A Consumer Action News Alert • June 17, 2024


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A scam takes shape
Last month, we wrote about the hundreds of thousands of consumers who have been lured to fake shopping sites that steal credit card information with promises of delivering high-end goods. Earlier this month, a PYMNTS website article emphasized the other victim in these types of scams: small businesses, who are losing customers to fraudsters who use the businesses’ videos, logos and social media posts to perpetrate their schemes. PYMNTS cited a Wall Street Journal report that explained how technology has been a double-edged sword for small businesses: It helps them connect with customers around the world, but it also helps fraudsters using artificial intelligence tools to avoid language or spelling errors that would be a tip-off to targets. PYMNTS referred to the scheme as an example of triangulation fraud: a scam that "leverages the interconnectedness of global eCommerce platforms to exploit both businesses and consumers." For businesses, PYMNTS explained, triangulation fraud can be devastating. For example, it can lead to chargebacks that not only affect their bottom line but also damage the company’s reputation and its relationship with payment processors. If you are part of a community-based organization that serves small business owners, you can read more about the importance of educating small businesses about these scams here, and find practical tips for small businesses here

City founders (and losers)
A recent report from the Fresno County Grand Jury serves as a good reminder to always be on alert for scam red flags—be it on your own time or while on the clock. The grand jury investigated a phishing scam in which the City of Fresno lost over $600,000 in 2020—a result of Fresno finance department employees failing to follow safeguards that would have prevented the scam. To carry out the fraud, reported Fresnoland, one or more unidentified scammers used publicly available information about a Fresno police substation construction project to pose as an “accounting specialist” for the construction company. The scammer emailed a city finance department employee to request that installment payments on the project be made by Automated Clearing House (ACH) funds transfer instead of by check. Two payments, one for $324,473 and another for $289,264, were then made as requested. The missed red flags include that the scammer's email address ended in ".us" instead of the correct ".com"; an email to the scammer was returned as undeliverable; and, as the grand jury report noted, scammers provided multiple bank account numbers from different states in attempts to deceive city staff. The good news is that this was not found to be an inside job, and the city has implemented new internal controls. The bad news is that scam attempts are expected to continue, and no city is immune. Check out this similar story about a $1.2 million loss by the City of Fort Lauderdale—and remember to be extra vigilant at work (as if your paycheck depended on it). 

Happy trails to you

Scammers at your service. Fodor’s Travel is warning flyers that scammers are posing as airlines on X (formerly Twitter) and stealing sensitive data. Citing a report by Which?, a UK-based consumer group, Fodor’s explained that scam accounts use bots to find customer complaints on social media and then respond to the complaints while pretending to be customer service representatives. The fraudsters have asked customers to share details in private messages, directed them to phishing websites that gather bank card information, and asked for small payments to resolve issues. Although the Which? report refers to European airlines, the warning from Fodor’s is vital for any consumer who turns to social media to complain: Any response we get to a complaint could come from a fake account. The article’s author, Apeksha Bhateja, includes a screenshot of her own tweet about ending up in a windowless seat on Ryan Air, in which she tagged the correct @Ryanair handle. Her tweet received an apologetic response from a fake account asking for her booking number and phone number. The response could have easily gone undetected as the fake that it was: from "Raynair," with the handle @Raynair098. Bhateja also recounted the story of a Which? researcher who tweeted an airline asking about a flight delay. The researcher received responses from two fake accounts apologizing for the inconvenience, advising that the matter had been escalated, and requesting a reachable WhatsApp number for further assistance. The fake accounts, the Fodor’s Travel story continues, are often quicker to respond than the airlines, and even interrupt conversations between the airline and the consumer, making it even harder to distinguish the fake response from the real one. Fodor’s Travel's tips for protecting yourself include taking steps to verify who the reply is from, looking at when the account was opened and the number of followers it has, and knowing that airlines won't ask for financial information over social media. 

Speaking of travel scams... You'll also want to check out the tips offered by Katy Nastro in this article for Good Morning America. Nastro offers advice for avoiding a few novel and creative schemes, one of which involves hackers stealing airline miles. Nastro recounts her own case, in which an unknown person used her airline miles to fly to a destination in Asia. She points out that, though the missing miles were obvious to her, such a theft could easily go unnoticed by anyone who might have accumulated a lot of points and miles through purchases during the pandemic and be unaware of what their balance is now. Don't miss Nastro's tips for avoiding this scam and the steps she took to have her miles recredited to her account. Nastro also shared some advice for those heading across the pond this summer (which could come in handy even closer to home): Watch out for the "friendship bracelet" scam, in which con artists try to coerce you into paying for it after they've placed it around your wrist (as explained in more detail here and here); vendors pushing high-priced roses on couples; thieves offering to use your phone or camera to help you take a photo (and then running off with your device); and ploys to discover where you keep your wallet (to pickpocket you later on). But, hey, don't let these buzz-killing tips put a damper on your globetrotting plans for the summer. Bon voyage, and stay safe.


