A Consumer Action News Alert • July 2021
  Not so cozy 'fleeceware'  

According to a June Washington Post article, Apple's App Store is not as safe as you'd expect--in fact, some apps' main purpose is fleecing users. The Post revealed that customers of several virtual private network (VPN) apps that are meant to protect users' data complained in App Store reviews that apps they downloaded said their devices were infected by a virus--a ruse to dupe them into paying for software they didn't need. While Apple says it holds "developers to high standards to keep the App Store a safe and trusted place," The Post found five VPN apps--Prime Shield, Spy Block, Secure & Fast VPN Protector, CyGuard VPN and Upcure--with suspicious ratings and user complaints on the App Store. Some "dating" apps were found to be chancy as well. MatureDating, a dating app that had suspicious-sounding reviews and inauthentic activity, was removed by Apple after inquiries by The Post. Another dating app, CooMeet, asked for money from users to continue chatting with women. The app store alternative for Android phone users, Google Play Store, has problems of the same kind. In March, researchers at Avast said they had discovered a total of 204 dubious fleeceware applications with over a billion downloads and more than $400 million in revenue on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Avast said "fleeceware applications discovered consist predominantly of musical instrument apps, palm readers, image editors, camera filters, fortune tellers, QR code and PDF readers..." Avast provided a few tips for avoiding fleeceware in both stores: Be careful with free trials of less than a week; read the fine print and user reviews before downloading; and secure your mobile wallets to avoid inadvertent in-app purchases.

  Unwrap this fake check scam  

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has warned consumers about "car and boat wrapping" scams, and AARP featured the con in a recent article. The scheme often targets online job hunters, who receive a text message or find a website about how they can earn extra money by "adding" a wrapper to their cars or boats promoting popular food or drinks. The BBB has gotten Scam Tracker reports mentioning food brands like Red Bull drinks, Utz snacks and Breyers ice cream. When a victim fills out a form to apply, they get a text with instructions to expect a cashier's check, which they should deposit to cover their expenses. All you have to do is send most of the money you received to a local wrapper using Venmo or the Cash App, and they will swath your car in the ad. Astute SCAM GRAM readers no doubt said "Aha" at the mention of a cashier's check! In "fake check" scams, victims deposit the check, and because of bank rules that require prompt credit for deposits, the check appears to "clear" in their account. When the bank eventually realizes the check is counterfeit, the amount of the check is debited from the victim's account, the victim is also on the hook for any bounced check or overdraft fees, and the phony car wrapping company has taken the money and run. Disappointed you can't make money just by driving around? Look at it this way: You'd look darn silly driving around in a big Red Bull can, wouldn't you? Instead, learn how to spot "fake check" scams!


Sifting through the BS. Mike Caulfield, a Washington State University digital literacy expert, condensed four key fact-checking strategies into a short list of things to do when you want to decide whether a source is reliable. Called the "SIFT" method, it advises readers to S--Stop and ask yourself if you've heard of the source or website, or found it reliable in the past; I--Investigate the source; F--Find reputable sources to verify the same information; and T--Trace the information to its original source. These are valid steps to take to analyze information from friends, on social media, online and in unsolicited emails and texts. Don't take the (click) bait!

Media monsters. Meet the Headline Hellion, the Gullible Giant, the Scary Share-y and Gobblin' Goblin! This spooky lineup was developed by the nonprofit National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) in a lighthearted effort to make media literacy a "highly valued and widely practiced...essential life skill." If you find yourself failing to check sources, believing every salacious headline, sharing articles without reading them, or passing along unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, you might be guilty of such "monstrosities." If you have kiddos at home, check out NAMLE's "A Parent's Guide to Media Literacy," downloadable in English and Spanish.

