A Consumer Action News Alert • March 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!
  The times they are a-changin'  

The pandemic has changed the scam scene. According to the latest Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker Risk Report, COVID caused online purchase scams to increase significantly in 2020, and leveled the playing field between young and old victims. For the first time, those aged 18-24 have been losing the same median amount ($150) as those aged 65+ (seniors had tended to lose much more). Why the small dollar amount? Because most of us are losing money to simple online purchase scams now (unlike, say, costly mortgage closing scams), with 18-to-24-year-olds losing dollars most frequently. It appears the internet has become the great equalizer: "Not surprisingly, scams perpetrated online through websites and social media apps were the riskiest contact methods for all age groups in 2020," a BBB rep explained. What kinds of cons are people falling for on the great wide web? Often, those involving COVID-related medicine/supplements/protective equipment, and--since many of us have been a little lonely lately--pets, and even pet supplies. And we are very susceptible to online scams: Almost 80% of consumers who reported an online purchase scam to the BBB lost money to that scam last year! Scammers succeed in their dirty deeds these days by impersonating what have become household names: Amazon, Apple, PayPal and the like. (Want to avoid falling down this digital rabbit hole? Don't click on links sent to you in emails, via texts or in social media ads--go straight to the source to make a purchase!) And as one Amazon rep explains, the problem "is getting more complex because it is increasingly easy for a bad actor to spin up a website, generate traffic and look totally professional." Want to learn more? Check out the National Consumers League's recent conversation with the retail giant on the need for more Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulators, clearer regulations, and a strong national law addressing issues like online fraud and price gouging. 

  Adapting their strategy  

One bit of good news? There was a temporary reprieve in robocalls at the start of the pandemic--seemingly due to scammers not having access to the technology to make the calls (good to know they were sheltering in place?). But all good things must come to an end, and the calls are occurring en masse again--especially that horrible auto warranty one, which, predictably, came in at No. 1 in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) 2020 "Top Five Unwanted Call Complaints." Business Insider predicts that we'll be coping with even more robocalls as the pandemic recedes and "call centers that were shuttered will re-open, and a volume of calls that had been at around 75% of peak over the course of the pandemic will get back up to full capacity." It seems that fraudsters know that the calls are getting old to us, however, since now robotexts are increasing. According to a "Yearly Insights" report by Robokiller (a spam call blocking service), "Thanks to robocalls, consumers are no longer answering their phone calls. The result? Scammers have shifted their tactics to spam text messages because they are more personal, less disruptive than phone calls, and could have a higher engagement rate." Sadly, impostor calls and texts targeting seniors, specifically, are a booming business at this point since the population is eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, which provides a convenient "touchpoint" for criminals offering "access" to the shots. (Check out the FCC's webinar on these types of senior scams and how to stop 'em!) Defeating robocalls and texts in the future comes down to government willpower (just like defeating online purchasing scams). The FTC, which can levy civil penalties on bad actors, and the Department of Justice, which can seek criminal prosecutions, need the funding to crush these common cons. Right now, they're doing a lot with too little. (Case in point: Did you know that in 2015, despite a budget of only $300 million--a pittance for a federal agency--the FTC returned $9 billion to consumers!) Learn more about robocalls, the current rules governing them, and tools to combat them in Consumer Action News: The Robocall Scourge.

  Criminal activities  

The long arm of the law. People across the U.S. are giving up money and personal information because they believe that law enforcement--including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)--has come for them. Sadly, it's usually just a scammer reaching out, and often via phone. The DEA phone scam is everywhere these days, with multiple variations, including callers "claiming the person's name was used to rent a vehicle that was used to smuggle drugs across the border, that their social security number or bank accounts have been compromised, and threatening to arrest the person for drugs." What one scammer didn't see coming (and had trouble believing), however, was that a real DEA agent would take the call when he dialed a man up saying he had a warrant for his arrest. Listen to the call: When the DEA agent calls the scammer's bluff and asks him to send his badge, the criminal changes his tune--first threatening to shoot the agent if he doesn't get himself "out from this case," and finally hanging up the phone, which is what you should do if you get a call like this.

Kid-free kits. Police from Ohio to Indiana are warning parents and caregivers about calls and online posts offering "child safety kits." Victims of the calls often click on a Facebook link advertising the kits, curious about how they can protect kids' digital privacy or find the tykes if they go missing in real life. The "kits" are only a vehicle to con people into submitting their children's photos, names, addresses and even Social Security numbers so that scammers can steal their identities. One target reported getting "two phone calls from two very persistent males [who claimed they were with the state police] requesting to come to her home and be allowed to load an App onto her phone" (to install the kit, natch). Another stated that a kit-caller became "aggressive" when they declined the offer and began "questioning whether they even cared for their children's safety!" Why the intensity around safety kits? The Ohio police stated, "Scammers target a child's information because parents rarely run a credit check on them, so the issue may not come to light for years."

