A Consumer Action News Alert • October 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!
  Filtering out fraud  
  Seems obvious that the last thing you'd do to "clear the air" after a wildfire (or any fire) is create more smoke, vapors or other emissions in your home. Nevertheless, desperate Californians (and others) are burning candles and essential oils, boiling herbs, and spending hundreds on unproven products, like filterless "invisible shield" air purifier necklaces. According to Google Trends, the search for air purifiers is at its highest in five years, which is perhaps what prompted the New York Times to address the subject earlier this month in its bluntly-questioning "Is Air a Scam?" Yes, we can confidently answer that purifying air has become big business for pseudoscientists, self-proclaimed spiritual guides, online pop-up shops, and other parties who stand to financially gain by claiming that something other than an actual filter can remove "toxins" from your air (toxins that, these days, include everything from smoke particles, to bacteria and viruses, to even "negativity"). Some air "purifiers" can actually harm your health. So what does work if you're looking to freshen up? Hopefully your home or apartment already has an HVAC system with a HEPA filter, but if it doesn't, the Times sums up what you need: "A HEPA air purifier that will grab more than 99.97 percent of tiny 0.3 micron particles in the air." HEPA stands for "high efficiency particulate air," and these types of fine mesh filters can actually make an impact in your air quality by noticeably reducing bad airborne particles. Strapped for cash? Even taping a furnace filter to the back of a box fan will work better than buying a jungle's worth of houseplants. And although we can't speak to the "negativity" thing, if you're feeling smothered right now, it might be a good time to put down the eucalyptus oil and check out Consumer Reports' list of "Best Air Purifiers for Wildfire Smoke."  
  I wish that they had Jesse's car  
  According to the New York Times, "everyone" is buying used vehicles in an effort to avoid pandemic-y public transit. The problem? Rather than take the cars for a test drive, tons of people are attempting to purchase them online, sight unseen, and ending up like Jesse from Texas here, who was taken for a ride when she fell for a sob story from someone trawling Facebook's "trading post type pages" with a photo of a Dodge pickup. The seller told Jesse they had to get rid of the vehicle fast, since they were in the military and about to deploy, and besides, the truck had belonged to the seller's recently deceased spouse. Jesse just needed to pay a too-good-to-be-true $1,400 in eBay gift cards for the (dodgy) Dodge, along with an additional $1,000 in "shipping insurance" to have it sent her way from halfway across the country. In addition to being believable (right up until the gift card part), this type of con has also become common enough that the Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently issued a warning about rock-bottom prices on used vehicles, which can actually cost more nowadays because of that whole supply/demand thing. Sellers often claim the vehicles must be "sold off" fast due to deployments, deaths, divorces and other dire situations. As the BBB explains, these online scammers excel at impersonating third parties (e.g., shipping companies), and often go so far as to create fake websites, invoices and escrow accounts to make it look to buyers like they're engaging in legit financial transactions. And beware: This con isn't just occurring with cars and trucks in general online sales platforms like Craigslist or the Facebook Marketplace, but also with RVs, motorcycles, boats and even farm equipment on vehicle-specific sites like Autotrader!  
  Voices of authority  
'Fraudulent' Trade Commission. It's particularly egregious when scammers have the gall to pretend to be the leading government agency in the fight against scams, in order to pull off a scam, but here we are. Criminals are emailing consumers claiming to be Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joseph Simons and telling recipients they're owed money from inheritances, COVID relief funds and other various and sundry bogus sources. Alas, it is not the chairman's job to email you about money (particularly with a cavalier subject line like "Get back to me"), but, as the FTC points out: "Scammers like to make themselves look official by pretending to be from the government. They use official-sounding language and images" to make people stand up and take notice and give up personal or financial information. If you get an official-yet-unofficial-sounding email from the "Fraudulent" Trade Commission, report it to the real FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

B-B-Bezos? The Better Business Bureau (BBB), which, like the FTC, warns people about scams, has reported that scammers are spoofing its main phone number (866-411-2221) to call consumers and claim to be with Amazon (we're not sure why they aren't just spoofing an Amazon number in this case, but okay). According to the BBB, the callers are claiming that "there was a fraudulent order, problem with a credit card, a package was damaged, your account was hacked, or any other reason they can think of to get you to give them your personal information." Just a couple of weeks ago, Consumer Action received a spate of emails from potential victims who received calls from--guess who?--Consumer Action, alerting us to the fact that our phone number had been spoofed. Of course, in the wake of Amazon's popular Prime Day(s), scammers have loads of reasons to contact Amazonians who may have bought, and are waiting impatiently for the arrival of, loads of discounted products. In anticipation of this, the retail giant is offering advice on how to identify if a contact is coming from the real deal, or a wannabe Bezos. Think you can't be fooled? A former fire chief and Vietnam vet was scammed out of $100,000 by a relentless Amazon impersonator! Remember, scammers know how to manipulate Caller ID for their own nefarious purposes, so hone your skepticism.

