A Consumer Action News Alert • Sept. 15, 2023


We always warn consumers to be careful about the links in emails they receive. We want you to know that all links (URLs) in this newsletter are sent via VoterVoice, our content management services provider, in order to determine which stories are most interesting to our readers. No personal data about you is saved.

Click here to view this email in a web browser.

Not so smart
Vivint Smart Homes, a home security and monitoring company, has agreed to pay $20 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that the Utah-based firm misused the credit reports of entirely unaware third parties to help qualify prospective customers for financing. The monetary judgment is, to date, the largest of its kind for an FTC Fair Credit Reporting Act case, said the FTC's news release. The FTC alleged that some of Vivint's door-to-door salespersons, when selling products to prospective customers who did not qualify for financing, would engage in a practice known as "white paging." This involved using the White Pages app to find another consumer with the same or a similar name to the prospective customer and using that other consumer’s credit history to qualify the unqualified customer. Vivint sales representatives also sometimes asked customers to provide the name of someone they knew who had better credit, such as a relative, and then added that uninformed third party as a co-signer to the account without their permission, and used their credit history to qualify for the financing. If a customer who qualified using these deceptive tactics later defaulted on their loan, the FTC release continued, Vivint would refer the unsuspecting third party to its debt buyer, potentially harming that consumer’s credit and subjecting them to debt collection. Many consumers whose credit reports were misused by Vivint sales representatives complained to the FTC, after being contacted by Vivint’s debt collectors, that they were victims of identity theft. The FTC also alleged that Vivint was aware of the problem, and in fact terminated many sales representatives for misconduct, only to rehire some of them shortly thereafter. In what seems like an ironic twist for this home security and monitoring company, the settlement requires Vivint to implement an "employee monitoring and training program," as well as an identity theft prevention program. Fitting and smart, we'd say.

Victims on both sides of the scam
Unlikely as it may seem, a recent news story by the Associated Press (AP) could cause you to feel sympathy for the people behind some online scams. The AP explains that the Office of the United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a new report, cites “credible sources” indicating that at least 120,000 people in strife-torn Myanmar and roughly 100,000 in Cambodia “may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.” The report, the AP continues, sheds new light on cybercrime scams that have become a major issue in Asia, with many of the workers trapped in virtual slavery and forced to participate in scams targeting people (like us!) over the internet. Laos, the Philippines and Thailand were also cited among the main countries of destination or transit for tens of thousands of people, explained the AP. With a lack of decent work opportunities in many countries, business shutdowns during the pandemic, a lack of social protections, and, in particular, reduced job opportunities for young graduates, traffickers were easily able to recruit people into criminal operations under the pretense of legitimate employment, the U.N. report says. A press release announcing the report explains that trafficking victims face a range of violations and abuses, including threats to their safety and security; torture; cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary detention; sexual violence; forced labor; and other human rights abuses. "In continuing to call for justice for those who have been defrauded through online criminality," U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk is quoted as saying, "we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two sets of victims.” The commissioner's office calls for affected countries "to summon the political will to strengthen human rights and improve governance and the rule of law, including through serious and sustained efforts to tackle corruption." Hear, hear!

Screen time

Tech support doesn’t work that way. In an alarming news story, WPXI TV reported that a Shaler, Pennsylvania, consumer lost his life savings of more than $600,000 to a tech support scam. In most of these types of cases (which are on the rise), the story continues, victims are contacted via email, telephone or a computer pop-up, claiming that their device or banking accounts have been compromised. The scammer will then provide contact information to resolve the issue, and will sometimes establish a relationship. In the case of this Pennsylvania man, he had frequent conversations with his scammer, who ultimately advised him to download “Ultraviewer," described in the article as a common app that scammers use in these types of schemes. The software itself isn’t fraudulent, WPXI explains, but when downloaded at the direction of a scammer, it enables a person with bad intentions to take control of your computer, tablet or smartphone, and access everything on it. The story includes tips from FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brooklynn Riordan, who said that the scammers are sophisticated and work to build the consumer’s trust. They will even make up code words for use when the scammer and consumer call each other so that the consumer thinks they're talking to a trusted individual. The fraudsters instruct victims not to tell anyone about the issue, since they don’t know who they can trust. The news story reminds us all to be leery of anyone soliciting our information, and includes the commonsense tip that if we really have an issue with our computer, we're not going to get contacted by a purported tech agency to tell us we have a problem. If you end up providing passcodes or account information to a potential hacker, the article advises you to immediately contact law enforcement and your financial institution.