Standing in judgment. Going to court sometime soon? It may pay to ask the clerk what, if any, steps those hosting your trial have taken to protect your identity and financial or private information online. Why online? Because many "visits" are occurring via Zoom these days, and since court proceedings have, technically, always been open to the public, pandemic tele-hearings are too. It's not hard for criminals to catch the link to your case. One Chicago area court found out about this the hard way, after an eavesdropper listened in on a call and reached out to defendants claiming to be the public defender's office and demanding money related to the case. The Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts points out just how susceptible the accused are to scams when the judge asks them to confirm their phone numbers or addresses, all of which "gets broadcast out into the world along with the person's name and the fact that they have a criminal charge and all this other stuff." We object, your honor! 


A losing proposition. Commonly referred to as the "green card lottery," the Diversity Visa Program "awards" permanent resident cards to 50,000 randomly selected applicants from countries that don't send many immigrants to the U.S. Since the Biden administration recently announced new laws and policies around immigration, including revoking a freeze on green cards put in place by the Trump administration, scammers have been using confusion (and enthusiasm) around the lottery to con people into "applying" via email. The fraudsters send their messages from what appears to be the "U.S. Department of State," to bait hopefuls into sending personal details back--including photos and/or copies of their passports. In reality, the 2022 Diversity Visa enrollment period ended in the fall of 2020, and the upcoming 2023 enrollment is not yet open (but it will be from May 8 to Sept. 30, 2021). Know someone who has applied? Remind them: Checking their status to see if they've won must be done through the official website. Thinking about enrolling or know someone who is? Enrollment is free, so don't pay anyone to "help" you apply. Slipping someone a bribe will not improve your odds.

#ScammersOfInstagram. When you think of sketchy messages on Instagram that lure users to become "models," you probably envision creepy criminals harassing gullible girls. Fraudsters are upping their Insta game, however, with one recently claiming to represent a record label paying $175 per hour for music video models, and another pretending to be some sort of publicist-to-models who had previously "Instagram verified" a number of public figures--including an NBC news anchor from the same media outlet that would later run a story about the con. (Instagram verification typically means more money for a business or influencer--it's that blue check mark on a content creator's account that signifies credibility and, unbeknownst to many, cannot be bought; it must be earned.) In both of the recent cases we highlight here, the women who fell for the modeling scams had their doubts. Also, in both scams, the con artists came off as charming--even knowledgeable and experienced, sending doctored documents, including fake modeling contracts to bridge the digital divide. Police pointed out an additional similarity: Each of the criminals had been targeting multiple women. The takeaway? Be careful if you're trying to see your name in lights: One scammer can ruin a lot of side hustles. Want to up your Instagram game? Rather than compensating con artists, it pays to be authentic, have a good content strategy and engage with your audience. Then you might be eligible for your own blue check mark.

This may app-ly to you. It's one thing to carelessly download every trendy new app; it's another to be careless about the apps you've downloaded--particularly financial technology (or FinTech) apps. "Careless use of FinTech apps can lead to fraud and loss of privacy," says Consumer Action's Linda Sherry. "Our goal is to suggest ways to use them in a safer manner while preserving the benefits they offer." Consumer Action's been reaching that goal with our new Share Financial Data with Care webpage, which features share-able videos on staying security savvy when using services like Cash App or Venmo, fact sheets on data sharing, answers to FinTech FAQs, and more. You see, FinTech apps tend to store your bank account, credit union and/or brokerage login credentials, while subjecting you to "terms and conditions" that limit their liability in the event of a data breach. This is particularly problematic because when app logins piggyback on customer-supplied usernames and passwords, it can be difficult for financial services companies to distinguish between screen-scraping "bots," malicious hackers and actual customers. The bottom line? It's super important to be aware of which apps are accessing your financial accounts (and for what reason), what info they can obtain, and who it's sold to or shared with. (As the New York Times points out, probably more third parties than you realize.) In the coming months, we'll be holding free webinars about safe use of FinTech apps and posting them to our website. Oh, and we'll also be hosting a (free, again) webinar on March 23rd on the rise of fraud and ID theft in the COVID-19 era, which you can sign up to join here!