A Consumer Action News Alert • April 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!
  At your service  

Scammers watch the news, and they found an opportunity when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would no longer require airlines to accommodate "emotional support animals" on flights. But service dogs, unlike emotional support animals, still can fly the friendly skies alongside you (in the cabin), instead of being consigned to cargo. Sadly, scammers have jumped into the uncertainty around the definition of "service" dog, with offers to (for a fee) "register" Fido as a legitimate card-carrying service animal. The fraud? No database of registered service dogs exists--so any ID card, certification or registration is pure fiction. And there is no test, vest or tag that confirms your dog is, in fact, a true service animal. So think twice before paying to "register" Fido--it doesn't matter to the airlines. What does? Many are now asking for two signed DOT affidavit forms testifying that you are, in fact, disabled; that your service animal is up on its shots and well-behaved in public settings (that's right, Bowser: no barking, lunging at travelers or peeing on the seats); and that you understand it's a federal crime to lie about any of this. (Don't let fraudsters pull you into their criminal orbit!)

  Guard your card  

It's bad enough that everyone's posting photos of their vaccine cards to social media (complete with unique identifying numbers), but when half-baked ideas like "vaccine passports" are bandied about, you end up with even more to lose if someone decides to copy, steal or otherwise use your vaccine card/identity. Since it seems that thoughtful considerations around equity, data privacy and even human rights have gone out the window as for-profit companies clamor to develop vaccine "passport apps" unhindered--and organizations like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) declare the passports definitively "coming"--it's probably a good idea to understand what types of scams may be coming too. The federal government and World Health Organization haven't created any sort of vaccine passport--and have actually declared they will not be doing so--but that doesn't stop criminals from calling people and claiming to be with an entity (government or non) that's collecting information or money for an allegedly "required" passport. The looming threat of actual required passports also means that many people (particularly those who don't want to get vaxxed) are turning to the black market to purchase counterfeit cards created by con artists (it doesn't take a graphic design degree to make 'em). As the New York Times points out, the efforts to sell fake cards already "are far from hidden, with Facebook pages named 'vax-cards' and eBay listings with 'blank vaccine cards' openly hawking the items." Of course, buying a card online from a scammer is probably not in your best interest, no matter what your future travel plans...

  Schooling you on scams  

Higher impersonation. There's been an influx of new scams targeting college students. One phishing email in particular has generated so many complaints that it's recently warranted warnings from both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The emails (there are a few iterations), which appear to be from the IRS and contain an "IRS" logo, are being sent to anyone with a (dot) edu email address (which includes college profs too). Of course, the emails contain links to imposter websites that offer varying services pertaining to "tax refund payments"--as long as you input your Social Security Number...and yada, yada--the rest is ID theft history! As Business Insider bluntly points out: "The IRS isn't exactly modern. If it needs to get in touch with a taxpayer, it sends a letter." Harsh! (But, true.) The bottom line: You're not going to get an unsolicited email or call from the taxman (and they certainly won't hit you up on social media)! But, if you get one of these emails, report it to the IRS (phishing@irs.gov).

Doesn't pass the (sniff) test. High school students preparing for college (and their concerned parents) are especially vulnerable to cons from charlatans pretending to be the College Board or other venerated SAT/higher-ed prep organizations and services. We get it--we don't all have the money to buy our way into a good school a la Lori Loughlin; most of us have to earn our acceptance the honest way! And the honest way can take a lot of hard work--which is why paying for prep services, or giving out our addresses and personal info in exchange for "educational materials" to give our teens a leg up, might seem wise. But we'll give you a free lesson in the school of hard knocks--it's almost never legit when a company or individual is reaching out to you, unsolicited. Hang up and do your homework before selecting a service that you solicit instead! Oh, and teens, don't hire someone (even online) to cheat on school work or tests--these "tutors" have been known to turn extortionist and threaten to "email your school or teacher to tell them that you used them and they did your homework." This is a lesson you don't want to learn the hard way! 

