A Consumer Action News Alert • October 2022
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  Seeking forgiveness  

The big news last month was the Biden administration's executive action to forgive $10,000-$20,000 of borrowers' federal student loans. (Learn more here.) As you might imagine, scammers heard the news, too. About 8 million borrowers will get cancellation relief automatically because the Education Department has access to their loan accounts. Others will be able to file a simple, free application. Do not trust anyone who contacts you with offers to "help" you file for the new student loan forgiveness plan. The Federal Trade Commission has some tips on how to avoid student loan forgiveness fraudsters. It says, "Nobody can get you in early, help you jump the line, or guarantee eligibility. And anybody who says they can--or tries to charge you--is (1) a liar, and (2) a scammer."

  Open for Medicare scams  

The Medicare open enrollment season begins tomorrow (Oct. 15) and runs through Dec. 7. This is the annual window of opportunity for those covered by Medicare to make changes in coverage. Unfortunately, it's also an opportunity for scammers to ply their tricks. AARP, in this article, outlines what you need to know about Medicare open enrollment. Scammers would love to get their hands on your Medicare number so they can defraud the government. Some quick tips: Don't answer or reply to robocalls pitching Medicare services; don't accept promotional gifts or "free" offers in exchange for personal information; and never give out your bank account, Social Security or Medicare numbers, mother's maiden name, passwords, and other identifying information online or to unexpected callers or pushy salespeople. Medicare provides legitimate help by phone, TTY or chat, so contact them with any questions. If you are unsure whether a call or offer is legitimate, or you gave your personal information to someone claiming to be with Medicare, call 800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) and ask for advice about what to do next.

  In sheep's clothing  

Popping up again! We'd love to tell you that "pop-up" computer scams are a thing of the past, but they're still around. KLEW, in Washington State, warned viewers late last month that local victims had lost thousands of dollars to the scams, which mainly push false claims that your computer is infected with malware, and offering "help" to fix the issues. Here's how it goes down: A pop-up message appears in your browser window saying you've been hacked or breached, often illegitimately using the names of real companies, such as Microsoft or Norton. It may say pornography was found on your computer, to scare you further. The pop-ups might cause your computer to freeze so you can't make the screen do anything. Sometimes sirens or alarms start sounding. Typically, the pop-up message says to call a number to resolve the issue. DON'T call the number, because you'll be asked to pay for bogus assistance with your credit card, bank account, or via a money transfer app like Zelle or Venmo. Do not fall for it! You'll be giving the scammer financial information they can use for their own nefarious purposes. The Federal Trade Commission has tips on identifying and avoiding pop-up scams. Make sure you use a computer security and antivirus program and make sure it's set to automatically update when needed. Yes, they cost some money, but your computer probably was a big investment, so why not protect it? Also check your browser's preferences, and block pop-ups (you can give permission to trusted sources on a case-by-case basis). Want to compare computer security software? CNET has a list of the top programs.

What a big grant you have! Little Red Riding Hood knew there was something strange about her grandmother, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Yikes! "Grandma" was a wolf in disguise. We have the same problem on social media, where things (and people) are not always what or who they seem. Our friend, reporter Herb Weisbaum (aka "The Consumer Man"), writes in Consumers Checkbook that con artists are plying ye-olde-government-grant-scams on social media. "I thought I was talking to my uncle," said a victim who fell into scammers' clutches on Facebook, buying $500 worth of gift cards to pay delivery fees for a $130,000 "grant" before she wised up. Savvy SCAM GRAM readers know you can't get any type of grant without applying for it. AARP Fraud Watch Network representative Amy Nofzinger told Weisbaum that "a lot of people don't realize how easy it is to commandeer somebody's social media page." Protect your online accounts with strong passwords and use two-factor authentication whenever possible.


