A Consumer Action News Alert • May 2022
  Airbnb poseurs  

For vacationers, Airbnb is a wildly popular alternative to hotels. The site features millions of listings, most are trustworthy, and the company has measures in place to protect guests and hosts. Nonetheless, travelers have been scammed by fake listings, so stay alert when arranging for lodging on Airbnb and other sites, such as VRBO and Vacasa. The Broke Backpacker explains: "This is how it goes: you find an Airbnb, you like it, you book it. But once you arrive at the address...you're greeted by the host (or their representative), who tells you the property is no longer available. They may say that it was damaged by the last guest, they may say the plumbing is broken or they may simply call [it] a double booking." Or, they offer you a different place, which could be fine, or could be of lower quality in a completely different part of town. Way to ruin one's vacation! "If they wait for you to arrive before springing this on you, then it is almost definitely a scam--they are counting on you to be tired and agreeable." The Cheapism site offers advice on Airbnb rental scams to watch out for, and Kim Komando's site has more tips to protect yourself.

  The sky bridge is closed (to you)  

As pandemic restrictions have eased, air travel is experiencing record bookings despite sharply increased fares. This is going to send many potential travelers to search engines to find the lowest possible ticket prices. Whoa! The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has warned that con artists create fake airline ticket booking sites or customer service numbers to entrap people looking for airfares online using search engines. In an alert last year, BBB advised: "If you are buying airfare, use caution and double check the URL or phone number before providing your credit card information." BBB went on to describe a variation of a ticket-related scam: After booking on a website offering deals on airfare, buyers get a call from the company saying that there's been a price increase or you need to pay an extra charge to finalize your booking. Worse, when buyers call the airline to check on their tickets, they're told there is no record of a booking in their name. The BBB offers tips on how to protect yourself, including the gold standard: Use a credit card, because disputing a scam charge is more straightforward than with other payment methods.

  A helping hand  

War crimes. With the war in Ukraine uppermost in the news, scammers are taking advantage of our inclination to donate money to help Ukrainians. Be very wary of requests for donations that come in emails and texts. It's best to do your own research to ensure that the organization is legitimate and your money will reach Ukrainians impacted by the tragic war on their independence. CNBC offers an extensive list of top-rated charities accepting donations for relief efforts in Ukraine. Use CharityWatch or Charity Navigator to check out the organizations.

Everyday heroes. It's great to hear about retail employees who thwart attempts to scam consumers. A Walgreens employee, Sheena Sullivan, featured in a story at Virginia's NBC12, was helping a customer purchase a $500 gift card last month when she noticed the customer was confused about how to send the gift card and who it was for. The customer said she had won a Publishers Clearinghouse prize of $3 million. Sullivan explained to the customer that this seemed to be a fraud and called the sheriff, averting any losses on the part of the customer. And Walmart, a huge seller of gift cards, developed technology to identify and freeze millions of dollars in cards it sold to predominantly elderly victims who were tricked into buying them and sending them to scammers. CNBC reports that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) was notified about the fraud by Walmart and seized scammers' ill-gotten gains, allowing victims of the scams to claim lost money. Please note that the link for assistance in the CNBC article (pointing to Justice.gov) is wrong. SCAM GRAM has learned that victims are advised to file for reimbursement at the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). Older victims who need help filing can contact the Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-372-8311, where call center employees are trained to help callers file complaints with IC3. (The hotline is a free resource created by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime and can be used to report fraud against people 60 or older.)


Schooled in scams. With much discussion in the news about student loan deferments (postponed payments) and the possibility of student loan cancellations, scammers have a plausible entrée into the lives of students and their parents via robocalls and emails designed to "phish" for personal information they can use to con you. The Michigan attorney general's office says they typically promise unrealistic amounts of loan forgiveness and quick ways to get it, while really trying to get your Federal Student Aid ID or other personal information and/or rush you into sending payments immediately. Arizona's 3 On Your Side says that this time of year, when college acceptance letters are starting to come in, is a perfect opportunity for con artists to dupe families. Via a podcast interview with cybercrime expert Beau Friedlander, 3 On Your Side explains that enrolling students in college may result in scammers targeting you over the internet, through the mail and by phone.

