that civilians do not.) Speaking of perks, as of last month, active duty servicemembers can benefit from free electronic credit monitoring to alert you to, well, weird stuff on your credit report that could indicate a scammer is attempting to open a credit card, take out a home loan, buy a car, etc. in your name. The FTC's site has more information on how to activate the alerts from the three major credit bureaus.
Dō-NotTERRA. The New York Times has created a new blog, called "Scam or Not," that offers much-needed "fact-based information on wellness trends." The blog explores such questions as: Are there benefits to taking fish oil ("maybe just eat a fish once in a while"); taking CBD (we need randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies to know for sure); and drinking kombucha (maybe if you're a masochist). Check it out, and avoid falling prey to pervasive and obnoxious wellness industry hype. (No, Karen, your DōTERRA essential oils won't cure cancer!)