What a relief! There's good news for student loan borrowers: President Biden extended a student loan payment pause through the end of September 2021. The bad news? Money magazine is reporting that borrowers are getting calls from a "Biden Student Loan Relief Program." With all of the money Uncle Sam's been dispensing lately (through the stimulus, etc.) it's not entirely unbelievable that such a program could exist. Alas, it is just another student loan scam, albeit a particularly germane one amidst "all the current talk about student debt cancellation proposals." Thus far, however, Congress is not considering legislation that would enable outright student loan forgiveness. Unfortunately, many students report that criminals are hacking into (or are attempting to hack) their StudentAid.gov accounts, and their aim certainly isn't paying down your debt. (Never give out your Federal Student Aid ID or password--they can be used to access your personal info and alter your student loan repayment plan without you even knowing!) Interested in real loan repayment options? Check out the Consumer Action News issue "Repaying your student loans" and/or the Federal Student Aid website--and never deal with random "brokers" promising to get you lower (or no) monthly payments. 


Good grief! Scammers are already urging the public to "bring out 'yer dead" upon hearing of the new and generous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funeral aid program, which reimburses grieving families up to $35,000 per household for COVID-related deaths (up to $9,000 per funeral). According to one investigative report, "FEMA anticipates issues such as multiple family members submitting for reimbursement for the same death. However, funeral directors are more worried about scammers going after a grieving loved one's personal information." Not dead yet? If the opportunists come calling, let 'em know they've got a live one and don't give away your personal information (name, SSN, etc.) or that of those you love (whether living or deceased). Contact the FEMA helpline (800-621-3362) to report any unexpected contact regarding "funeral expenses," because the government agency won't be calling you. (And FYI, funeral homes won't be "applying" for financial assistance for you either.) We're also worried about con artists creating believable COVID-as-the-cause "death certificates" upon learning of people who have passed (since the identities of the deceased are listed in newspapers, and often, online). 

No prize for adulting. You've paid your bills, done your laundry and gotten "The Vaccine"--all in the last day. You sure do feel accomplished! So when you get an email offering you an iPad Pro just for getting the jab, you think, "What luck! I deserve this!" and click on the link. You know where we're going with this...nowhere good, which is where the link takes you (to a bogus website or to download malware). Or perhaps you're an avid SCAM GRAM reader and something about the former scenario smells fishy, but later that day you get an email from "Pfizer" entreating you to answer a "limited-time" vaccine survey (in exchange for a gift or money--heck, maybe even for that iPad Pro we mentioned earlier). This scenario may seem more credible--after all, the vaccine research is ongoing, and vaccine makers are probably looking to gain information on side effects, efficacy, etc. Perhaps the email even appears to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or your local government. Stop right there: This one is a fraud too--also with a bad hyperlink, and also, ultimately, trying to bilk your personal or financial info. Both scenarios are making the rounds right now--and both can and should be reported to National Center for Disaster Fraud or the FTC

Sky's the limit. Consumer Action held a free "Rise of Fraud and ID Theft in the COVID-19 Era" webinar last month to help you avoid falling for identity theft, which has nearly doubled in 2020 coupled with unemployment fraud increasing off the charts. (Think you've been a victim of this form of fraud? Get help through the government's new hub here.) Our expert presenters included the president of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, which works one-on-one to help ID theft victims (for free), as well as the senior VP of fraud prevention at Wells Fargo. Check out the webinar to learn about trends in data breaches, common cyber attacks and typical attributes of scammers (and their victims). You may be surprised to learn how your personal data can be targeted in a number of new ways you only thought were secure (such as through biometric fingerprints or facial recognition). Keep up with the con artists and watch our webinar to protect the personal info stored on your ever-evolving devices, in your social media accounts, at good old-fashioned ATMs and grocery stores, and even in your own mailbox.  

Improper benefits. Speaking of unemployment fraud, it used to be (a mere month ago) that criminals went to your state's website to file for unemployment benefits in your name. Now, it appears they're changing tactics and expecting you to do all the work for them, by creating fake state workforce agency (SWA) websites where you are told to file for the benefits. How do you know if a website is real or fake, especially when con artists can design them to look so believable? A site is usually bogus if you're being driven there via a link in an unsolicited email or text (scammers love phishing), rather than typing the URL into your browser. Or, it may be that you've already signed up for benefits on the real SWA website, but now the sneaky scammers want to drive you to the bogus site simply to trick you into entering your existing username and password (which they can then use to log into the real site, steal your identity and/or redirect your benefit payments). Find your official SWA site here, and check out where your state stands on rates of unemployment insurance fraud via this Department of Labor (DOL) listing of "improper payment rates" (the polite way of revealing the states that have been "screwing up and giving scammers taxpayer-funded handouts.") Behold, Michigan's shameful lead--with over one-third of its payments falling into the category of "improper"! Worried you've been the victim of unemployment fraud? The DOL has launched a one-stop shop designed to help you sort things out.