A Consumer Action News Alert • December 2021
  And then, an avalanche  

One of our favorite podcasts, The Perfect Scam, recently explored the murky world of fundraising. According to podcast creator Bob Sullivan, that sphere is "full of actors who stay on the right side of the law but do things that would make you cringe." It's no wonder that the barrage of solicitations confuses, and even tricks, older folks, as recounted by the daughter featured in the podcast, who found $2,000 in donations on her mom's credit card statement--money, the daughter said, that her mother did not have. She says that when her parents were younger, they gave sensibly, sticking to an annual giving budget and vetting each charity. After her father's death, she noticed that her mom continued to give to charities, with contributions of $20 or $25 here and there. Her gifts led more charities to pile on, and the pile exploded to 200 solicitations per month. Then the phone calls started, from professional fundraisers and outright liars and tricksters bent on using her mom's generosity against her. Sadly, all too typical! Sullivan interviewed Laurie Styron, director of CharityWatch, an organization that rates charities based on spending on programs versus general administration and fundraising expenses. Styron points to professional fundraising firms as a part of the problem, saying that if you give to one charity, they might add your name to other lists. "So, you donate 50 bucks to a cancer research charity, right? And then suddenly...you are getting donation requests from a veterans organization, from an animal organization, from an environmental organization, police and firefighters..." What to do? Styron suggests using CharityWatch's "fundraising reduction notice" to ask legitimate charities to stop the solicitations. Among her other tips: When sending a check to an organization you want to support, include a note saying, "I'm donating this on the condition that you will not solicit me..." And when thinking about where to give, Styron says to "be particularly careful when you receive fundraising letters about sick or injured animals, children with cancer, disabled veterans..." There's a lot more to unpack in this podcast, so make the time to listen (or, read the transcript).

  Battling surprise attacks  

A recent AARP survey found "a strong need for additional media and public attention to keep veterans, military, and their families informed so they can more easily detect and fend off a 'scambush'--surprise attacks from scams and fraud." It found that active-duty servicemembers and veterans are more likely than civilians to receive fraudulent solicitations and are significantly more likely to lose money to a scam than civilians. Nearly one-third of the vets and military consumers who responded to the AARP survey lost money through gifts to fake veteran or military charities. Scammers shilling for groups purporting to help vets and soldiers often use military jargon to establish a sense of camaraderie with targets. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission noted that since 2016 it had "logged more than 378,000 reports from veterans--and nearly 161,000 were fraud-related. More than 24,000 of those reported a loss (with total losses of $205 million). Veterans had a median loss of $755, compared to active duty servicemembers, who reported a median loss of $500 over the same period." So, to honor and protect those who have served, or who are serving, arm them with some advice about how to verify military or veteran charities. Number one: Don't give based on a phone or mail solicitation without first vetting the charity. You can check out a group's charitable status with the Internal Revenue Service or GuideStar. Make sure to get the correct name, because it's common for scammers to make up names that sound very, very close to the names of legitimate organizations. If you want to give, research top-rated, high-impact veteran and military charities (like these), and go directly to their websites to make a donation.

  Checking it twice  

No deal. The FBI has warned online holiday shoppers that "cyber criminals" are actively targeting them. The bait? Fake websites, emails, texts and social media posts that tout "bargains" and hard-to-find gift items. Add to that bogus "surveys" offering prizes that collect personal information. Last year, the agency's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 17,000 complaints about non-delivery of goods, resulting in losses of over $53 million. Rumors of merchandise shortages and the ongoing pandemic may drive more such ruses this season. Tips to avoid trouble include: Verify websites prior to making a purchase; only purchase items from websites that show addresses beginning with https:// (the "s" signals secure) and display a locked padlock icon in the browser window; be wary of online retailers who use a free email service instead of a company email address; don't trust a website by its looks (flashy websites can be set up and taken down quickly); and pay for your items using a credit card, which gives you strong dispute rights for unauthorized purchases. Duped? File a complaint with the IC3. 

