A Consumer Action News Alert • Jan. 16, 2024


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No welcome mat here
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, a federal grand jury this month indicted two men for their leading role in an $8.5 million Airbnb and Vrbo scam that allegedly defrauded thousands of victims and discriminated against renters across 10 states. The federal prosecutor's press announcement states that the indicted pair own properties they double-booked through multiple listings on Airbnb and Vrbo, and that they then invented last-minute excuses, such as plumbing problems, to cancel overbooked guests or trick them into accepting inferior accommodations. Through the multiple listings for the same property at different prices, the defendants were essentially running a secret bidding war. The highest "bidder" would get the property, while other would-be guests received cancellations or had to settle for the alternative properties. As if that weren't shameful enough, the defendants decided which guests to keep and which to cancel based on racial animus—they avoided renting to guests they believed were Black. Since we're talking about the hosts with the most (up their sleeves), you better believe there was more to their trickery. Read in the U.S. Attorney's release about how the defendants and their accomplices used fake host accounts to conceal their identities, used fake addresses to create duplicate listings and evade local short-term rental rules, purged bad reviews by removing and then relisting negatively reviewed properties, and, of course, failed to issue refunds to those entitled to them. If you’d prefer rest and relaxation to fraud and frustration on your next getaway, check out these tips for spotting vacation rental scams.

Paved with bad intentions
Among typical homeowner concerns are things like the cost of unexpected repairs and the affordability of insurance. A recent story from the Orlando area could cause homeowners to add “disappearing driveway” to that list. WFTV reported last month on the case of homeowner Amanda Brochu, who, after putting her home up for sale, started to see contractors arrive at her home to measure her driveway. One of the contractors told Brochu he'd been contacted by her "landlord," a man named Andre who was intending to replace the driveway. After Brochu contacted police about the strange visits, the police later informed her that they had spoken with Andre and that it had all been a mistake of address, and that nothing else would happen. A week later, while Brochu was away, her driveway was torn up and hauled away (all captured by her door camera). Although it wasn't immediately clear what kind of scam was taking place, in a subsequent news piece, WFTV reported that it had been an "overpayment scam" targeting the contractors. A general contractor told the news station that this kind of scam is pervasive in the industry and that it sometimes makes victims out of homeowners as well. As described by the general contractor interviewed by WFTV, scammers find homes for sale online, and then call contractors for exterior work estimates, pretending to be the homeowners. The scammer then sends a check to the contractor for more than the agreed upon price and asks the contractor to refund the overpayment. As no surprise to regular SCAM GRAM readers, the original check eventually bounces, leaving the victim contractor high and dry. And, as in Brochu's case, the unsuspecting homeowner could end up with unwanted work or even damage to their home. Brochu lucked out because, as WFTV reported, a Cox Media Group radio sponsor has offered to install a new driveway for free, and the money Brochu raised on GoFundMe will be donated to a local nonprofit. For anyone planning to sell a home in 2024, add this to the many scams you need to watch out for.

Holiday hangover

No secret here. If you're among the 34% of Americans who, according to a LendingTree survey, went into debt this holiday season—or, if you simply want to earn back some of what you spent on gifts—the idea of a side hustle might seem attractive. As you contemplate gig or remote work, you'll want to heed consumer reporter John Matarese's warning in a recent WDRB news report. Matarese relayed the story of Cindy Senour, a consumer who received an urgent letter bearing Walmart's logo and informing her that she'd been chosen to work as a secret shopper. In the news piece, you can see the $4,770.23 check that was enclosed with the letter. As Matarese explained, the letter instructed Senour to deposit the check and buy Walmart gift cards to evaluate the store's cashiers. Senour sensed that something was wrong and, fortunately, did not fall for the scam (which entails sending the gift card codes to the scammer and then seeing their check bounce, leaving the victim out the money they spent on the cards). Matarese shared a warning from the Better Business Bureau regarding this type of scam: Any job offer that sends you a check upfront is almost always a scam. Do you ever wonder how you might become a secret shopper for real? The WDRB news story tells you where you might start your search for such a job. But, really, wouldn't you prefer a good long break from shopping right about now? 

Fitness frenzy. Maybe you didn't overindulge in the bubbly or mulled wine this holiday season, but succumbed to the beckoning cookies, cakes and candy, and now you're ready to get fit in 2024. Whatever your reason for turning a new leaf, we won't judge, but we do recommend checking out USA Today's recent article warning readers about "New Year, New You" scams. Author Betty Lin-Fisher writes that the new year (inevitably) brings weight-loss scams that promise to miraculously melt away the pounds—no exercise or diet required. Lin-Fisher warns that fraudulent ads, disguised to look like news reports, are touting miracle products. Included in the news piece are lots of tips from the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau for how to spot weight loss scams. Before you check out the tips, try answering the following to test your knowledge: An ad for a product that promises you will lose 30 pounds in 30 days is (a) a scam, or (b) a great offer you should take advantage of right away? Find the answer, and a lot of good advice, here.