Harsh reality television. Who's the local furniture and appliance dealer in your area? Would you be enticed by their big-screen TV discount promotions—especially now, as football season gets under way and the fall TV line-up rolls out (which this year, due to the screenwriters’ strike, may be enticing mainly to reality TV and game show fans)? We hope the idea of a deeply discounted TV won't cloud your judgment if you come across a scam like the creative one that's apparently been perpetrated by a single individual posing as a Nebraska Furniture Market (NFM) employee. WOWT TV reported last week about the case of a consumer who believed that a text message offering two 85-inch TVs for $750 was legitimate. The “seller” claimed to be an NFM warehouse manager who had been instructed to get rid of the TVs. The consumer met the scammer in a parking lot near the store's clearance outlet and paid him $600. Then the consumer headed to the pickup warehouse, where he presented an invoice that the crook texted him. At the warehouse, the news piece continued, the consumer was met by real NFM staff who were "really nice," and who told him that he'd been scammed. Omaha police are now looking for the perpetrator, who has scammed eight victims, and who apparently also accepts payment via Cash App. The news story includes sound advice (good for anyone who might encounter a similar scam) from NFM's security chief: Never pay someone claiming to be an employee without calling the store first to get the big picture. (We think the pun was intended.)


Don't skim this! Police in Petaluma and Rohnert Park, California (just north of Consumer Action's headquarters), reported last month that several bank card skimming devices have been found at local ATMs and point-of-sale card readers. Local TV station KRON explained that one device found hanging off an ATM contained a small camera connected to a video card that captured both video and audio. Another incident mentioned by KRON involved scammers placing a cover on top of a card reader at a retail store. Further north, a Santa Rosa resident reportedly lost $1,000 at a Bank of America ATM, as reported by the North Bay Business Journal. One piece of reassurance included in the Journal's article came from Bank of America: Customers are fully covered by the bank's "zero liability guarantee" if they report unauthorized transactions in a timely manner. Definitely good to remember this, but why not also remember the sage words of the man pictured on the $100 bills we so want to protect: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To keep from falling for the scam, follow these tips from Forbes on how to identify a skimming device through a visual and physical inspection. If you can benefit from tips in Spanish, you can also check out this recent Telemundo news piece about the skimming spate, featuring tips from our very own staff. From here on out, unless you're loading up your shopping cart in the dairy aisle, may we suggest you steer clear of all things skim.

Give to the needy, not the greedy. The FTC is not exaggerating when it says that if you throw a dart at a map of the U.S., chances are you’ll land on a community that has suffered severe weather this year. This summer alone, Maui suffered devastating fires, hurricanes hit the East and West Coasts, tornadoes impacted the Midwest and South, and more. After a disaster, we have to be on the lookout for charity scammers. Disasters bring out the best in fellow Americans looking to help those who suffered losses, but would-be donors are regular scam targets. To help make sure our money helps people in need, the FTC offers several tips, including that we: donate to charities we know and trust, with a proven track record of dealing with disasters; research the organization (by searching the name plus “complaint,” “review,” “rating” or “scam”), especially if the donation request comes on social media; and check out the charity on Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, Candid, or the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance. It's also important to find out exactly how much of every dollar we donate goes directly to the charity’s beneficiaries. The FTC's alert also includes tips related to the best form of payment to use, tips for giving to individuals on crowdfunding sites, and more. Disaster or not, charity scammers are always at work. Check out this video where two food bank staff impersonators at Pittsburgh's Rib Fest are caught in the act (collection containers and all), claiming to be gathering donations for a local food bank. This is a good reminder that it's always a good idea to contact a charity directly if you want to make a donation. Don’t let disaster strike twice; donate directly to the charity of your choice.