Oh, sister! You may have seen the posts on Facebook and other social media platforms for a "secret sister" gift exchange--a long-lived scam that just keeps cropping up year after year. This sketchy construct plays off the "Secret Santa" game, where you draw straws to buy a gift for another participant without revealing your identity. As promoted by shadowy figures online, it's nothing more than a pyramid scheme. You'll get caught in a cycle of buying and shipping gifts for who knows who, in hopes that the favor is reciprocated and you get a pile of gifts in return. Get no presents? That's not the worst of it: When you sign up, you may be giving away personal information that could expose you to future scams (including identity theft). You can report such posts to Facebook by flagging them as spam. If you sent any gifts, let the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (which considers the scam a form of illegal gambling) know the details.


Opportunity knock-out. If you are looking for a new job to start the New Year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns you to watch out for scams. Identity thieves lurk on job search platforms. The FTC says scammers advertise jobs online (in ads, on job sites, and on social media) and even in newspapers, TV and radio. What they really want is your money and/or your personal information. Job scams include work-from-home schemes, where you end up paying upfront for starter kits, training or useless certifications, and bogus job placement agencies asking for upfront fees. Be suspicious if you're offered a job without an interview, and check out potential employers before giving them any sensitive information. Search online for their name, email address, phone number and even the text of the message they sent. If you find online complaints by others who have had bad experiences and been scammed in the same way, back off.

'Mer-curious' beauty products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers to avoid skin products containing poisonous mercury. The agency issued a Consumer Update advising people to immediately stop using skin creams, soaps and lotions with mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio, or mercury on the labels. Such products emit mercury vapors that can have serious health consequences when inhaled, especially by pregnant women, nursing babies and young children. They may be sold in shops (or on websites or mobile apps) catering to Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern communities. Often marketed to lighten skin or remove age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles, they also target adolescents as acne treatments. Many of these products are coming into the country through illegal channels. Be especially wary of beauty products that do not have ingredients listed or that lack an English-language ingredient list. If you suspect you've used or are using a beauty product containing mercury, seal it in a leakproof plastic bag and call the government's Poison Control Center toll-free number (800-222-1222) to learn your options for reporting it and disposing of it.

Undeliverable. This month, a time of frequent holiday shipments and gifts we might not be expecting, take care not to fall for a "package delivery" scam. They come as deceptive emails or text messages intended to lure you into clicking a link and giving scammers personal or financial information. If you didn't ask to be contacted about a specific package, don't click a tracking link. If you are tracking holiday packages, copy off the tracking numbers and go straight to the carrier's website to input them. Shipping companies such as UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service won't send text messages or emails unless you requested delivery notifications. And, be cautious about "missed delivery" notices left at your door. While more rare than bogus text messages, some door notices have been used to trick people into calling back and giving away personal and financial details, such as credit card numbers, to scammers.

Here's our opinion. Don't get taken in by fake surveys. The Better Business Bureau has advice to help you spot them. Scammers use phony surveys to "phish" for personal information or promote spammy products. The BBB says that scam surveys often contain suspicious-looking links and typos; offer valuable products or gift cards in exchange for completion (not!); don't say who's asking and what's the purpose; and contain links that, when hovered over, reveal suspicious web addresses (urls)--not the legit ones to the companies they purport to be for. Similarly, many online quizzes mask efforts to steal your personal information and target you for more fraud.

A taxing fraud. Having your income tax refund stolen before you even get a chance to file is something worth going to great lengths to avoid. While it takes a bit of work, consider getting an Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN)--a six-digit numerical passcode that can prevent someone else from filing a tax return using your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Your IP PIN (known only to you and the IRS) helps the agency verify your identity when you file your electronic or paper tax return. Learn more about getting an IP PIN.

Spot 'em before they spot you. The Cybercrime Support Network and Google developed the Scam Spotter website to help you identify the most common patterns used by scammers and give you advice to help stop them in their tracks.

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