A Consumer Action News Alert • February 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!
  Valentine's Day: the SCAM GRAM way  
  Forget the flowers and candy; this Valentine's Day show some love by forwarding this romance scam alert to single friends and family members. Sadly, romance scams have been particularly prolific in our strange new era of pandemic-imposed isolation and instant online gratification. According to the latest data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), romance scam reports doubled from 2019 through 2020! People (especially single, divorced and/or widowed women over 40) who are looking for love online are losing lots of money to attractive dating profiles run by charming con artists. All told, victims lost over $200 million in 2019 alone--pre-pandemic--which was already up 40% from the prior year! And while those between 40 and 69 report losing money most often, seniors aged 70 and older report losing the most money.

If you (or someone you know) is "out there" looking to land a catch, don't just look for relationship red flags, look for signs that a love interest may be altogether a fraud (i.e., a "catfish"). These signs include random "dream" men and women (e.g., too-good-to-be-true doctors, five-star generals and supermodels) dropping you a line; using the "L" word(s) way too quickly (both "love" and "loan," as in, "Can you loan me some money?"); refusing to meet in person (there's always an excuse--and now there's the excuse: a deadly virus); or asking you to move money around (scammers are even incorporating believable COVID-19-related scenarios into modern "money mule" manipulations).

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid romance scams. First, use reverse image searches; you can often discover if a photo was pulled from someone else's existing social media profile. Also, avoid getting in a bind (by, for instance, sending sexy photos) that could lead to blackmail attempts. And never, ever wire or transfer money to people you don't know and haven't met--and that definitely includes the stranger you stayed up all night texting with! The National Cyber Security Alliance lists more (shareable) tips that we love!
  All cost, no benefit  
  When scammers bilk individuals out of their state unemployment insurance benefits, they're typically not the types to choose tax withholding. Instead, they select the option to receive all the money they can get, and leave you stuck with the final tax tally. Victims of unemployment-related identity theft likely have no idea it's even happening--that is, until they receive a 1099-G form detailing how much "they" claimed in unemployment benefits. People across the country are now being called upon to pay the piper for public assistance they never needed or got--from everyday folk like Bernie Irwin here, who "was shocked two weeks ago when she opened the mail and found a 1099-G form saying her [83-year-old] husband [who hadn't worked in 13 years] had claimed $17,292 in unemployment benefits," to the governor of Ohio (where Mrs. Irwin lives), the governor's wife, and even the lieutenant governor!

SCAM GRAM has covered the pervasive problem of unemployment insurance fraud across America, but as a review: Criminals caught wind of the expanded pandemic-related benefits the government was offering and used breached identities to pilfer billions in unemployment benefits from the states, leading to suspended payments, class action lawsuits and all-around chaos.

But back to the current conundrum: Let's say you get the dreaded 1099-G and you haven't been on unemployment--what should you do? Don't trash it. First, visit your state's unemployment office online, where you'll likely be prompted to report the fraud and request a new 1099-G showing you did not, in actuality, receive any benefits. The IRS points out that "a corrected Form 1099-G showing zero unemployment benefits in cases of identity theft will help taxpayers avoid being hit with an unexpected federal tax bill for unreported income." If the corrected form doesn't show up by the deadline to file taxes (April 15), file without claiming the fraudulent benefits. Also, contact your state's attorney general and the local police to report the ID theft, and check out the FTC's IdentityTheft.gov, where you can create and implement your own ID theft recovery plan. Keep all documents for at least three years.
  (Un)official officials  
They blinded me with science. Reports to the Better Business Bureau regarding a government grants scam orchestrated via calls, emails and DMs claiming to represent the "National Science Foundation" have been trickling in, and enough people have fallen for the scheme (to the tune of thousands of dollars in losses) that we feel it's worth a warning. While the real NSF does provide grants, it doesn't do so unless legitimate researchers and other academic-type applicants, well, apply. And while government grant scams have been around for a while, perhaps the pandemic is the reason why this particular scheme has been so effective. With a new administration in office and the government desperate to conquer COVID, it might be conceivable to those "answering the call" that Uncle Sam would be offering to bankroll their sudden blundering into the world of virology? (Or maybe we've all just watched too many Marvel movies.) Regardless, it's unlikely that you're going to be asked to cure COVID (or save the world), so if you "get the call," hang up.
NOT the 'real' thing. In Illinois, Arizona, New York and undoubtedly other states, criminals are contacting drivers claiming to be with their state's department of transportation, motor vehicles or unemployment. The timely tricksters are offering to update the driver's license to the "real ID" version required for activities such as boarding planes and entering federal buildings beginning Oct. 1. While the texts may sound dramatic and official (using words like "compliance" and "deadline"), no public official will be texting you about Real ID, and they certainly won't be prompting you to click on some strange hyperlink within the message to update your personal or financial information. Learn more about the real Real ID here, before getting caught up in all the angst around a "drivers license." 
Straight to the source. Criminals in Pennsylvania, Illinois and other states have been reaching out directly to residents via social media and text message to solicit information from them about unemployment insurance benefits, under the guise of "helping" them claim the benefits or sort out related questions. We've been covering the massive pandemic-related unemployment insurance fraud for months now, but mostly from the angle of scammers obtaining your personal data, which, statistically, is likely to have already been breached and traded on the dark web. However, scammers are also going straight to the source--you--for the personal info they need to file for unemployment benefits in your name. Clever con artists have even been creating imposter accounts on Facebook that appear to represent the real state agencies helping people claim jobless benefits. If you see a suspicious page, you can click on the three vertical dots at the top to flag it for review by Facebook. One Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry official has even theorized that the fraudsters "might also be reaching out directly to someone who posts or tweets about Pennsylvania's unemployment programs, falsely identifying themselves as an agency employee in an attempt to solicit information to help them resolve their issues." As we always say, be wary of unsolicited contacts/offers, and independently look up your real state unemployment insurance website if you've got any questions.
Unhappy accidents. Digital wallet/payment app scams are a booming "industry" for criminals these days, with new twists occurring daily. While you may have heard about the "fast fraud" Cash App cons (we've covered them before), the latest is a little less glamorous. The scam appears in the form of a casual request from a stranger on Venmo who just happened to accidentally send money to the wrong recipient (you). They'd love it if you'd do them a solid and return the money. Being the kind soul you are, you agree to help out. What you don't know, however, is that the "stranger" contacting you stole a credit card from someone else, which they're using to add money to your account. Unfortunately, as the Better Business Bureau summarizes, when you send the scammer "their" money back, they "will delete the stolen credit card from their account and add their own card in its place. Then, the money you are sending will go on to their personal card. Eventually, the stolen funds will be removed from your account, and you will be out that money." If a stranger messages you on Venmo, report it to the company here. And take these steps to make sure your payment apps are secure.

