A Consumer Action News Alert • September 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!
  Your body is a...temple?  
  The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has been busy issuing cease-and-desist letters to a variety of corrupt companies and individuals selling harmful "wellness" products, ranging from a strange stem cell "jelly" injection that "reverse[s] lung damage from COVID-19" (riiight...) to tried-and-untrue colloidal silver cure-alls sold by vendors like the aptly-named SilveryGuy to "people who don't trust big pharma." And, recently, the agency cried foul on a defiant "church" operator who has been claiming that, in return for donations, he will bestow on his flock what amounts to corrosive bleach as a "sacrament" against COVID. The FDA pointed out to these hucksters that no matter how you get these products into the hands of desperate people, it is illegal to even advertise that a product can "prevent, treat, or cure human disease unless you possess competent and reliable scientific evidence, including, when appropriate, well-controlled human clinical studies." Know someone who is selling snake oil despite a lack of hard evidence for its safety and efficacy (like SilveryGuy, who appears to still be crowing about his "miracle cures")? Do us all a favor and get these abominations kicked out of the market by reporting 'em to the FDA here!  
  Hungry like the wolf  
  What is the world coming to when criminals target struggling people in need of food stamps!? Sadly, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) scams are actually a "thing"--so much so that the USDA had already devoted an entire webpage to highlighting the latest variations. But with the onset of the pandemic and the ensuing income losses for millions (by some estimates, over 40 million individuals and families), more and more scammers are preying on those in need of public assistance. In addition to victimizing SNAP recipients, scammers are targeting those receiving Medicaid, unemployment and small business aid. Watch out for a tasteless text or any other out-of-the-blue public assistance offer instructing you to give up your personal or financial information or your SNAP electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card number/PIN. If you get one, treat it like you would a judgy person in the grocery store line, and just ignore it (or report it to your local SNAP office)!  
  Get with the program(s)  
OTA has to pay. Would-be Wall Street magnates who paid a company called Online Trading Academy (OTA) to teach them how to time the market may be able to recoup some of the resulting losses now that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has reached a settlement with the scandalous investment "training" program. OTA claimed that it could educate paying pupils on how to game the stock market by buying and selling at certain times, making tens of thousands of dollars monthly. As the FTC pointed out: "OTA used such earnings claims to pitch additional training costing anywhere from around $19,000 to $50,000 or more." Yes, some people paid up to $50,000 for the program--and worse, funded it with short-term loans that OTA told them to take out through...wait for it...OTA! Then OTA had the gall to coerce unsatisfied customers into signing an "agreement" stating that they wouldn't post bad reviews about the company online, or report to law enforcement! All told, the conniving company bilked $370 million from those who saw themselves as potential profiteers. The good news? OTA is going to have to forgive the debts it claims participants owe and remove any mentions of "bad debt" from the consumers' credit reports. According to the FTC, consumers may also be able to recoup some of their losses, but they must act soon. Pro tip: It's a scam anytime a program claims you'll make big bucks playing the stock market, whether, as OTA claimed, "it's going up, down or sideways."

A-B-C, it's easy as...oh, wait. Sadly for pandemic-pressed parents, the popular digital 'sitter ABCmouse is in trouble with the FTC for treating its adult subscribers like rats in a "hide-and-seek maze." The company, which offers educational online games and puzzles for kids, became less than entertaining for parents forced to puzzle how to cancel their "free" trial subscriptions. According to the FTC, ABCmouse "failed to clearly disclose that memberships would automatically renew, charged consumers' credit cards without their express authorization, and made it difficult for consumers to stop those recurrent charges." How difficult? Even after contacting the company through its "Contact Us" link (after not being able to find the seemingly hidden and "difficult to complete" cancellation link on the ABCmouse website), parents received an automated response stating that they could only cancel via...get ready for it...the terribly designed website itself! All of the mousing around has resulted in a $10 million fine for ABCmouse, and a must-read statement by an FTC commissioner on why these "dark patterns" (i.e., digital deceptions by design) are particularly egregious in these dark times, when so many consumers are purchasing online subscriptions, which they legally must be able to cancel if they so choose when--if--this pandemic ever ends.
Where there's smoke...West Coast residents should be aware of an onslaught of scams, fraud and price gouging in the wake of the recent wildfires. Anytime there's a natural or other disaster--whether it be a hurricane, earthquake or Dante's seventh circle of what appears to be hell on earth--scammers come out of the woodwork. Their mad claims include that they can "repair" your house for a price, or that they're working with your insurance company to help you file a claim, or that they're with a charity raising money for other victims, or that they're with your gas or electric company (in this case, PG&E), and so on and so forth. If you believe you've been the target or victim of such criminal activity, you should report the situation to the California attorney general, whose website also happens to list tips for hiring valid contractors to do any necessary repairs on your home. 

Special delivery. For those of you responsible readers who are social distancing and staying put, at least as much as possible, receiving a text proclaiming you've got a "pending" package out for delivery can be the high point of your day. And when that very same text addresses you by your first name, you may be even more inclined to click on the accompanying link to "claim ownership and confirm for delivery." Stop, don't do it! The criminals behind this new con likely got your name and number from a prior data breach (lord knows there have been enough of them over the years!). Never click on strange links. If you do happen to click (not that you ever would), you'd arrive at a page prompting you to enter your credit card information for an unrelated "gift card"--which, hopefully, would tip you off that this was a scam, if nothing else had by this point. Regardless, clicking on strange links can also lead to dreaded malware downloads to your phone or computer. These malicious programs can do all sorts of very bad things. (The good news? This latest package scam is not related to sex trafficking attempts via location tracking--a bizarre theory that's also been making the rounds.)

Generational war. Are you or someone you know aged 60+ and the target of a scam? The National Elder Fraud Hotline is a free program, offered by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which bills itself as a "bastion of fairness and lawfulness" in an age of increasing criminal activity against the aged. Now scammers are calling elderly people claiming to be the trusted "bastion" itself, in a clever new con that instructs seniors to call back a number leading to a pre-recorded menu identical to the DOJ's. The phone tree sends the target to an imposter "DOJ investigator" who--what else?--works to cajole them out of their personal information. Didn't anyone ever teach these ruffians to respect their elders!?
Loan sharks (and scammers) smell blood. As the job losses pile up and Congress continues to debate how (or even if) to move forward with a another stimulus package, now might be a good time to learn about personal loans--specifically, how to avoid getting scammed should you need one. Outside of the threat triple-digit interest rate payday lenders pose, some more general signs of a personal loan scam include the lender: contacting you unsolicited (sometimes via social media); touting "guaranteed approval" (a legit lender will want to at least check out your credit and see if you're eligible for a loan according to their terms); changing stated fees or failing to disclose all fees up front; demanding you use prepaid cards for loan repayment; and not being registered in your state (you can check on this with your state attorney general).