A Consumer Action News Alert • March 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!

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  Centering on the census  
  The 2020 census is starting now! Or, as Maryland's attorney general calls it, the "wonderful opportunity for people who try to steal your money or steal your identity." We know there are gonna be people who think they can protect themselves by ignoring the census altogether--bad idea! As another Maryland official explains, the census may seem boring, but it's kind of a big deal. As a matter of fact, the once-a-decade national head count really matters for "communities locally to get the resources for schools, libraries, roads, [and] also for our representation in Congress." So, how can you avoid becoming a number in a scammer's victim count while still being counted? First, know that you can choose to answer census questions in person or online or via phone. So if someone comes to your house claiming to be a census worker and they're acting kind of strange, just tell them you're going to fill the census out online instead. You can also demand to see their ID, which they will have if they're legit, and which will display a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, among other things. If census questions start to get too personal--e.g., "What's your Social Security number?"--end the line of questioning right away, as it's a scam. (Also, there should no longer be a question about the "number of idiots" in your household--that was the 1840 census.) As a rule, never give out your personal or financial info, whether IRL ("in real life," in case you were wondering) or by email, phone, text, etc. Also important to know: The U.S. census is not affiliated with any political party, it will not include questions pertaining to citizenship, and you absolutely do not need to present a driver's license or other identification to participate, nor should you answer any questions regarding your work schedule, when you'll be home or traveling, etc. For a list of questions the census does ask, click here. Finally, if you suspect a census scam, call the U.S. Census Bureau at 844-330-2020 to report it.  
No silver bullet. Silver may kill vampires, but the peer-reviewed scientific studies proving that it eradicates the coronavirus are lacking. Which is why the FTC has warned seven sellers, including Vital Silver and the Jim Bakker Show (featuring disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker) to stop peddling products like colloidal silver (or as Bakker calls his concoction, the "Silver Solution"). While you might be willing to buy just about anything to kill the coronavirus--particularly if you're in an at-risk demographic--the FTC and FDA have a good point: Since there are "no approved vaccines, drugs or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus," being led to believe these exist can cause sick people to avoid proven medical treatment, such as in-hospital supportive care for the deadly pneumonia that can accompany an infection. And, while we all may be praying we won't catch it, we're rejecting the prescription offered by Charismatic Movement televangelist Kenneth Copeland's marathon prayer session (tweeted by @RightWingWatch). If you really must "put your hand on that television set," please wipe the screen first!
Newsmax has trouble with facts. Conspiracy-theory-minded media outlet Newsmax has been infecting its mostly 55+ audience with unhealthy "medical advice" for some time now. But an email sent from the group earlier this month, entitled "How to survive the coronavirus outbreak," takes the cake, declaring in no uncertain terms that the "WORST thing" readers can do to survive COVID-19 is to....wait for it...get a COVID-19 vaccine, which doesn't even exist! It seems that Newsmax needs a new editor, because the email's subject line contains a major typo: It should read: "How to survive die in the coronavirus outbreak," since, in addition to labeling all vaccines a hoax, it goes on to insist that you can simply "train your body to deny infection"--by buying a book that recommends a plant-based diet and, of course, paying for a subscription to access more Newsmax nonsense. As the New York Times points out, there's "plenty of misinformation" surrounding immune-system boosting, but concerned consumers should stick to tried-and-true tactics (e.g., adequate sleep and a balanced diet).
And another thing... We can't even begin to cover the many virulent coronavirus cons circulating among the general population. But we'll try! Most prolific are imposters claiming to be with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or World Health Organization (WHO) and offering "warnings" or "help" that ultimately require you to: a) give out personal or financial information, perhaps by inputting it into a lookalike "government" or other website, or b) unwittingly download malware by clicking on links or attachments in emails (e.g., quarantine alerts). The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also is warning of online promotions "claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure coronavirus, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result." (Shameless opportunist? Click here for the SEC's advice on how to recognize fraudsters offering to help you profit from the pandemic.) Finally, feel free to throw shade at the many outlandish claims about the virus (read: conspiracy theories) circulating on social media and among dubious digital "media" sources. And while you're giving the ridiculous tweets an eye roll, head to the website of  WHO--which works on the front lines in the battle against the bug--and share their "myth busters" page instead. Finally, watch out for worthless face masks, price gouging and phony charities.
Special delivery. The 109,000 victims who lost $153 million to criminals that used Western Union to commit wire fraud from 2014 to early 2017 will soon be "made whole"--the legal lingo for getting their money back. If you didn't file a claim with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by its 2018 deadline, none of this applies to you. But if you did, you should start checking the mail for your refund check, which, according to WesternUnionRemission.com, will be cut for the "full amount" of your losses. (Oh, happy day!) This is one of several rounds of mailings, however, so have patience if you don't see the check right away. Also, the powers that be will continue to "review petitions" for refunds, and, in the coming months, will likely notify even more victims who had, again, already filed that they will be getting a check. Not familiar with this case? The FTC came down hard on Western Union in 2017, suing the company for looking the other way as "its system facilitated scammers and rip-offs." For a list of other recent FTC cases resulting in refunds, click here.  
Be prepared to prepare. As most of us are all too aware, it's tax time. (Forgot about filing? Sorry to be the one to remind you. You have until April 15.) In addition to having to, you know, do taxes, this is the season when we also have to steer clear of tricksters of all types who are trying to take our refunds (if we're fortunate enough to get a refund) or simply steal our identities. Thankfully, the IRS has released some new "tax tips" to help protect the public against identity theft; safeguard our electronic filing identification numbers (EFINs); recognize the signs of a call from an imposter posing as a government tax collector; and more. CNET has also published a comprehensive article on what we can expect when it comes to tax scams this year. Don't be unprepared this tax season: Do your taxes, and your due diligence.
It hurts just to listen to this. Chronic pain patients have it bad enough without fraudsters attempting to fleece them for trying to "quell" the pain. But that's what a company called Quell did, making unsubstantiated claims that its $300-plus TENS unit device would cause the release of "natural pain blockers" that would result in miraculous body-wide relief for complex chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia--conditions that typically require medication to manage pain and cannot be remedied with an electrical pulse placed, oddly, behind the knee. Quell even went so far as to boast that its device was FDA-approved, which was false, and foolish to boot, as claims implicating the government are sure to catch the ear of government regulators! Mercifully, the FTC quelled the pain of having to endure such obnoxious claims by securing a settlement under which the company will pay $4 million to refund those it defrauded. The settlement also bars Quell from making any painfully inaccurate assertions in the future.
WaWHAT!? If you're "obsessed" with convenience store Wawa's built-to-spec sandwiches and considerable coffee bar, you're one of the millions who should keep a close eye on your credit cards. Last year, card-stealing malware was running in the background on Wawa's in-store payment processing system for nine-plus months (long enough to gestate a human baby) before the company discovered it! The resulting breach has given birth to the sale of caches of customer card data by criminals operating on the dark web via what KrebsOnSecurity calls "popular fraud bazaar[s]." Our advice? Order a free copy of your credit report--and put a freeze on your credit--if you ran your card at Wawa between March 4, 2019 and Dec. 12, 2019.