A Consumer Action News Alert • March 2022

The BBC spent a year investigating its extraordinary story about a British man, Ali Ayad, who set up a fake design company, Madbird, and duped dozens of people into joining the firm. Some of the employees became suspicious and learned they had been "jobfished" (promised jobs that don't exist). Ayad went to great lengths to appear legitimate online and on social media. He appropriated employee photos, projects and other intellectual property from all over the web to display as his firm's own. In the end, it is far from clear why he did all this--the BBC posited that either he was trying to start a new business or he enjoyed the power of being the big boss. Turns out, jobfishing is something all people seeking employment should be aware of. It's a new name for the old "work at home" scams. The site FlexJobs has examples of emails and ads used to lure workers into deals that eventually cost them money, if not also their self-confidence. Scammers make money from bogus subscription fees, getting people to write for "content farms" to legitimize clickbait websites, or by enlisting prospective employees in criminal activities, such as laundering money. Before you respond to any job offer, search far and wide for information about the company. Check street addresses, phone numbers and incorporation information. Don't leave your current job unless you have a signed job offer in hand and you are completely positive it is legitimate. Ayad of Madbird set up fake LinkedIn and Zoom accounts for his "employees." Basically, anything can be faked online, so check and double-check. (Hint: Legitimate employers don't conduct interviews via text message!) It sounds obvious, but don't reply to unsolicited offers for jobs you did not apply for; this is one way victims were caught up in scams.

  Don't be an ass  

"Money mule" is a term for individuals who are, often unwittingly, enlisted into receiving, moving and laundering money for scammers. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says that money mules "fuel fraud" and help criminals line their pockets with ill-gotten gains. Some people become money mules after they respond to online job ads or social media postings, while others are ensnared when they're told they've won a sweepstakes or when they "find" a romantic partner online. Fraudsters may ask victims to wire money, purchase gift cards or virtual currency, refund "erroneous" amounts in fake checks, or provide access to their bank accounts in order to receive sweepstakes winnings or other promised windfalls. The illegally acquired money moved by money mules comes from victims of fraud, including romance, lottery, government imposter and technical support scams. Unfortunately, even if you are duped into becoming a mule, you may open yourself up to criminal charges. So, bottom line, don't do someone else's dirty work. Know the signs of a money mule scam.

  Masquerading marauders  

SIM-ply nefarious. The FBI issued an alert last month to warn mobile carriers and the public about the increasing use of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) swapping by criminals to gain control of victims' mobile phones and steal money from mobile wallets and virtual currency accounts. In 2021, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 1,611 SIM swapping complaints, with adjusted losses of more than $68 million. This scam uses pretense, trickery or extortion to convince phone company employees to transfer the phone's SIM accounts. Once the SIM is swapped, the victim's calls, texts and other data are diverted to a criminal's device, allowing them to send password reset or account recovery requests to accounts associated with the victim's mobile phone number. Mobile application providers respond automatically to "lost password" requests sent by the criminal, providing a link or one-time passcode via text at the victim's mobile number (now controlled by the criminal). This allows them to access sensitive mobile accounts. The FBI has tips to protect yourself and to report the scam if you become a victim. If you suspect you've fallen prey to a SIM card switch, contact your mobile carrier immediately to regain control of your phone number.

Weasel on steroids. The Netflix documentary "The Tinder Swindler" (subscription required) follows the stories of women who thought they had won the love of a jet-setting "billionaire," but ended up losing tens of thousands of dollars to a devious scammer who captured their hearts. This scam was not one perpetrated by anonymous actors posing as online lovers--these women actually rendezvoused with this buff poseur and ended up paying for thousands of dollars of goods and services he told them he would reimburse them for and (of course) never did. The women find each other and band together in an attempt to hunt down the weasel (who had been scamming people far and wide since he was a teenager) and serve him his just deserts. The docu got mixed reviews, but it does serve to illustrate--during an almost two-hour run time--the perils of the all-too-human proclivity to "suspend disbelief." During the pandemic year 2020, the Federal Trade Commission says, romance scammers took a record $304 million from victims, up about 50% from 2019. For an individual, that meant a median dollar loss of $2,500. Avoid this con--don't send money or gifts to someone you haven't met in person, even if they send you money first. Conduct a reverse image search of his or her profile picture (lots of times, scammers just screen scrape someone else's photo). If you find the photo attached to a different name and profile, back away quickly!