Young adult scam awareness. Most people probably agree that, when it comes to dealing with challenges in the digital world (from an issue with a noncooperative smartphone to all things social media), it's good to ask a young adult (sometimes, even a savvy toddler) how to troubleshoot the issue. But tech-savvy as they are, do young adults know how to steer clear of digital con artistry? A survey now being conducted by the Global Cyber Alliance (GCA) and Amazon may help us find out. GCA and Amazon recently teamed up to launch a global initiative around consumer education on scam identification, prevention, and reducing stigma around reporting scams among 18-25-year-olds. This initiative challenges the assumption that young adults are "digital natives" and, therefore, automatically better protected when they connect, communicate and transact online. We're gladly spreading the word about the survey, which aims to gather insights into online scams and mitigation techniques directly from this age group. If you're a young adult, please take the survey; and we ask readers to share it with your network. The survey, open until Sept. 30, can be found here. Speaking of Amazon, don't miss this article from Amazon's own scam prevention experts. It's chock full of tips for avoiding impersonation scams; in particular, the type involving fake messages about suspicious activity on your Amazon account. This "suspicious activity scam" is the top impersonation scam reported to Amazon and has reached the company's customers in more than 20 countries this year. Read up on it to stay safe, and please share the young adult survey.

The BBBBBB alert. Coupon clippers of the world probably recall fondly the “20% off” Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon that used to arrive in the mail, meaning big savings on pricier items. Don't let the nostalgia for great savings weaken your guard against the Bed, Bath & Beyond going-out-of-business sale scams that the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has warned about. (If you like alliteration, you'll love: Better Business Bureau Bed Bath & Beyond alert.) Consumers are seeing ads on social media for massively marked-down Bed Bath & Beyond products, the BBB explains. The ads link to fake websites that look legitimate, and only a closer look at the domain name or email address reveals that consumers aren't on the official website. The BBB says shoppers report that they've made purchases, never received the ordered products, and typically don't get responses to emails sent to the impostor company. Fans of Bed, Bath & Beyond should also take note that the brand is not disappearing. Overstock.com acquired the brand's intellectual property and rebranded itself as Bed, Bath & Beyond. Which means that, yes, there can still be legitimate discounts to be found, but not on phony websites. The Better Business Bureau Bed Bath & Beyond alert includes links to the company's official U.S. and Canadian websites and offers general tips for avoiding impostor website scams. In the end, we'd dare say avoiding a scam will save you far more than even the most generous retailer's coupon.

Heart of Stone. We often like to point readers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's scams and safety resource page to learn more about consumer fraud, and to the Bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) to report cyber scams. These are tips you will see us recommend over and over again. In this segment, though, we want to point you to a news story you may have missed about a retired FBI agent that could put some small-time scammers to shame in terms of how much he swindled from his victim and the preposterousness of his scheme. In a news release, the U.S. Attorney's office described how the now convicted former FBI agent Roy Stone convinced a Granbury, Texas, woman that she was on “secret probation” for federal drug crimes in a fictitious judge's court in Austin. The aptly surnamed Stone and his co-conspirator told the victim that the federal judge had appointed the two of them to administer the conditions of her six-year “secret probation.” They required her to text them written reports of her daily activities, and to compensate them for their supervisory services as well as any expenses they incurred. Over the course of 11 months, the victim gave Mr. Stone more than $700,000, and his co-conspirator more than $50,000. The victim was told that she was prohibited from disclosing her probation status to anyone, and would risk imprisonment and loss of her children if she did not comply with the terms of her probation. At one point, the co-conspirators allegedly claimed the fictitious judge would discharge the victim's probation if she agreed to marry Stone. The victim eventually started questioning the situation, as described in the release, and thankfully did not fall for the marriage idea. (No word on whether Stone ever offered up a rock to further woo the victim.) Stone now faces up to 158 years in prison, while his co-conspirator faces up to 20 years. The news release also notes that the FBI itself provided valuable assistance during the trial of this scammer, which makes a lot of sense to us, since the FBI is one of our go-to scam-busting resources.

Tell us how we're doing!

We'd love your feedback on how we've been doing and which of our services have been most important to you. Please fill out our (very) brief three-question survey here!

Thank you for reading SCAM GRAM, and, as always, feel free to send us your questions, comments and tips. Click here to email us.

Consumer Action empowers low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers nationwide to financially prosper through education and advocacy. 

©2023 Consumer Action