A Consumer Action News Alert • September 2021
  Do you know where your data is tonight?  

Data breaches happen when an unauthorized person--aka a hacker--"breaks in" to company databases and steals digital information about customers. (Just last month, the wireless carrier T-Mobile got hit.) Hackers are looking for personally identifiable information they can use to commit identity theft. By creating imposter identities, they can create counterfeit credit cards and buy valuable things. The data itself has value and can be sold on a "shadow" internet known as the dark web. Most states require companies to send data breach notifications to consumers when their personally identifiable information is compromised. Comparitech, which bills itself as a "pro-consumer website" providing information, tools, reviews and comparisons to help readers improve their cyber security and privacy online, says that data breaches are happening all the time, with devastating consequences for individuals and businesses alike. In its informative post, "30+ data breach statistics and facts," it says close to half of U.S. companies have experienced a data breach; organized crime groups are responsible for 80% of breaches; and three-quarters or more of breaches are financially motivated rather than espionage- or mischief-related. Almost a quarter of data breaches are attributable to "human error," so it's crucial to educate yourself and remain on guard against scam attempts. Email "phishing"--tricking recipients into logging on to bogus websites or providing bank account and payment information--is the most common type of ruse using breached data, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of identity theft and offers public education to build awareness about how to avoid fraud. Freezing your credit files and checking your credit reports regularly are relatively easy steps you can take to help ward off identity theft.

  Identity thieves double down  

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released startling figures about the growth of identity (or ID) theft, the term used when criminals use people's stolen personal information to open and abuse new accounts under the victim's name. In 2020, the FTC received nearly 1.4 million reports of identity theft through its IdentityTheft.gov website--about twice as many as in 2019. During the pandemic, identity thieves and fraudsters jumped in under false pretenses to get hold of consumers' personally identifying information and use it to steal benefits, take over existing accounts, open new accounts in victims' names and commit illegal activities. Read our "Avoid pandemic-related ID theft and account fraud" to learn about the most prominent pandemic-related schemes and get tips for safeguarding your personal and account data. Unfortunately, identity theft victims often face a frustrating journey to recovery from the crime. The FTC website details steps victims can take to address different forms of ID theft. While not always possible, the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to do everything you can to avoid ID theft in the first place! Consider "freezing" your credit files (see previous article). Monitor your bank and credit statements closely every month and online between statements. Use safe passwords online and for mobile apps and change them often. Never provide account details or payment information to someone who contacts you by phone or email. Keep important paperwork under lock and key. Report lost or stolen documents or cards as soon as you notice they are missing.

  Fake out the fakers  

Who you gonna trust? Fake social media accounts often promote phony products, spread scams, and share lies and misinformation. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has advice for spotting phony accounts--before you engage with them. Among the potential giveaways: lack of a profile picture or overuse of stock images and memes, and posts with spelling or grammatical errors; comments unrelated to the post, or blank except for emojis; posts that promote extremist, one-sided viewpoints; and phony reviews pushing products you've never heard of. How bad is the problem? Awful, according to a March blog post by Facebook. The social media giant said it alone blocks millions of fake accounts each day, most of them when they are created (whew!). Between October and December of 2020, Facebook disabled more than 1.3 billion fake accounts. The fact remains, no one can eliminate this problem entirely, so stay on your toes! Don't interact with accounts or posts that smell, well, "phishy"! And, if you find yourself in the unfortunate, but pretty common, situation of having someone you know tell you your social media account was hacked, report it to the platform and change your password immediately.

Bargains that bite. The New York Times' Wirecutter offers invaluable product tests and comparisons to guide you in purchasing products that will serve you well. A while ago, it offered an article on how to spot fake products on Amazon, noting the "rise of counterfeit goods and other phony products sold on the Internet has been swift--and it has largely gone unnoticed by many shoppers." Counterfeit goods may feature the trademark of a legitimate and trusted brand, but they aren't always made to the same standards of the branded items. We all like a bargain, but the problem is that shoddy knockoffs and counterfeit products have the potential to harm you. The FTC offers tips for safe online shopping. Among them: If you don't know a product or the company that sells it, research it before you buy; search online for the product or company name, plus "complaint" or "scam," to see what other people are saying; and check online vendors for a real physical address and a phone number to call. Consumers need to be aware of this growing problem--and, hey, there's even an app for that!