Deeply fake. Do you believe "a photograph never lies"? Whether it's inadvertent misinformation or deliberate deception, manipulated content is on the rise, and it tricks people every day. The Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI), founded by the New York Times, Adobe and Twitter (now joined by dozens of companies), is working on a standard to give viewers more information about a photo's authenticity. Secure content settings are being developed that will be incorporated into cameras and phones and photo editing software. Using the settings will be voluntary. Photographers can choose to preserve facts about the photo, such as where it was taken and by whom. Any subsequent changes or edits to the photo will be captured. Photos subject to this digital verification will carry a small i in a circle (denoting info), and anyone who wants to verify the authenticity of an image can click to see its provenance. Learn more about this initiative by watching a short, animated video and reading the answers to these frequently asked questions about CAI's mission.


Unauthorized means...unauthorized! The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) last month updated its "frequently asked questions" (FAQs) clarifying unauthorized transfer and error resolution provisions under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) and Regulation E, federal rules governing consumer rights to dispute fraudulent electronic payments. The CFPB's responses to the FAQs make clear that unauthorized electronic fund transfers (EFTs) covered by the rule include situations in which consumers are induced fraudulently into sharing account access information. Banks and financial services providers can't use a victimized consumer's "negligence" as a basis to impose greater-than-permissible liability for unauthorized transfers. In addition, the answers make clear that financial institutions cannot evade the law by imposing (or relying on) customer contractual agreements that indemnify the institutions. Contact your bank or credit union if there's been an unauthorized transaction from your bank or credit card account. Learn more about your rights here.

Rent-a-scam. Con artists have seeded Google Search with ads touting low-priced rental cars that lead searchers to call phony car rental phone numbers. Travel site The Points Guy wrote about the scam, noting that potential customers looking for an auto rental might pull up sponsored ads purchased by scam artists. "...Shoppers should be highly skeptical of any special offers that require payment in the form of gift cards or prepaid debit cards, no matter what the 'agent' on the phone might claim," says The Points Guy. This scam is well-positioned for catching victims at a moment when many of us are breaking free of pandemic-related travel restrictions and coming face-to-face with a lack of rental car inventory that is causing a spike in legitimate companies' rental car rates. In a post titled "Hot rental car market = scams," the Federal Trade Commission outlines the hallmarks of the con.

Vacation 'dream' homes. Wow, that house on a lake looks really inviting...but are you sure it's really for rent? Rental scammers take photos from legitimate rental bookings and trick interested renters into handing over a down payment. But, when you show up for the vacation, you find the house was never for rent, you have no place to stay and your money is gone! Often, scammers ask for lower-than-average rents and urge you to act fast and send them money before you lose out. Arizona TV station ABC15 ran a story about the Aquilinos, who've owned their home for years and never rented it. In March, the couple answered the door to visitors toting luggage. The first time, they thought it was a mistake, but wayward travelers kept turning up on their doorstep. Turns out, someone listed their home on Airbnb as a rental property, using fake pictures but sending people to their real address. Protect yourself by checking comparable listings to ensure the price is realistic (scammers post below-average rates); read reviews; and look for hosts with good histories ("Superhosts" on Airbnb and "Premier" hosts on VRBO). According to ConsumerAffairs, tip-offs include altered ads and a request for a deposit before a lease is signed.

Time share, or time waste? We really can't figure out why people keep buying timeshares, which typically get you a week at a resort for an annual fee that increases year after year, whether you use the property or not. The Federal Trade Commission has some tips for would-be buyers. Timeshare sales are scammy in and of themselves, typically luring folks who are on vacation with free lunches, drinks or rental jeeps if they'll sit through an interminable sales pitch. Is this any way to spend your vacation? And know this: Timeshares are notoriously difficult to sell; shareholders desperate to get out from under the annual fees often fall victim to timeshare resale scams. Rotten companies lure timeshare owners with promises of a quick sale. They take your money but do little or nothing to help you. Don't accept any offers to help you sell your share without doing your due diligence! Search online for the name of the reseller along with words like "complaint" or "scam" to learn if others have been victimized. Don't pay in advance--legitimate agencies charge you a commission only after your share is sold. If you are interested in selling a timeshare, check out the American Resort Development Association's tool to get to the right place.

  Tell us how we're doing!  

We'd love your feedback on how we've been doing, and which of our services have been most important to you. Please fill out our (very) brief three-question survey here!