It begins with a text. Despite story after story warning about Zelle scammers, ABC7's Michael Finney is still hearing from consumers who have been ripped off by people posing as their bank's fraud employees using faked text messages and spoofed caller ID. Through this pretense, scammers have been able to gain access to customers' bank accounts and use the payment service Zelle, which is available in most accounts at big banks, to send themselves money. Banks hold customers--you--liable for losses if they send money to Zelle scammers. In almost every case, money sent via Zelle--whether by you or by scammers you let in--is not refundable. This time, it's Wells Fargo customers--last year, the scam hit Bank of America customers. The best thing you can do is to never respond to a text from someone you don't know, even if the text says it is from your bank. Just don't do it! Instead, call the bank's customer service number directly, using the phone number on your statement, on the back of your debit card, or provided on your bank's website when you are logged in to your online account. Do not use a search engine to find the number--scammers have managed to get fake numbers featured in search results.

Not so tickety-boo. Many of us are looking forward to leaving the restrictions of the pandemic behind and getting back to attending live sports events and concerts. Many stadiums and venues have transitioned to digital tickets, which some say might make ticket scams more likely. The National Association of Ticket Brokers (NATB) partnered with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to warn about scams that could trick consumers buying tickets from online marketplaces and resellers. In 2021, the BBB received over 140 reports on its Scam Tracker about ticket scams related to sporting events, concerts and the theater. With the current prices for live event tickets, these losses can be significant. Find tips on avoiding ticket scams at BBB and NATB.

Investments from the crypt. The New York Times featured a story about a growing use of dating sites to lure victims into cryptocurrency investment scams. Tho Vu sent more than $300,000 worth of Bitcoin--almost her entire life savings--to a wily "boyishly handsome" suitor who convinced her she could make money by trading Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. "We can make more money...and go on a honeymoon," he said, according to a screenshot of their texts that Vu shared with the Times. Loyal SCAM GRAM readers probably have guessed there was no honeymoon, and certainly no investment windfall. Instead, there is a 33-year old woman "struggling to make sense of what happened. "I thought I knew him," she told the Times. "Everything was a lie." As the story points out, isolation during the pandemic and a lot of hype about "crypto" can be a toxic mix.

Join the crowd. It's been a few months since SCAM GRAM mentioned the Better Business Bureau's crowd-sourced Scam Tracker site. Hundreds of thousands of posts have been entered by victims and targeted consumers to warn others about prevalent scams. Bookmark the site and check in frequently to see how people in your neck of the woods are targeted--and taken--by scams. The tool really helps you join the "in crowd"--in this case, a crowd of aware and active people out to make the world a safer place.

Top scams of 2021. The Federal Trade Commission says that consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion to fraud last year--an increase of more than 70% from the previous year. The watchdog agency last year received fraud reports from more than 2.8 million consumers, with the most commonly reported category once again being imposter scams, followed by online shopping scams (see "Wicked losses" below). Prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries; internet services; and business and job opportunities rounded out the top five fraud categories.

Wicked losses. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) tracks cybercrimes, including e-commerce fraud. Non-payment and non-delivery fraud grew sharply in 2020, as many of us shopped online during the pandemic. E-commerce fraud includes situations in which a buyer pays for goods and services but never receives them, as well as when sellers send items or deliver services but never get paid. Wicked Reports, a firm that analyzes data, cross crunched the IC3 info with census data and broke incidences down by state. Of note, Wicked Reports found that the five states most impacted by e-commerce scams were not states that shop online the most. Iowa was most impacted by e-commerce fraud, with per victim losses of $4,858 (121% higher than the national average); 23 victims per 100,000 citizens (#50 highest among all states); and total losses of $3,507,557 (#17 highest among all states). Check your state here, and follow these National Cybersecurity Alliance tips for shopping online.

PACed with fabrications. AARP featured an article titled "Phone Calls for Donations to the Police Could Be a Scam," with solid information about why civic-minded people should hang up on telemarketers fundraising for "the police" and give directly to their local law enforcement agencies. The article, penned by Doug Shadel, AARP anti-fraud columnist, noted that at the end of 2021, "robocalls raising money for police groups were the highest-volume phone messages in most major markets." Although the callers imply they are nonprofits, most are super Political Action Committees (super PACs), which face less scrutiny from the IRS and have fewer state-level reporting requirements than nonprofits. AARP finds that only 10% of funds raised by these telemarketing entities provides actual police support--90% goes to support more fundraising. While AARP provides tips on how to research and verify calling entities, one thing it didn't mention was that some people fear if they say no to the callers, local police will not respond to them if they have an emergency. Feel free to hang up on telemarketers--this is not going to happen! You are no less safe for doing so.

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