Ringing in the new year. This new year, you can achieve your resolution to avoid scam calls from fake phone numbers by following fresh new tips from Nextstar. A KRQE News 13 piece reveals five signs that will tell you a call is a scam even before you pick up the phone. It explains that although carrier tools can tell you that an incoming call is a likely a scam, these aren't perfect, and there are other red flags to watch for. Citing Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a phone screening and blocking service, the article and related video recommend, for example, that consumers beware of calls coming from area codes that have the same second and third digits (for example, 200, 300, 400), since these are set aside by the North American Numbering Plan Administrator for special uses (like 411 and 911). Another incoming area code to watch out for, the article continues, is Washington, D.C.'s 202, since it's regularly spoofed by scammers who want to appear to be calling from a government agency. Nextstar's list of tips is brief and informative, and worth checking out to help ensure phony phone call freedom in 2024.

A souped-up scam. Although few details were known as of a week ago, a story out of Townsend, Massachusetts, reminds us to be wary of romance scams, especially since the big day for lovebirds looms just around the corner. CBS News Boston reported the story of a woman who is now charged with attempted murder for trying to poison her husband with soup after a scammer, pretending to be a soap opera star and feigning romantic interest, told her via text message that “you have to get rid of your husband honey.” Although the woman denies the charge, and police urge the public not to rush to judgment, CBS explains that she responded in another message "making an amazing soup. Special potion. Maybe I could collect life insurance." We were certainly glad to read that the 73-year-old husband survived. And, though we shouldn’t rush to judgment, we should rush over to the FTC's "What to Know About Romance Scams" article. It includes tips and guidance about romance scammer lies, avoiding money losses, and reporting scams. If you're wondering why romance scams work and continue to yield victims, check out this piece from Psychology Today. You'll see why empathy and compassion (not judgment) can help someone who has become a victim of a romance scam. One final tip we might offer, at least until Cupid season blows over, is to lay off the daytime soaps—and maybe avoid the soup? (Or at least make it yourself.)

Medicare scare. Just days into the new year, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley warned the public about a telephone scam targeting Medicare recipients. This is one that's easily replicated across the country, so lean in: Scammers are calling consumers and telling them that their Medicare benefits are about to expire. They ask Medicare recipients for their current Medicare number so it can be tied to a new number. If the recipient refuses to provide the information, Attorney General Jackley's office explained in a press release, the scammer threatens to stop the person’s Medicare benefits. “These scammers are bullying the Medicare recipients and threatening to take away their well-earned benefits,” Jackley said. He added that recipients of such calls should never give out personal or financial information and should use caution if a caller pressures them for it. Jackley also recommends that anyone who has given out their Medicare number in this type of scam should request a new card from Medicare at 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227). We also recommend complaining to your state attorney general's office about this, as well as if you ever receive unordered knee, wrist or back braces—another scam sign mentioned by Jackley's office.

Nigerian "Prince" (we kid you not). A Nigerian national named Amos Prince Okey Ezemma (see what we mean?) is the final defendant arrested in connection to an international inheritance fraud scheme, according to a press release issued last month by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The federal agency explained that, over the course of more than five years, Ezemma allegedly sent personalized letters to elderly U.S. consumers falsely claiming that the sender was a representative of a bank in Spain and that the recipient was entitled to receive a multimillion-dollar inheritance left by a family member who died years before in that country. Ezemma's lies to victims included that, before they could receive their purported inheritance, they were required to send money for delivery fees and taxes in addition to making other payments. Victims who sent money never received any of the purported inheritance funds. Though you likely recall hearing about the storied “Nigerian prince” scam many times before (if not, AARP provides a nice run-through here), you may not remember that if you or someone you know is age 60 or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, help is available at the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311). Keep this number handy and encourage everyone around you to disregard promises of foreign (or local) inheritances that require you to pay up to receive.

Swift scheme. You might have caught the story about the cooked-up marketing partnership between superstar Taylor Swift and Le Creuset in which Swift is supposedly offering up free cookware in social media ads. The scheme was reported by MalwareTips and Newsweek in December and then picked up again last week by the New York Times, CBS News and other media outlets. What you might not have had a chance to see yet is scam buster Jordan Liles's YouTube video about the ruse. The video lets you see the not-too-convincing images of Swift (did they even try?) and hear audio that sounds like her (albeit not matching the lip movements). As Liles explains, several versions of the artificial intelligence-generated paid ad are circulating on Facebook and Instagram. In Liles's video, after clicking on one of the ads, he lands on a fake Food Network website featuring an article that tells readers they will have to cover a shipping fee of $9.96 for the free cookware. First, however, they will need to find out if they are "eligible" by completing a survey. As it turns out, everyone ends up being eligible, and they then get asked for personal information on yet another fake website. If readers click on the terms and conditions at the bottom of the new page, they will find "the catch," as Liles refers to it. According to the terms, consumers will be entered into a giveaway sweepstakes for a supposed chance to win cookware. They will have to pay $5.95 upon initial sweepstakes entry, then a monthly fee of $79.95 or $69.95 (or both, as it's unclear). Each month they will be re-entered into the sweepstakes and—wait for it—they will also get, each month, a $150 gift card to spend at the "best consumers gadget club on the web." Kudos to Liles for his eye-opening video on today's fake celebrity endorsement schemes. You'll want to share it with your community so that they, too, can avoid Le Scam.

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