Fake Bureau of Investigation. No, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is not looking for you--your life simply isn't that interesting (hey, be glad). Unfortunately, one Missourian believed they were a target of the FBI, resulting in the loss of the victim's entire life savings of $100,000! How'd the scammer pull this off? As one FBI spokesperson pointed out, the con artist told the victim to search on the internet for the phone number that they were calling from and, "since the scammers spoofed a legitimate FBI office number [202-324-3000], the result of course came back as the FBI, so that's how they fooled the victim in the first place." Step number two involved telling the victim that their Social Security number was stolen (a common con right now, regardless of who it originates from) and "used to purchase property and stocks and open bank accounts." The criminals then told the victim that, in order to "safeguard" the rest of their money, they must, get ready for it...wire it "to the FBI." If you get a call from Fake Bureau of Investigation, report it to the real one here.
Cash out. Imagine watching, enraged and helpless, as your money disappears--$100 here, $200 there--siphoned from your bank account via the Cash App mobile app. That's what happened to one man who was using this popular mobile money transfer service, which was downloaded 30 million times in 2020 alone! Recently, the federal government even took the unusual step of formally legitimizing the Venmo/Zelle rival by allowing stimulus recipients to rapidly receive U.S. Treasury funds into their bank accounts through the app's account/routing numbers. Unfortunately, Cash App's speed and ease of use appears to be just as popular with criminals. Fraudsters have created a number of different app-related rackets, including simply tricking users into paying for all sorts of bogus items, but also, more cleverly, sending direct-to-user texts and emails "from Cash App" to obtain users' account/login info, or to upload malware to the victim's phone and drain their accounts. Criminals are even listing fake Cash App customer service numbers in Google searches, which can result in customers, frustrated over in-app scams, calling to complain and losing thousands more! Unfortunately, Cash App has failed its users fraud-wise by (among other things) not offering a customer support phone number of its own, and only recently pseudo-committing to making a phone line "available to all customers over time" (emphasis added). You know what they say, Cash App, there's no time like the present! (No, really.) In the meantime, app users should bolt down Cash App's security settings and check out the FBI's general tips on how to master mobile banking and money transfer apps here.
Sadly ever after. What kind of person would get married for money, you ask? Apparently not just the "Love Island" types--even seemingly upstanding members of the U.S. military might do the (mis)deed if the price is right. One Army sergeant and one former solider were recently charged with operating from North Carolina's Fort Bragg to organize sham marriages between foreign nationals looking for a quick way to obtain resident status and soldiers looking to "receive Basic Allowance for Housing to live off post, as opposed to the barracks" (where single soldiers live). This all leads us to ask: Was the food on base that bad?! If you're thinking of tying the knot, make sure your spouse-to-be can cook, but much more importantly, check that your marriage is legit based on the government's definition, which states that you and your betrothed must "intend to live in a real marital relationship, namely to establish a life together, following the marriage ceremony." (We're not exactly sure how the feds sussed out the Fort Bragg marriage fraud fiasco, but we know it's not hard for loose lips to sink your love boat if you engage in such transactions.)
An unholy union. As we've reported before, money transmitter Western Union knew all along that it was the go-to company for fraudsters looking to get paid via wire transfer. It even admitted that it "allowed criminals to use its global money transfer service to carry out 'hundreds of thousands' of scams" and had received around 550,000 customer complaints on this very issue. Because of this, the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice ruled, in early 2017, that the complicit company must refund the victims of its wire fraud a combined total of $586 million. A lot of these refund checks (totaling over $300 million) have already gone out to the victims, but if you haven't received a refund yet, don't lose hope: The bulk of the remaining amount should be going out over the next few months (the check will be from "United States v. The Western Union Company"). More info about the refund program is available here. Still have questions? Call the Western Union remission administrator at 844-319-2124 or email them at info@WesternUnionRemission.com. (Just don't wire any money!)
Booking it out of business. USA Today ran a damning article on the Very Bad Bookings that have resulted in customers losing hope of obtaining full, and sometimes even partial, refunds after cancelling trips due to COVID--even if these customers purchased travel insurance. According to its investigation, "Many travel agencies operate Ponzi-style schemes in which one traveler's deposit pays for a previous traveler's tickets and accommodations, and so on." In layman's terms: The companies don't have your money; they never really did. They were relying on hundreds or thousands of customers not wanting refunds all at once, and now that those customers have demanded them (due to the pandemic), they've folded like tiny, unethical, mismanaged houses of cards. In some cases, companies or agents are "offering" travel vouchers or pushing other dates of travel on clientele rather than issuing the refunds. In other cases, the companies give customers the runaround, accusing them of violating "terms of service" by cancelling their trips, as if they chose to do so and weren't forced to by a massive pandemic-induced shutdown. If you don't have time to read the entire article, just know that Bookit.com, EF Educational Tours, and the "Christian" tour operator Nawas have all been implicated. And if you've been on the receiving end of a booking scam, report it to your state attorney general (AG) and the AG of the state in which the corrupt company is registered.
Operation Corrupt Collector. Wanna see something that'll make you smile? Check out the 50+ actions (mainly lawsuits) taken by federal and state governments against devious "debt collectors" who have threatened victims--who don't even owe debts--with arrest, driver's license suspensions and seizure of personal property in a sick attempt to bleed them dry. The con artists also impersonated law enforcement to scare the victims into paying the bad "debt," even going so far as to unlawfully garnish their wages! The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is not only naming names, but also encouraging those who are currently being harassed by collectors to discover who's calling and report them as well. (That's right: Con artists are calling to coerce you into paying debts that don't exist, have already been paid, or belong to someone else entirely. Don't take it lying down.)