Giving me Angi-na. Strange as it sounds, scammers can receive "leads" about people seeking home improvement services on Angi (the new name of Angie's List). Apparently, "pros" pay for leads on consumers who go to the site to find contractors and other service professionals. FOX News in Detroit ran a story about a homeowner who sought an electrician on Angi. The completely unprofessional "pro" who showed up ended up stealing tools and other items from the homeowner. The company, which started as a reputable site that allowed homeowners to review contractors, was sold to a conglomerate (which also owns the lead generator HomeAdvisor). On the internet, it has a lot of negative feedback from homeowners and contractors. We suggest you ask friends, family and coworkers for contractor referrals, and skip these lead generation sites, which appear to exist simply to collect your data and distribute it to unvetted "pros."

Bow WOW! To us, buying pets online, sight-unseen, sounds unwise, but apparently plenty of people do it (or try to). WGAL News 8, in Pennsylvania, reported on a woman who lost $2,100 after arranging to purchase a puppy posted for sale on Facebook. Honestly, to SCAM GRAM readers, the red flags will seem rather obvious: The seller would only communicate by text message and asked to be paid in gift cards. The price rose from the original $500 to $1,500 (for delivery fees and "insurance"), and escalated yet again when the scammer told the potential buyer the gift cards were "no good" and "there was no money on the cards," so she needed to "buy new cards." Take advice from the American Kennel Club and learn how to spot an online puppy scam. One of the tips? "Research the prices for the breed you are considering ahead of time. Purebred dogs sold at deeply discounted prices are typically frauds." Ya think?

Targeted by Xfinity scam. A SCAM GRAM reader reported a call he got from a conman, and when we searched online, we see he's not the only one. "I received the following voice message on my phone yesterday: 'Hi there, I'm calling you from Comcast Xfinity to let you know that your existing account is qualified for a 50% off discount." He was too wise to fall for it, but online we found others who took the bait. One man wrote, "I called back and set up the account. It was too convincing, and I'm very hard to convince," wrote the anonymous victim. He was told to buy several Target gift cards and give them the card numbers in order to take advantage of the 50% discount, but realized it was a scam when he got more text messages saying he needed to buy yet another gift card. He called (the real) Xfinity and Target's security department and filled them in on the scam. But he was still out the price of the gift cards. Let's just repeat: Being told you have to buy gift cards to pay for anything or qualify for any offer is a HUGE and waving red flag!

Sympathy for the devil. Our friend Bob Sullivan at The Red Tape Chronicles and The Perfect Scam podcasts flagged how profitable it can be to claim that you or a family member is deathly ill. He tells the story of Jeremiah Jon Smith, a Minnesota man who told his friends and family that he had terminal cancer, garnering a bevy of cash gifts from friends and acquaintances. "But it was all a lie. Smith wasn't dying of anything, just dying for attention--and cash." Using a sob story is a classic con artist trick, and the internet and social media make it even easier to carry out. Listen as Sullivan interviews Dr. Mark Feldman, author of Dying to be Ill, who says that the mixture of online medical reference tools and fundraising sites like GoFundMe has created a "unique 21st Century crime" of predation.

PACT-ed with lies. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is warning servicemembers about scams targeting veterans who are newly eligible for benefits under the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. The new law expands VA healthcare and disability benefits for former military members exposed to burn pits and toxic substances. AARP reports that the scammers heard the news, too, and are already targeting older veterans, offering help to apply for a fee. Veterans can get free help applying from accredited veterans service organizations (VSOs). AARP writes that scammers may entice veterans with bogus offers of lump-sum payments in exchange for military disability benefits, or they may impersonate VA officials and ask for personal information, such as a Social Security number, saying they need to update the veteran's records.

Pass this on. We like password managers--programs that store, generate and protect your login credentials. There are a number of good fee-based programs to choose from, so we leave it up to you. We know it's a pain to craft and remember unique passwords and to use two-factor authentication, but it's a lot worse to get your data breached or have your identity stolen. And while we think paying for a password manager is worth the money, if you don't, you can get some good free advice on creating stronger passwords in this post by Dashlane.

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