A Consumer Action News Alert • June 2021
  Don't pay this way  

Scammers work overtime to steal your money. One of the newer strategies is to ask for "cryptocurrency"--digital money that doesn't come with any legal protections and that can be as hard as cash to recover once it's gone. (Cryptocurrencies include Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin--some of the better known digital currencies.) But SCAM GRAM readers know that anyone who asks (or commands) you to pay by not-easily-traceable methods, such as wire transfer, gift card, or, now, cryptocurrency, is probably a scammer. The Federal Trade Commission lists some scams that typically ask for payment in virtual currency. One such trap is blackmail emails. Scammers often send emails saying they have embarrassing or compromising photos, videos or personal information about you, and threaten to make the details public unless you pay them with cryptocurrency. The emails might feature usernames you've used in the past, making them more convincing. Any recognizable usernames were probably acquired by scammers from a data breach, such as the Equifax breach in May 2017. Hit delete and don't worry; it is highly unlikely the scammers have anything. We recommend that you report blackmail or extortion attempts to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

  But Snoop says so...  

Scammers use "big names" to lure victims to invest in cryptocurrency. Apparently, a famous name really rakes in the (ill-gotten) money--victims have been fleeced of more than $2 million through cryptocurrency-related scams pushed by fraudsters posing as Tesla CEO Elon Musk. As with most scams, there are elements of truth: Musk, along with celebs Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Mike Tyson, to name just a few, are Bitcoin investors. The pitches aren't always from household names; you might get scam investment offers from strangers as well. Save yourself some heartache and ignore "sure thing" tweets, texts, emails and social media direct messages from celebs--and everyone else, too! Legitimate investment opportunities are not marketed in this way. If you're really interested in investing in new financial technologies, find yourself a certified financial planner to guide you.

  The great unmasking  

Stern treatment for COVID scammers. You'd think when the masks came off, the pandemic scams would cool down. You'd be wrong: Authorities are still cracking down on coronavirus scams. As part of its ongoing efforts to protect consumers from scam COVID-19 treatments, the FTC has sent 30 warning letters to companies that claimed their products can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19. The companies involved peddle everything from chiropractic adjustments and exercise sessions to nasal mists and rinses, vitamins, supplements and extracts. The FTC says these products and treatments have one thing in common: "there is no evidence--as required by law--that they work against the Coronavirus." The national watchdog agency also launched a public dashboard to track and alert the public to shifts in COVID-related scams and respond to emerging threats.

Become a scam spotter. Scam artists are always looking for ways to make a quick, dishonest buck; a crisis like COVID-19 makes it even easier for hucksters to exploit trusting people. A new Consumer Action fact sheet highlights some of the most common types of scams related to the pandemic, helps you spot and avoid a scam, and tells you where to report scam attempts. The publication, "Steering clear of pandemic-related scams," is free to read online or via PDF download.

Lawyering up. According to Truth in Advertising (TINA.org), the coronavirus pandemic has led to a number of class action lawsuits involving COVID-related products, including false advertising of hand sanitizers and face masks and pandemic price gouging. While some plaintiffs are seeking cash refunds, others are requesting declaratory judgments that would define the relationship and rights of parties in legal matters. Visit TINA.org to learn more about the class actions.


Be on the Alert. Google Alerts come in handy for anyone trying to monitor the news based on certain keywords or names. Unfortunately, scammers also find them handy for directing alert recipients to sites encouraging the purchase of counterfeit goods, pornography, games and sweepstakes. BleepingComputer.com explains the tech trick scammers use to deceive Google into thinking these are legitimate sites. Victims who click on a scammer's Google Alert are redirected to malicious sites pushing malware or attempting to steal personal information. The redirection is accomplished with a technique called "cloaking," in widespread use by scammers and "click bait" advertisers. Cloaking is behind many "fake ad" campaigns on social media and the web. Make sure your computer has up-to-date antivirus and antimalware protection. And, NEVER, EVER take the bait and click on emails from senders you are not 100% sure of. If you have even a bit of suspicion, use a search engine to look for the same information you are interested in and visit independently.

