A Consumer Action News Alert • July 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!
  Caught in the crossfire  
  If you really want to "rage read" something (as if there's not already enough bad news), check out these Washington Post and New York Times articles on recently jobless people who have lost their cars and even homes (!) after being given the runaround by state unemployment insurance offices when seeking the unemployment benefits they're owed. Bureaucrats are blaming the delays on scammers who have been stealing millions in benefits by assuming the beneficiaries' identities. States are positively freaking out, with some calling in the National Guard to help with the widespread identity theft as scammers "hide in a torrent of benefit requests," while others stop payment to applicants completely--including to those who have been able to prove they are who they say they are, and are unquestionably entitled to and desperately need their unemployment benefits. The situation has gotten so bad that one woman who hadn't received a response from unemployment for months ended up sleeping in a tent and using Starbucks Wi-Fi to check her status daily in the hope she'd been approved! Many of the people whose identities have been stolen are ones who've fallen victim to data breaches--and considering how that's just about every American (especially after the massive Equifax data breach), all of us are at risk. So, what can you do to get the benefits you're entitled to if you've lost your job? One about-to-be-evicted mother finally spoke to a live, helpful person at the unemployment office after pestering her governor's office to call the department on her behalf. Barring that, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: Consider creating an online benefits account with your state, even if you are employed and do not yet need to file a claim. This makes it, ostensibly, more difficult for scammers to create a new account with your information--and if they try, their behavior is more likely to be detected. Report unemployment fraud to your state's Department of Labor office here. And if you've been the victim of identity theft in any way, also report it to IdentityTheft.org (they can help you recover your identity).  
  Dirty work  
  A work-from-home gig is looking pretty cush right now, as job losses and coronavirus cases continue to rise across the U.S. while lawmakers like Mitch McConnell fight for "legal immunity" for companies that fail to disinfect their worksites, provide personal protective equipment to workers, or otherwise give a flying fig about the health--and very lives--of people trying to earn a paycheck. The one downside to a work-from-home gig? Finding one without getting scammed. According to a new report from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), job scams were already the No. 1 "riskiest" scams in 2018 and 2019, with risk being measured by how much exposure to a scam people have, as well as how susceptible they are to falling for it and how much money they'd lose. The top reason victims get hooked on the jobs scammers are selling? That attractive option of working from home, of course! Sadly, the Bureau's preliminary 2020 data from the start of the pandemic reveal that there's no sign of this onslaught letting up. Indeed, it's calling the current COVID situation "the perfect storm" for job scams, which is why it's good to know some key facts. First, criminals (not jobseekers) initiate a full 80% of employment scams. Second, job site Indeed has been the source of the largest number of scams (32%) that jobseekers encounter (for reference, the second largest amount originated from LinkedIn, but only constituted 7% of the total). This retired nurse, who wanted a work-from-home gig to be able to get toys for her grandkids (and was promised she could make $3,000-$5,000 a month), is a characteristic victim; she lost $25,000 to a con artist who cold-called her and required money for job "training" up front. The way she says "Total. Lost." around the 2:20 minute mark is just...devastating. Want to know how you can avoid becoming a statistic? Click here. (Quick tip: Run a search for the name of the "company" offering the job and the word "scam.") And never, ever do any work for a company before you are sure it's a real gig. We've even received reports of freelance writers "hired" by convincing con artists claiming to be with major magazines, such as Vogue--so it's always worth confirming with the company by contacting them.  
  E-CONmerce is booming  
Not sparking joy. Stuck at home during this difficult time and realizing you're surrounded by too much stuff? Despair not! (Really: Do not despair; the last thing needed now is more despair!) Instead, earn some extra cash selling those clothes you've grown out of (hey, the "Quarantine 15" is real), or that millennial pink couch that was so trendy circa 2017). But first, know that scammers are waiting in the wings on peer-to-peer sales sites like Poshmark, OfferUp, Mercari and a host of others. Even OG sites like Craigslist haven't found a way around the fraud plaguing the world of used stuff that people like Luther--detailed in our monthly INSIDER newsletter's "Hotline Chronicles" article for July--have contacted us about. "I placed a for-sale item on Craigslist Minneapolis, and within a day I had two emails saying almost the same thing--both seeking personal information from me so that they [the senders] could send me a certified check," said Luther. This was the beginning of an attempted classic check scam, in which criminals send "too much" money to the victim, who deposits the bad check and returns the "overage" with their own good money. As we pointed out, by the time the bank realizes the scammer's check is fake, it has already sent the scammer funds from the victim's account, "leaving them [the victim] out-of-pocket for the money." Luther was lucky; he knew how to spot a check scam. Will you?
Call of duty: Hang up. Incoming! Consumer Action's Hotline has been bombarded with recent complaints about fake Amazon scams. One complainant reported a caller who claimed their household's Amazon account was blocked for "suspicious activity." When the victim called back what they believed to be "Amazon Prime Help" (likely after Googling it), a woman who said her name was Gemma (we're pretty sure it wasn't) told them to buy a $25 Xbox gift card to unlock their account. It appears the victim did so, because shortly after, someone name "Leo" called back--this time purporting to be with "Amazon Security"--instructing the victim to buy a $200 eBay card! "We stupidly bought the card," the victim despondently reported. Another complaint describes a phone call warning that his Amazon account was charged for an item he never ordered. He was told he "had 15 minutes to cancel" or "would be billed for it." And yet another complaint featured an email that listed the victim's first and last name and an address similar to his own, claiming he had bought a "Sony-XBR65A8F PlayStation 4Pro 1TB Console 4K...and 1 other item" for around $1,500. If he hadn't, the email continued, he must call the "Amazon Fraud Protection Team" (aka, the scammers) immediately. If you get an Amazon call (or email), hang up on e-commerce con men and report 'em to the FTC. And if you suspect there's an issue with your real account, contact customer service as listed on the company's official website or here in the Consumer Action Handbook. Avoid performing a Google search for "customer service" or related words, since the resulting fake ads often send you straight into enemy territory.
