A Consumer Action News Alert • January 2021
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!
  Scent of a con man  
  The pandemic has provided criminals with the perfect opportunity to bait people into disappointing, and even devastating, "work-from-home" schemes, since COVID "solves the crook's biggest problem: explaining why the 'employer' doesn't want to meet in person," the Los Angeles Times explains (in an article quoting Consumer Action's Linda Sherry). She shared why so many are falling for the profitless propositions: They've lost their jobs, they're desperate, and "at the same time, everyone is hearing about all these people who are working from home." The piece offers the same advice the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released recently (in English and Spanish) regarding what it more formally refers to as "income scams." These cons, which the FTC cracked down on via its recent Operation Income Illusion, often require a jobseeker to fork over hundreds--even thousands--of dollars up front for training, investments or products to "get started." The companies typically promise ridiculously high earnings, with one even going by the name 8 Figure Dream Lifestyle; avoid "face-to-face" videoconferencing with applicants; and, lately, have really been exploiting COVID concerns. One particularly heinous operation, Moda Latina BZ, appealed to its audience via alleged testimonial: "Crisis? What crisis? I forgot about that ever since I started selling [Moda's products]." (Oh, to be so footloose and fancy-free!) Like many of its contemporaries, however, Moda required its victims to pay an "enrollment fee"--in this case, for a resale "kit" containing cheap perfume. (That really stinks!) The operation continued to squeeze sellers for even more money after they received the product, a practice that those familiar with multilevel marketing companies (MLMs) may have experienced. And even the MLMs have upped their pandemic game: Despite requiring reps to work hard and pay harder, the companies have been drawing in more victims by rebranding their false offers of "financial freedom" as "time freedom" during these stressful times.  
  Pilfering the 'Patriots'  
  Conservatives may be particularly vulnerable to con artists targeting everyone from taciturn traditionalists to loud Trump-lovers based only on known or suspected interests, activities or current events. One text scam that's been making the rounds, but only in red states (including FL, AL, NC and UT), has been aimed at gun owners--specifically those with concealed carry permits. The text messages claim the recipients' permits need to be renewed or changed, and offer a link to an imposter website where victims can input their sensitive information to, allegedly, do so. Some of the messages even boast that a permit can be obtained in "10 minutes," while others say it's already been prepared; one need only follow the link. (Don't click that link!) Then there are the online scams, with loads occurring in the ill-fated yet popular app Parler (which promised to be back online soon, after it was taken down for enabling communications aiding users in storming the Capitol). The digital darling for "patriots," Proud Boys and mainstream conservatives (e.g., Fox News host Sean Hannity) was teeming with scammers in the days prior to the Amazon crackdown, and likely will be again when it, or another similar platform, returns. It was all-too-easy for con artists to create imposter accounts by "gaining verification" via one identity and then changing their account names afterwards to famous figures, businesses, etc. After joining to survey the landscape, SCAM GRAM found a just-created "Official Account of the 45th President of the U.S.," which had gained thousands of followers within minutes, holding a "massive fundraiser" to sell t-shirts supporting a new "Trump News Network"--all while the media continued to report that Trump had never actually joined the platform. And a quick search under the hashtag "fundraiser" revealed hundreds of posts for suspect cryptocurrency investment "opportunities" and crowdfunding requests, including many that linked to a site billing itself as the "leader in Christian fundraising." WWJD? Other amateurish asks included ones for a "pediatric cancer nonprofit," a motorcycle group for veterans, and a woman pleading for "protective gear for our patriots that attend rallies." These types of scams abound, so be careful, especially if you're flocking to MeWe, Gab, Rumble, Telegram or any of the many other smaller/newer social media and messaging platforms.  
  Second verse, worse than the first  
Round two: Fight! As certain states roll out round two of COVID vaccinations, others open up eligibility for the next priority group, and Florida does its own thing, scammers are ramping up their attacks on people interested in inoculations. If that's you, they want you to pay or give up personal info for a nonexistent vaccine, a deposit or "reservation" for one, or a place on a bogus waiting list. But you shouldn't be paying for access to a vaccine, period. If you're insured, the law requires that the insurer pay for your vaccine; if you're not, you're not supposed to pay as long as you use a free or reduced-price offering through an approved community-based testing site. And no one should be contacting you out of the blue to offer a vaccine--only scammers are doing so, posing as government officials, insurance reps and even local hospitals! Want more info? Check with your county health department for a vaccine distribution timeline, and click here for more tips on identifying and avoiding a jab racket. Finally, report any strange solicitations to your state attorney general.

The second coming. Perhaps you're one of the many who believe the second stimulus payment is a scam in and of itself (e.g., "$600 is what rich people think poor people think is a lot of money"). Or maybe your mindset is "I'll take whatever I can get!" Either way, make sure you get your funds. The coming of the second stimulus is being heralded as "Christmas for scammers" due to the confusion around automatic electronic payments, some of which are being held up due to would-be recipients' closed or "no longer active" bank accounts, as well as already rampant check fraud and imposters spoofing the banking industry, IRS and other government actors. Whatever you do, don't listen to anyone who contacts you promising to connect you to your stimulus money quicker (like this poor woman, who lost $2,500 to a caller claiming to represent her bank). Have patience, and visit the "Get My Payment" portal at the Internal Revenue Service to check on the status of your payment (if you're eligible for one).