Drive on by. The Federal Communications Commission says auto warranty robocalls were the top complaint filed by consumers in 2020, and the recorded calls just keep on coming. The aim is to get you to press numbers on your phone, either to lure you to accept offers and hand over payment information for a so-called warranty, or to add your name to a do-not-call list (gotcha!). Many times, the calls originate from local numbers spoofed by scammers that manage to evade phone carriers' ability to tag spam calls. The fact that the numbers are constantly changing also makes it impossible to block them. So, if you answer one of these calls, the best thing to do is hang up immediately--don't respond, and don't press any numbers on your phone! Pressing buttons during a robocall could let the scammers know your number is valid, and that can lead to even more calls. Do not call back if you get a voicemail about an auto warranty, or, for that matter, any pitch or threat. For more tips, read this USA Today story.

Flip this page. After signing up for magazine subscriptions, some unfortunate consumers began receiving several calls daily from companies posing as subscription services and claiming the consumers owed them money. In 2020, former U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald indicted 63 individuals from companies in 14 states and two Canadian provinces who conspired to defraud the elderly and vulnerable with lies and threats. In April, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine ran a story about the scam, talking to elderly victims who have been hounded for more than a decade. How to avoid becoming a victim? Follow the tried-and-true advice to never give payment information to, or agree to buy anything from, someone who calls or emails you out of the blue. If you want to subscribe to a magazine, visit the publication's website.

Wait, I bought an iPhone? Who wouldn't freak out if they got an email from Amazon confirming an order for a thousand-dollar iPhone they never ordered? Who could stay calm when they receive a call from Amazon saying someone's trying to hack into their account to buy expensive electronics? These are examples of Amazon order scams--and you don't need to buy anything to participate! ABC affiliate WFTS in Tampa, Florida, ran a story about how one woman lost $2,000 after she was caught off guard by a call from a "helpful" Amazon "security employee" who said she could help the woman delete her credit cards from the Amazon site to limit the damage. (By the way, this is when you should become suspicious and hang up!) After the victim shared her login information, the scammer was able to access her bank account via the debit card she had on file with Amazon. These are not isolated incidents; the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker saw Amazon imposter scams spike as more people started shopping online during the pandemic. (The BBB has its own Amazon scam alert, too.) If you shop with Amazon, check out the company's advice for determining whether a communication from the company is legitimate.

No cash back. Cash App, owned by Square, is a popular way to pay. It's also very popular with scammers. When you pay with Cash App, you can't get your money back. When you purchase items using Cash App, there are no built-in consumer protections either, as you would have when using a credit or debit card. A Florida TV station ran this sad tale of a local pastor taken for $1,300. Pastor Marvin Scott's Cash App account was emptied by scammers who used it for purchases at Target. Scott assumed it would be a quick call to report the fraud and get his money back. No dice. "....trying to get information, trying to get answers, solutions, it was a nightmare," he told WFTV's Action 9 in Orlando. This man is far from alone. Frank On Fraud writes about eight approaches to stealing Cash App users' money. One problem is that all Cash App customer service is handled via the app on your mobile device. There is no way to reach the company's customer service by phone. This is vital information because scammers actually have posted fake Cash App customer service numbers on the internet, where they pop up in search engines, leading to even more fraud when victims call the fake numbers. To protect yourself, read Cash App's tips for "Staying Safe and Avoiding Scams with Cash App."

Got kids? Families should be on the alert for criminals using phone calls, emails, texts and social media to trick them into providing information needed to get the new 2021 advance Child Tax Credit. To help parents during the pandemic, the Child Tax Credit has been expanded under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) (for tax year 2021 only). This means that many families will receive advance payments starting this summer, but scammers already are jumping into the game with attempts to capture highly personal information from parents who may be confused about the new opportunity. Know that the IRS never contacts taxpayers by email, text message or social media to request personal or financial information.

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