Somebody stop me! Of all the counterfeit or nonexistent products one can lose money over online, masks appear to be the most happenin' these days--particularly masks of the N95 (approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH) variety, along with their Chinese counterparts, the KN95s. Both create a seal around the user's face to block out airborne particles, and are in high demand--and, consequently, low supply--because they stop even the teensy coronaviruses from getting through. Medical personnel are the primary users of the vaunted N95 masks. Confused? NPR has written a "User's Guide" to effective masks--both how to buy them and how to make them yourself, which is the more viable option, since respirator masks are largely unavailable online. Sadly, we've received many recent reports from consumers who never received the respirator masks they thought they had bought, often from very authentic-looking "medical supply" and/or international websites listing loads of other products as well. Still going for a (K)N95? We can't stop you, but we can direct you to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which offers a guide on how to determine if an alleged NIOSH-approved product is legit. And if you must make the purchase after visiting that possibly-legit-but-probably-not website, make sure you make it with a credit card. As the BBB summarizes in its "Smart Shopping Online" article, "In case of a fraudulent transaction, a credit card provides additional protections; it's easier to dispute charges that you didn't approve." Finally, report all fake masks and PPE fraudsters to the FTC; they are taking action!
Good news (for once)! The Supreme Court struck a major blow to obnoxious robocallers when it ruled earlier this month (in the case Barr et al. v. American Political Consultants) that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which gives us all the right to stop unwanted robocalls/texts, is, and will remain, constitutional. Robocallers basically shot themselves in the foot by bringing the case to court in the first place. They had insisted that the TCPA wasn't constitutional since it barred certain kinds of robocalls while allowing others (in this case, calls made to collect government debts). Arguing that they were being singled out for what they were calling about, and calling this an "attack on free speech," only succeeded in getting the Court to rule that, fine then, automated government debt collection calls will be banned too! Smooth move, robocallers. For more info on the Justices' positions on "the scourge of modern civilization" (robocalls), check out the National Consumer Law Center's digital library.
Freedumb to heave. People with disabilities have certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the age of COVID, these may include the right to abstain from wearing a mask--e.g., in the case of someone with cystic fibrosis who already has trouble breathing. We believe people with disabilities (and without) should also have the right to never be misled by the downright ugly and bogus "mask exemption" cards that some non-disabled people are whipping out in a tantrum-throwing response to state mask-wearing laws. Rather than concern themselves with protecting others--including real people with chronic medical conditions, who are at a higher risk of death due to coronavirus--these loathsome "freedom fighters" have been buying $50 boxes of fake "government issued" cards from a shady group called the "Freedom to Breathe Agency." The laminated trash, which co-opts the language of the ADA and unlawfully displays the Department of Justice's logo, declares the cardholder "exempt" from any local mask-wearing laws and threatens those approaching them about their un-masked state (or asking them to leave the premises) with a nonsensical $75,000+ fine. Concerned the corona-crisis is being used as an excuse to violate your real civil rights? Click here to fight back. 

Scammin' across state lines. Even in the year before the pandemic, approximately 4.7 million people moved across state lines. Anticipating there will be more moves this year due to the 'rona, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has released a brand new report entitled Know your mover. The report details the horrors visited upon those who do not do their due diligence in researching the company moving their stuff from state A to state B. The first simple steps the BBB recommends when looking for movers? Check its site for accredited, well-reviewed companies, and then run their license numbers (for free) through this U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) database to see if they're legit. The BBB also suggests getting estimates based on the weight of the goods you're transporting (not the size, as in cubic feet) because weight can't be easily changed during or after a move to charge you more. And always opt for "full value replacement liability insurance," regardless of the movers you choose to use. Taking these few fundamental steps can help you avoid the horrors detailed in the report, like fraudsters making off with all your earthly possessions, never to be seen again (or ghosting you for weeks), or others holding your stuff hostage unless you pay thousands more than what was agreed upon! Dealing with a moving scam? The BBB recommends contacting MoveRescue. The organization can help you recover your stuff for free and can even get down and dirty with the movers to negotiate getting it back (before reporting the scum-of-the-earth to the DOT).
Zoom out for the bigger picture. Used to be that you'd receive fake iCal or Outlook invites to interrupt your work--ahhh, the good ol' days. Ever the opportunists, hucksters know that stay-at-home orders now mean our seemingly never-ending meetings are often held on the video conferencing service Zoom. This is an "in" for them, and people working from home are increasingly seeing emails pop up with "Zoom" conference invite links--links that direct them to malicious websites that, upon first glance, appear to be the real deal but really have slightly "off" domain names. The sites are designed to steal personal information, which is why Zoom has put out an alert telling users that links to their platform "will only ever have a zoom.us, zoom.com or zoom.com.cn domain name. Prior to clicking on a link, users should carefully review the URL [by hovering their mouse over it--not by clicking on it], being mindful of lookalike domain names and spelling errors." As a rule, Zoom users should be wary of any unsolicited invites. (We know, we know--you're stuck at home right now and you may have a serious case of FOMO, but it's so not worth losing your identity over!)