Second chances. It's nice to believe in second chances, but if you're at the point where you're facing foreclosure on your home, offers from randos attempting to "help" by paying off your mortgage to purchase the house, rent it back to you, and/or eventually give you the opportunity to buy it back are less than benevolent. During hard times (like, you know, now!), foreclosure "rescue" scams are hard-hitting and ubiquitous: They advertise online, in posters plastered along roads, in printed materials stuck under your front door, and even by blowing up your cell phone (particularly if your home is listed in a public foreclosure notice). If you do "sell" them your home, the scammers who claim to have bought it may collect your "rent money" without ever having paid a penny to your lender, which will likely start foreclosure proceedings against you! And if you get back on your feet and look to pay back the scammers, they'll likely demand way more than you paid initially or can afford now. The good news? If you need a break from paying your mortgage, it may be easier to get than you think, due to special pandemic-related laws requiring servicers to allow you to pause your payments. Call your lender directly to learn more.
...And we're only two weeks into 2021. Everyone thought the dumpster fire of 2020 would become a smoldering heap of (tr)ash as soon as the ball dropped, but the flames, and many of the scams, have followed us into 2021. One Better Business Bureau (BBB) rep summarized the scam of 2020-21 as online fraud--specifically, copycat websites designed to mimic real businesses, slightly-off hyperlinks similar to legitimate ones, and social media ads for bogus products, all of which is "absolutely going bonkers." The Truth in Advertising organization, meanwhile, released its top "5 [Deceptive] Ad Trends to Be Wary of in 2021," while the AARP published its "10 New Year's Resolutions to Scam-Proof Your Life" for the coming year, many of which are similar to the BBB's "Five resolutions for a fraud-free new year." And, seriously, if everyone committed to following just a few of the proffered pieces of advice--like AARP's #3 ("hang up on unsolicited calls," etc.) and #5 (beware of stranger danger), and the BBB's resolution to "never send money to strangers" (particularly via gift cards)--the vast majority of scams could be avoided in 2021.

I award you no points. It's safe to say the pandemic has brought travel to a crawl--stuck in our homes, most of us are going nowhere fast these days (unless you count another walk to the kitchen). This, combined with the massive number of recent data breaches, has allowed hucksters to easily take advantage of the fact that we're not checking our Marriott Bonvoy, Rapid Rewards or other travel points. As The Points Guy shows, loyalty fraud has been on a steady uptick since the start of the pandemic. It's not an overstatement to say that almost everyone in the country with a credit history has had their information breached, and criminals who buy our personal data off the dark web know it's just a matter of plugging the correct old username and password combo into a rewards login screen (known as "credential stuffing") to gain access, siphon the neglected points over to another account, sell them, exchange them for gift cards, use them to fly to Timbuktu, or gain more of our personal info that's stored in the online system. As Travel Weekly pointed out at the start of the pandemic, "Some 45% of loyalty accounts are inactive, making them especially vulnerable to attack." It's safe to guess that number's higher now. So what can you do? Change your passwords to new and unique ones, enable two-factor authentication for rewards account logins (if it's an option), and monitor those accounts on a regular basis!
Parking up the wrong tree. No one likes debt collectors, but it's one thing to have a dispute over a debt with a collector operating in good faith, and another entirely to suffer from a bogus debt that an unscrupulous collections company knowingly "parked" on your credit file to coerce you into paying. Midwest Recovery Systems is one such company, having "parked nearly $100 million worth of questionable obligations on people's credit files and collected more than $24 million," according to the LA Times (which also quoted Consumer Action's Linda Sherry, who came in with another colorful quote, describing the criminals as "throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it would stick"). It's good to be skeptical when a collector calls, and to know your rights. (And check back with us later this month, when we'll publish the Winter 2020-21 issue of Consumer Action News, covering new federal debt collection rules and what types of shenanigans collectors can and cannot legally pull.)
Deadpool. Didn't get the gift card you wanted for Christmas and looking for one that's being sold at a slight discount? Need to unload the Abercrombie card your aunt gave you a la 2007? Stay off the "F-rated" site cardpool(dot)com. While it's still live, the company claims it is (mercifully) in the process of shutting down, despite the fact that it received a $426,000 government loan to stay open throughout the pandemic and promised just a year ago that its "customer service issues have been fixed" due to new management. At the time of this writing, however, Cardpool, which had dispersed worthless gift cards to loads of paying customers and even made sellers wait months to receive payment for the gift cards they unloaded, was still selling gift cards on its site! Deal yourself out of this scam.
Don't believe everything you CBD. You might know someone who has been helped by CBD--heck, maybe that someone is you--but manufacturer claims that cannabidiol (made from the cannabis plant) can "cure" serious chronic medical conditions will remain chronically illegal unless proven by "competent and reliable scientific evidence," which has been noticeably absent. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently cracked down (again) on a bunch of companies claiming schizophrenia, autism, autoimmune conditions, chronic pain and even cancer can be "cured" by patting on CBD oil or swallowing sugary gummies. The FTC's latest, Operation CBDeceit, unearthed a company that even went so far as to boast that its CBD was "able to treat pain better than prescription medications such as OxyContin." In addition to these types of claims sounding completely out-of-touch to many with chronic pain and illness (almost as crazy as essential oils curing COVID), falsely advertising CBD as the "miracle" cure (made popular by people like Tom "Hanx") poses additional risks to patients, who may throw out needed prescription medications (not to mention loads of money!).