A Consumer Action News Alert • January 2022
  Fending off robocall scammers  

It used to be that some of us welcomed a phone call. Now, not so much! Phones, unfortunately, have become a vector for scammers to reach their victims, and, in the past year, their devious ploys have exploded. While many of us (especially loyal SCAM GRAM readers) are catching on, scammers continue to bombard us with fraudulent robocalls, texts, app notifications, emails and quick response (QR) codes that lead us into their webs. The nation's largest carriers say they have beat back billions of scam calls and unwanted robocalls--but even that doesn't seem to make a dent. T-Mobile says that scam call traffic reached an all-time high by the beginning of December, jumping more than 116% from 2020, to a total of roughly 425 million scam call attempts every week. The company blocked 21 billion scam, spam and unwanted robocalls this year through its free Scam Shield robocall and scam protection service, amounting to an average of 1.8 billion scam calls identified or blocked every month. AT&T released figures for 2020 showing it blocked or labeled as potential spam 17 million calls per day. Verizon says its efforts have led to a reduction of 500 million calls per month on its network, the vast majority of which, it says, are robocalls. Robocaller or other suspicious caller on the line? Hang up the phone. Never respond! Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator. And don't press any other number to get off the list. If you respond, chances are it will lead to more robocalls.

  Oh, no, my 'rona!  

COVID-19-related scams have proliferated throughout the pandemic. From sales of fake N95 masks to lies about government stimulus programs to unsubstantiated COVID-19 treatment claims on social media platforms, they follow a tried and true formula for taking advantage of people during times of fear, stress and uncertainty. The many guises of COVID schemes mostly are designed to pull in illegal profits and access personal information that can be used to commit identity theft and fraudulently bill healthcare and social support programs. That's Nonsense writes that pandemic-related scams often push COVID "passes" to travel or gain entry to certain establishments, testing kits, or access to vaccination and booster appointments--all of which eventually link victims to scam websites that steal personal and payment data. AARP says COVID scams often arrive via social media posts, robocalls, texts and email, and many follow news stories. For example: "With many companies requiring employees to get COVID-19 shots...scammers are sending out phishing emails purporting to be from human resources departments, requesting workers' proof of vaccination. Links in the message direct targets to a fake sign-in page where the crooks can harvest log-in credentials." The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers tips to keep your money safe from fraudsters during the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Department of Justice has a page detailing a variety of COVID scams. If you think you are the victim of a scam or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, you can report it to the Justice Department's National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline, at 866-720-5721, or online, using the NCDF complaint form.

  Who you gonna trust?  

Pandemic profiteers. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, has an eye-opening investigation into some of the people who push out vaccine misinformation for profit. Take Tennessee couple Ty and Charlene Bollinger, making millions from pushing "documentaries and books...[and] online 'bootcamps' designed to train followers in anti-vaccine talking points" (along with a serving of Bible verses) to their millions of followers and newsletter subscribers. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a United Kingdom-based organization that fights misinformation, counts the Bollingers among the "toxic ten" responsible for most of the anti-vaccine misinformation on the internet. The group has released a report on what it calls the "pandemic profiteers," who rake in millions from the "anti-vaxx" business. It says the "anti-vaxx industry boasts annual revenues of at least $36 million and is worth up to $1.1 billion to Big Tech with 62 million followers across their platforms." Public Integrity quotes Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist who teaches a class to future doctors on, of all things, conspiracy theories, and "urges his students to be compassionate and not condescending, since all of us are vulnerable to misinformation when it seems to confirm our prior beliefs." For our part, we'd place our trust in the legions of medical and public health professionals who are "spreading" facts, not conspiracy theories. Check out our "Distinguishing between vaccine fact and fiction" fact sheet, which explains why it's important to get vaccinated, gives tips for recognizing and stemming vaccine misinformation/disinformation, and provides a list of trustworthy resources.