WhatsApp, scammers? According to Comparitech, a web security firm, mobile WhatsApp's 2 billion users worldwide send an average of 100 billion messages every day, "and among those messages lurk scammers waiting to pounce." It says WhatsApp scams include app hijacking, voicemail cons and imposter scams. The site offers tips for avoiding scams as well as information about how to report them.

Head in the iCloud. Impersonators pretending to be from Apple Support are trying to steal users' iCloud account credentials, hoping to find a motherlode of personal data they can exploit for nefarious purposes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says you might get a recorded message that says there's been suspicious activity in your Apple iCloud account or that your account may have been breached. Listeners are told they can press 1 to speak with someone, or they are provided a phone number to call. The FTC advises: "Don't do either. It's a scam. They're trying to steal your personal information, like your account password or your credit card number." (Cards used to pay for Apple services may be stored in users' accounts.) It also offers some tips on how to block unwanted calls.

Don't bank on it. We've covered many of the villainous ways con artists try to get your money, but it's worth mentioning (again!) that your bank will never call you to ask for a PIN, a full Social Security number or your online banking username/password. When you call your bank, know you may be asked to verify your identity (such as your address, account number, ATM card number or the last four digits of your Social Security number). But NEVER give out any financial information to unknown individuals who call you, even if your caller ID displays the name of your bank. This is easily spoofed by anyone using cheap technology. Don't "redial" the number from Caller ID--this could deliver you right into the scammer's hands. Get the number from your card or bank statement and dial directly.

No MO fear. While the stock market might be wobbling lately, many people are still experiencing "fear of missing out" (aka FOMO) on record stock market returns. This is a perilous emotion that can lead to bad choices--even deliver you into scammers' hands. Lori Schock, director of the SEC's Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, wrote an article titled "Say 'NO GO to FOMO'," posted on the SEC's Investor.gov website. Among providing other sage advice, Schock gets down to basics: "The best way to protect yourself during market swings is to create an investment portfolio that has a mix of assets, such as stock, bonds and cash. Including different kinds of assets in your portfolio reduces risk and the impact of volatility on your overall portfolio." The Investor.gov site contains lots of great advice to help individual investors avoid scams. For example, late last year it warned about communications, including phone calls, voicemails, emails, and letters, falsely claiming to be from the SEC. In recent news, the SEC has updated its list of unregistered entities that use misleading information to solicit investors, adding 58 soliciting entities, 11 impersonators of genuine firms, and one bogus regulator. The latest additions to the list are firms that SEC staff found were providing inaccurate information about their affiliation, location or registration.

Wire refunds still live. Refunds are still available to people who were tricked into wiring money to scammers through Western Union between Jan. 1, 2004, and Jan. 19, 2017. If you were taken during that period but didn't file a refund claim yet, do so before the July 1 deadline. The refunds are part of a 2017 settlement Western Union reached with the FTC and the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to guard against wire fraud. Victims can go here to file a claim at no cost. The FTC advises claimants that they don't have to pay to file, don't need a lawyer, and should ignore anyone who contacts them offering help to file.

Consumer 'wrongs.' We heard from a reader who said he was called by the "American Consumer Rights Organization" and told that, because of a pandemic relief program, he could "wipe the balance clean" from his Discover card. (This is a lie.) Okay, it's creepy enough that they knew he had a Discover card, but they went on to ask him for the account number "to verify" the debt. This savvy SCAM GRAM reader hung up. We did some digging on the web and found numerous complaints about a "debt relief" scam by a group called, you guessed it, American Consumer Rights Organization. Those who complained were shocked that the caller knew details about their debt. (Our guess is they are gaining unauthorized access to consumer credit reports.) One said: "They seemed to already know that I was indebted to AUSA (Association of [redacted]) credit card for approximately $11,000 dollars." The people who were called said they were quoted exorbitant upfront fees for "debt relief"--from $1,200 to $8,100. This is a debt relief scam! Some debt relief scams even tout their services using automated "robocalls" to consumers on the National Do Not Call Registry. Do not engage! We repeat, do not engage!

  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!