A Consumer Action News Alert • January 2020
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!
  Call us Nostradamus  
  You've probably seen the hype over the harms of abbreviating 2020 at the end of checks and other financial and legal documents; even the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has cautioned that mischief-makers need only add two digits to the dates written on your docs (causing "1/16/20" to become "1/16/2021," for instance) to make you "vulnerable to an array of fraud." We haven't heard of this actually happening, however, so if you're worried about fraud in the new year, you should probably focus on these cruel and convincing new(er) cons: deep fakes, which use artificial intelligence to closely imitate human likenesses and voices (recently responsible for a CEO losing $243,000!); identity theft fallout from a slew of massive (and ongoing) data breaches; and hackers using smart TVs, in-home cameras and even "connected" home lighting systems to gain access to (and control over) your life. We can also predict an inevitable barrage of bogus texts, emails and calls asking you to donate to 2020 "political candidates" (via, for instance, perfectly reproduced copycat websites), as well as new and nefarious uses for electronic payment platforms (e.g., Zelle) through which criminals can directly access your bank and other online accounts. If the future freaks you out, check out the BBB's "Top Ten New Year's Resolutions" for savvy consumers, which includes "freezing" your credit (to combat data breaches), using multi-factor authentication to access important accounts, and other timely tips.  
  It's all about you  
  Scammers have become more brazen than the creepy stalker in the popular Netflix series You. In addition to showing up at victims' front doors to collect their ill-gotten gains, these villains are blowing up targets' cell phones by sending them all sorts of weird, uncomfortable personal information (just to show that they "know"). One Utah lawmaker's wife even lost more than $150,000 after con artists called her at home and warned that a drug cartel was watching her family. The solution to this, of course, was to wire the callers money. The really disturbing part that convinced the woman to send it? One caller "somehow knew that she was currently watching her grandchildren" and warned her not to say anything about the money transfer, including to "her husband" (who he seemed eerily familiar with). The criminal then outdid himself, emailing this terrified grandma a "warrant" for her arrest that included her birthdate, address, phone number and even full SSN. (There's a silver lining, however: In perhaps one of the most romantic--and forgiving--statements ever made, the woman's husband gushed: "I'm [now] in a unique position where I get to express to my wife, 'My love for you is greater and more important than all the money--our entire savings--and you are more important.'" (Swoon!) But back to reality: You should know that scammers know way too much these days (with much of the info available online and from breached information sold on the Dark Web). And they will go to insane lengths to use the private info they collect to shake you down (like these virtual kidnappers who spoofed a sister's cell number, and, it appears, even used voice-altering technology to sound more like the sibling!). So, what should you do? Call the police--and whatever you do, do not pay scammers!
  One-stop shops  
Desperate measures. In an era of ever-increasing drug costs, out-of-control insurance companies and physician bias, many have taken health matters into their own hands. Just in time, the National Consumers League (NCL) has launched a "Fake Rx Action Center" to help those buying meds--particularly through online pharmacies--to steer clear of dangerous counterfeit products (such as pills laced with illicit fentanyl, which have been found in almost every state). Side note: If you're worried about fentanyl in your drugs, the Harm Reduction Coalition offers advice. Thankfully, NCL's life-saving resource helps visitors learn to identify real online pharmacies by outlining how the pharmaceuticals sold will usually require a prescription and a meaningful consultation with a medical professional--even if this originates from a licensed online prescriber--and how legit pharmacies typically offer the services of an actual pharmacist. Want to see if a specific pharmacy is deemed safe? NCL recommends utilizing the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy's Safe Pharmacy tool.
Heads up! The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is partnering with the U.S. Census Bureau to bring attention to the issue of fraud during the 2020 national census. The head count will be happening in the spring, when the Bureau delivers invitations to participate before knocking on doors and calling the willing to ask them questions about the composition of their households. Of course, this leaves the door open for imposters to pretend to be census takers in order to ask probing questions about your personal and financial info. While the FTC states that "census takers [who come to your door] must show a photo ID with the U.S. Department of Commerce seal and an expiration date," this can easily be re-created by a crafty con artist. (And Bureau phone numbers can be spoofed.) More important to know: Census takers will never ask for your full SSN, your financial info (bank account or credit card numbers) or for any money. Learn more about how census employees have committed to protecting your privacy at the new online census center.
There can be only one. The Consumer Federation of America's IDTheftInfo.org is a one-stop shop offering you everything you need to know to combat--you guessed it--ID theft! The site features a "latest news" section highlighting timely issues such as free credit monitoring services for vulnerable servicemembers, and how to safely dispose of your personal information (including stuff stored in old cell phones and computers). The online resource also offers specific info on the various types of ID theft you may be so unfortunate as to encounter--from data breaches to stolen SSNs--and links to other organizations and partnerships providing help with--you guessed it again--ID theft! This includes the Identity Theft Council, which offers a free hotline to call and speak to a live counselor if you've been victimized (888-400-5530), and the federal IDTheft.gov, which allows you to report a crime (through the site) and quickly receive a "recovery plan" tailored to your specific situation.