Scandal! Scammers must be aware of the popularity of Netflix's Bridgerton series, since they're threatening to lock viewers out of their Netflix accounts, cutting off access to the spicy bodice ripper--ouch!--or bribing them with a year of free access, which, tragically, even if it were true, would not last to the start of season two! (Oh, how much longer must we wait for another glimpse of The Duke?) Like Bridgerton's gossipmonger, Lady Whistledown, let's reveal the inside scoop: Whether you're sent a text, an email, or a cursive missive à la 1813, it's a good bet that any offer to alter your Netflix account is a scam. If you've got questions about your account, log in to Netflix's real website--don't use whatever hyperlink you were sent in the correspondence, as it's likely to lead to a lookalike site meant to siphon your username, password and even credit card info.
Enough already, we believe you! That photo you took with your sleeve rolled up, showing off the big guns while snapping a selfie (or what's been coined a "vaxxie") of you getting the jab is really all your friends and followers need to see to know that you have, indeed, been vaccinated! No, really: No one needs social media "proof" in the form of dozens of fluorescent-lit photos taken by a tentative nurse at your local health center, and we certainly don't need to see your new vaccination card. Revealing this final part of the process and, by extension, your full name, your birth date, etc. could help scammers fill in the "puzzle" pieces they've needed to steal your entire identity. Letting criminals--the types who research targets before reaching out--know that you've been vaccinated also gives them the ammunition they need to contact you about a "booster shot" or other socially-engineered future foray. And, as the New York Times points out, if nothing else, "artists" can always use vaccine card images to create lookalike cards to sell on the black market, which makes us all less safe. Haven't been vaccinated yet? Not sure about it? It's important to know that your insurance should cover the jab. It's also free under Medicare, Medicaid and for those who are uninsured. Also, you can't pay to be added to any sort of vaccine "waiting list." Anyone contacting you and claiming to offer a vaccine for money or personal data, including your SSN or insurance card info, is peddling poison.

No quick fix. In a pandemic, when loss of income is common, many people turn to credit to help pay the bills or make needed purchases. Because credit is so critical right now, consumers are also turning to credit repair scams in well-intentioned yet misplaced efforts to "fix" bad credit, or to improve their scores in order to gain access to more credit. "Consumer Man" Herb Weisbaum recently wrote about these scams, in which fraudulent companies make promises that no one can keep--such as dramatically improving credit scores by removing accurate negative items or "hard inquiries" (which occur when you apply for a loan) from credit reports. In reality, accurate items on your credit report can't simply be wiped away. You need to put in the work to improve your score, mainly by paying your debts on time, every time, and by using 20% or less of your credit lines, or at least not maxing your cards out.  The good news? Anyone can get free financial advice from certified counselors and coaches right now, including a plan for how to diligently dig themselves out of even the deepest debt.