Grounded for the weekend. Pittsburgh-based NBC affiliate WPXI reported that the Allegheny County Police Department is investigating a fake hot air balloon festival that appears to be part of a nationwide scam. According to the news story, an organization called Hot Air America advertised the two-day event for June 8 and 9, selling tickets for the "Pittsburgh Balloon Glow” on Eventbrite for $10 to $100. Ticket purchasers were disappointed when the event never took place. According to County Police, the news story continues, the organizer advertises the events and sells tickets for them, but they never happen. Police told WPXI that they had been concerned that the person who applied for the event permit was the same person who had put on other fake events, so they denied the permit. Although Facebook and Eventbrite posts subsequently said the event had been postponed until 2025 and that refunds would be issued, Allegheny Police Sergeant Jonathan King told WPXI that he’s doubtful the event will happen next year and recommends ticket buyers contact Eventbrite and their credit card companies directly about getting a refund. Hot Air America's website currently lists several events for the summer. However, the links to purchase tickets were not working when we visited the site. With the summer festival season already in progress, it would behoove all of us to avoid event promoters who are full of hot air.

Unfriendly welcome. The Federal Trade Commission has warned immigrants about immigration scams for years. And, as you might imagine, with the ongoing influx of migrants, this kind of warning does not get old. Just last week, the Northeast Pennsylvania NBC affiliate WBRE reported that the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office is asking the public for help locating two alleged immigration scammers: Cruz Maria Perez-Mesa and Daniel Martinez (aka Hector Martinez). The duo, posing as immigration attorneys, scammed Latino immigrants out of tens of thousands of dollars by promising help with work permits, family petitions, and other documents. They met many of their victims through the United Blend Community Center, a nonprofit in Wilkes-Barre. The nonprofit's director was shown fake attorney credentials and believed the pair were legitimate. The WBRE story includes a good reminder from the Dougherty, Leventhal & Price law firm, which is now helping victims: Consumers have a right to check an attorney's background and ask for their license. Should you or someone in your community need to check out someone's license and eligibility to practice law in your state, we recommend keeping handy this link from the American Bar Association. 

Looking for gold. The Portland Division of the FBI warned the public earlier this month about an increase in reports of scammers falsely representing themselves as FBI agents or representatives of other government agencies. The scammers demand money using urgent and aggressive tones, and urge victims not to tell anyone—be it family, friends or financial institutions. The FBI reminds consumers that federal agencies do not call or email individuals to threaten arrest or demand money, and that such calls are fraudulent even if they appear to be coming from an agency’s legitimate phone number. In this new version of the impersonation scam, the FBI explains, targets are being asked to withdraw money as either cash or gold and to give it to a courier who will arrive at their home (though prepaid cards, wire transfers, and cash via mail or deposit into cryptocurrency ATMs are still among scammers’ favored payment methods). If you think you've been legitimately contacted by the FBI, call your local FBI field office directly to verify if they are really trying to reach you. The FBI asks government impersonation scam victims to report the fraud to local law enforcement and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), at ic3.gov.

Keep on surviving. Last month, the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust (BBB Institute), the educational foundation of the International Association of Better Business Bureaus, marked a new annual day of recognition: the first “National Scam Survivor Day.” In honor of the event, and with the support of Amazon and Capital One, the BBB Institute launched the Scam Survival Toolkit, an online resource that, as explained by the BBB Institute, connects people with the tailored guidance and resources they need to help restore their financial, mental and emotional health after being scammed. Melissa Lanning, the executive director of BBB Institute, pointed out in a press release that when a person is targeted by a scam, they’re not only impacted financially, but in other ways as well. She described the toolkit as a first step in addressing the mental health concerns of scam survivors. “Scam Survivor Day allows us to celebrate the brave men and women who are using their experiences to assist others,” Lanning said. Find the toolkit on the homepage of BBB Scam Tracker. In our test run of the toolkit, we were glad to be pointed to this handy one-page guide on how to approach a friend or family member for emotional support after being scammed. Along with BBB's Scam Tracker, we suggest keeping this new toolkit at your fingertips.

Tugging at your heart—and purse—strings. WOOD TV's Target 8 Team in Grand Rapids ran a story last week about the men and women standing on corners carrying signs with a child's photo on them asking for money to pay for the child's funeral. The story explains why police are warning that these funeral fundraisers are likely a scam. The news team asked several solicitors holding signs where the child's funeral would be and when the child had died. A couple of suspected scammers claimed not to speak English or refused to speak, another questioned the reporter using an expletive, while yet another actually struck the reporter with a sign (quite maliciously, it appears, when you watch the video). According to the story, Grand Rapids police have information indicating that the donation solicitors are a traveling group soliciting funds fraudulently. Although soliciting donations in public is protected by the First Amendment, a police spokeswoman told WOOD TV that state law and local ordinances prohibit it if it involves fraud. In recent years, groups with similar funeral signs have popped up in several states, the story continues. Corporal Mike Martinez, of the Rialto, California, police department, told WOOD TV that after several arrests in his city, the practice stopped. The officer recommended not giving money to the solicitors, remarking that, “As sorry as it is to say, don’t do it, don’t trust them.” This seems like good advice when you consider how, in subsequent encounters with the news team, one solicitor told the reporter to "report on your mother," and another, when asked if the fundraising was a scam, replied, "It's a scam." Duly noted.

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