You're their mark. A SCAM GRAM reader from Pennsylvania wants us to warn others of how she was caught up in a fake check scam that's been running on the "social commerce" website Poshmark. The site allows users to buy and sell clothing, shoes and other fashion items. While it's incredibly easy to snap a few photos of that overpriced handbag you received for Christmas, post it on Posh and make hundreds of dollars in a day, it's also easy for bogus "buyers" to convince you that they'll pay even more than your asking price if you'll just "take a check" (as opposed to more immediate payment over Venmo, PayPal or the like). Oftentimes, the scammers will write a bad check for way, way more than the amount due, claim it was a mistake, and ask for "money back" after you've deposited it but before the bank tells you it's bogus (which can take weeks). Other times, they may rely on you to send the item you're selling before you realize the check is bad. The woman who approached us is, sadly, out $700, and her bank account is overdrawn. Her bank (as is typical in these cases) refused to reimburse her the money she lost. Most online consignment platforms have an "escrow" type of service that holds those funds deposited through the platform (via approved methods such as credit card, PayPal, etc.) until the recipient receives the purchased item--whether you are a buyer or a seller, this service can protect you. Learn more about fake check fraud here.

"With his mind on your money and your money on his mind." Hey Snoop D-O-double-G, don't you get enough income from the music industry? Yes--that was our attempt at rhyming; we're admittedly not as talented as Snoop. Which is why it's sad that the veteran rapper/actor/Martha Stewart BFF has been shilling on social media for a deceptive debt relief operation that goes by the name of "Debt Council." Snoop appeared in the Council's ads targeting desperate debtors, who, he said, could qualify for a government program (that doesn't actually exist) to get "thousands of your dollars" "back" on money owed. Facebook, to its credit, removed the ads and associated pages after ruling they constituted "deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to scam people out of money or personal information." This may not be the last you see of Snoop D-O-Double-G (or other celebs shilling for dubious "causes"), so beware!
Draft dodgers. Cell phone holders across the country have been receiving alarming texts proclaiming that they've been drafted for the military ("for immediate departure to Iran") and threatening that if they don't call the phone numbers associated with the mobile missives, and/or proceed to the nearest "branch," they'll be fined and/or jailed. You won't have to argue that your bone spurs are keeping you from battle, however, since the real "draft" (the Selective Service) ended in the 1970s. The Selective Service office has been speaking out against the threatening texts, as well as warning of additional imposter websites that are attempting to charge people to "register" for the draft. (The real Selective Service System can be accessed at https://sss.gov.) Fortunately, it looks like the draft deceivers have picked the wrong fight: Uncle Sam is hunting down the robo-texters responsible, and, if found--big if--they could be the first to be punished under the recently-passed TRACED Act, which allows the government to fine robo-texters/callers $10,000 per illegal text/call!
Wrap it up. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently issued a warning to travelers and anyone who uses public spaces (so, pretty much everyone): Steer clear of free charging stations. "Juice jacking" is the alliterative term being used to describe how criminals are putting the squeeze on those with low batteries, via the USB cords often found hanging from the cell phone/laptop/tablet kiosks. While these docking stations have been popular in airports for some time now, their presence is growing fast in (not dead) malls, trendy hotels, and even on public transportation. Unfortunately, personal data, passwords and more can be siphoned out of your phone via the pins at the business end of the USB cords, so go against the flow and use your own portable charger, or power up by connecting to a wall outlet (the old-fashioned way). If you have to hook up with a dirty dock, stay safe: The New York Times recommends using a "USB condom" (you read that right) to protect your device.
Money pit. If you reply to a rental listing and get an email stating that an owner is looking for a "responsible person" to rent his house while he "stays in Africa" (real example), you're probably going to suspect it's a scam. Often, however, rental scams aren't so easy to ID. The BBB's new study "Is That Rental Listing Real?" reveals that, no, there's a good chance it's not. And you could fall for it. While most of us picture seedy fake apartment listings on Craigslist, the BBB reveals that rental scams are pervasive even on what are widely considered "classier" house hunting sites like Zillow or Realtor.com. (Although, Craigslist is problematic; it only catches around 46% of fake rental ads.) Unbeknownst to many, often the fake (yet convincing) property being advertised isn't even the scam part; it's just the bait being dangled to con them into signing up for a fake credit check/score (allegedly to determine if they're "eligible" to rent, but really to procure their personal info). Sadly, it's younger people (often those hunting for their first apartment) who most often fall victim to these scams. If you know any recent college grads looking for a cheap place to call home, call them up and let them know that roaches and bad roommates may be the least of their worries!