Zelle-y suspicious. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has received a significant number of public comment letters about Zelle-related fraud and scams as part of its inquiry into Big Tech payment systems. American Banker writes (subscription required) that frustrated consumers have flooded the CFPB with their experiences having money stolen in fraud schemes using Zelle, an online payment system owned by seven banks, and used by many more, that competes with non-bank peer-to-peer payment services like Venmo. In October, the CFPB announced an inquiry into Big Tech payment systems, ordering six of the largest tech firms to provide information about their businesses' use of payments data. The agency, at the same time, sought public comment on payment models, drawing dozens of letters focusing on Zelle. Bob Sullivan of the Red Tape Chronicles has been reporting for several years about how fraudsters use Zelle. (He offers an actionable "fraud emergency kit" for victims.) Sullivan notes that "consumers who suffer unauthorized transactions are entitled to Regulation E protection, and banks are required to refund the stolen money." Unfortunately, scammers have devised a way to trick you into giving them access to your bank account, typically by posing as bank employees. The banks hold that this ploy invalidates the requirement that they refund unauthorized transfers under Reg E, since you gave the scammer access to your account. Banks' response to victims who were coerced to provide access to Zelle (as voiced by ABA spokeswoman Sarah Grano) is: "When using these services, consumers should keep in mind that it's like handing someone cash and they should only make payments to someone they know and trust." Consumer Action and other advocates are calling on the CFPB to clarify that all payment providers have a duty under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act to investigate and resolve errors.


You owe us. Business owners, employees, and essentially all email users can be the targets of scam emails designed to get recipients to click on a link or attachment in the email or to trick them into paying for something that was never ordered. Sometimes called "business email compromise" scams, many such emails are tied to "invoices" attached to the email. The Identity Theft Resource Center says clicking on the attachment could lead to malware downloads, a ransomware attack, or stolen personal information and login credentials, which could be used to commit identity theft. Some of the emails, says ScamWatch of Australia, are designed to get busy employees to pay the billed amounts, which might be for listings in bogus trade directories or to renew website domain names. Similarly, some scammers place robocalls purporting to be from large online retailers, featuring outrageous amounts for "purchases" made on your account, such as a $1,250 iPhone. Those who panic and respond face off with scammers who use devious tactics to get the real account login information so they can make purchases using on-file credit cards. If you get one of these emails, hit delete, and if it's a phone call, hang up (and do not press any buttons!).

Looking for love in all the wrong places. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that during the pandemic in 2020, adults aged 60 and older lost $139 million to romance scams--a sharp increase from the $84 million lost in 2019. Columnist Michelle Singletary wrote about the phenomenon, noting: "Pandemic loneliness pushed many Americans online in search of a love connection. But a surge in romance scams often left them with an empty bank account as well as a broken heart." She reported on new twists to the old con used by romance scammers to string victims along, such as blaming the pandemic for not traveling to meet their new boo. The FTC has advice about avoiding romance scams and how you can report them. Norton, the computer security company, lists some of the signs that you might be about to jump into bed with a romance scammer: their profiles seem too good to be true; they say they are far away (like working on an oil rig or deployed in the military); they profess their love to you surprisingly quickly; they break promises to see you; and the kicker: they ask for money! If you are new to online dating, be very, very cautious about giving away any personal information if you decide to "swipe right." Look for other signs of a scam, such as bios that don't make sense or that contain typos and spelling errors. Never, ever wire money or buy your virtual love interest gift cards. Don't keep your new romance a secret from family members and close friends--they can offer sober advice to keep you safe!

Gift horse. We'd rather have a lump of coal in our stocking than this text from "AT&T" offering "a little gift." Truth in Advertising (TINA.org) advises us all to "be wary of messages from numbers you don't recognize offering gifts." Links included with messages like this are usually attempts to gain access to your personal information or download malicious software onto your computer or mobile device.

Dangerous areas. Clark Howard's consumer protection website has a list of "area codes to avoid" that are often used by scammers. "Traffic dumping" and "one ring scams," which siphon money from consumers directly or indirectly, often originate from these area codes.

Tables turned on SpyFone. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned the sale of an app that stalkers and abusers could add to victims' phones to "stealthily track the potential targets of their violence." "Stalkerware" provider SpyFone and Scott Zuckerman, CEO of its parent company, Support King LLC, illegally sold apps that allowed purchasers to surreptitiously monitor photos, text messages, web histories, GPS locations, and other personal information on the phone on which the app was installed (presumably without the device owner's knowledge). In addition to the sales ban, Support King and Zuckerman have been ordered to delete any information illegally collected from their stalkerware apps and to notify owners of devices on which SpyFone's apps were installed that the installation took place, and that it could have voided their warranty and exposed their devices to cybersecurity risks.

  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!