Pour decisions. Tourism is picking up globally, but if you're a drinker, before you throw all caution to the wind in foreign climes, be aware that alcohol beverage products are not always as well regulated as they are in the U.S. The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers (WSWA) of America is warning travelers how to spot "fake alcohol." Take heed, because people who consume it could risk far more than a killer hangover. Among the examples given by WSWA is information from Mexican authorities warning that more than 100 people have died of methanol-tainted alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic. WSWA notes that the Mexican government shut down breweries as part of COVID-19 lockdown measures, giving rise to a substantial black market. According to news reports, the U.S. State Department issued similar warnings last year for Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. In a separate matter, some connoisseurs of fine liquors looking to buy "rare" coveted bottles have been sold a bill of goods. Spirits writer Fred Minnick took to YouTube to warn of "bourbon scams" being pushed on social media and chat sites. Sellers are bottling fake spirits, which, if tainted with ethanol, can blind or even kill those who drink them.


And, in today's headlines... Here's a reminder that scammers follow the news: Evictions, floods, wildfires--any and all such news items, and more--are being used by scammers as hooks to convince you to make "charitable contributions" to a cause. We definitely don't want you to close your pocketbooks to good causes; just take some steps to verify where you're sending your hard-earned bucks. The FTC has tips for doing your homework to avoid charity scams.

QR the target. Mobile phone users can scan "QR codes" (mobile barcodes) with their phone's camera to directly access a website, product, or more information about an offer. Typically found in newspapers, magazines, direct mail and emails, during the pandemic, the codes are increasingly used by restaurants to allow diners to access "hands free" menus, which the ACLU notes may send data about your dining choices to third-party marketing firms. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning that scammers and less-than-reputable companies are using them, too. A victim told the BBB Scam Tracker that they received a fraudulent letter about student loan consolidation. It contained a QR code that appeared to link to the federal government's official Studentaid.gov website. Instead, the QR code sent the victim to a scam site, where they were prompted to enter personal financial information. Even if someone you know sends you a QR code, confirm with them before scanning it. If you frequently access information via QR codes, the BBB suggests using an antivirus QR scanner with added security to check the safety of a scanned link before you open it.

Somebody's watching you. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) just released a series of fact sheets to inform consumers about how "surveillance advertising" might intrude into and impact their lives. Also known as targeted advertising or behavioral advertising, surveillance advertising displays different advertisements to different people based on inferences about their interests, demographics and characteristics. Online tracking raises many concerns for consumers, including the potential for identity theft. The alliance Accountable Tech goes further, calling surveillance advertising a "toxic business model that's fueling extremism and misinformation online." Ad-heavy sites, often full of "clickbait" articles, also are slower to load and more frustrating to use. One way to stop the cyberstalking is to use "ad blocker" software. Tom's Guide just updated its online guide to "The best ad blockers in 2021." While using an ad blocker might prevent you from viewing the "editorial" content and financially supporting the sites you visit, you can also look for ad blocking software that lets you "whitelist" favorite sites to keep the ad revenue flowing to them.

Take me to my leader. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging offers a Fraud Hotline, with personal help and advice for senior fraud victims. If you or someone you know has experienced suspicious activity or you have questions about common scams, you can call the hotline at 855-303-9470 (weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET) or fill out and submit the online form. If you would like, you can provide a call-back number on the webform to request that a member of the Committee's staff call you. The Senate committee offers its "Fighting Fraud" report (PDF), listing the most common scams targeting seniors, with tips on how to protect oneself and information on how victims can report scams.

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