A Consumer Action News Alert • May 12, 2023
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  Spring reawakening  

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is alerting consumers who have been contacted by debt collectors seeking payment on a home loan not heard about in years—aka “zombie mortgages.” These are second mortgages that were sold off to debt collectors during the Great Recession and went uncollected—and considered dead—for years. The CFPB noted that, leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, many lenders made predatory loans that borrowers couldn’t repay. This included "piggyback" mortgages, also known as 80/20 loans, that involved a first lien loan for 80% of the value of the home and a second lien loan for the remaining 20% of the home’s valuation. The CFPB explains that, by and large, lenders did not pursue homeowners on second mortgages, instead selling off these mortgages to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. Now, as property values rise, debt collectors who bought these second mortgages are bringing them back to life, threatening foreclosure and other collection actions. They are trying to collect years’ worth of late fees and interest on top of the comparatively low principal balance. In guidance issued to industry in April, the CFPB clarified that a debt collector who brings, or threatens to bring, a state court foreclosure action to collect a time-barred mortgage debt (one in which the statute of limitations has expired) may violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). “We are making clear that threatening to sue to collect on expired zombie mortgage debt is illegal,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in the announcement. The prohibition on the collection of time-barred debt applies even if the debt collector does not know that the debt is time-barred. If you have an encounter with the undead, Consumer Action encourages you to submit a complaint to the CFPB and your state attorney general about the debt collector attempting to resurrect a zombie mortgage.

  Every rose has its thorns  

We know that some people feel confident they would never fall for a scam. However, none of us should let down our guard. Even experienced tech workers can be vulnerable—especially as scammers' tricks get more and more sophisticated. The NBC news affiliate in the San Francisco Bay Area recently reported about an explosion in fake job scams. "Slick identity thieves are tricking gobs of people who just want to find work," the report reads, as it describes the case of local tech worker Diego Martinez. Hunting for positions on an online job board, Martinez found a promising remote tech position at a company called isolved. He applied for the job and was interviewed via a text messaging platform. In a day, he was offered the job, and the outlook was rosy. All that was left to do was for him to provide additional personal information, beyond what he'd already provided in the job application. They wanted Martinez's bank account information for direct deposit of his paycheck, plus a copy of his driver’s license. He was also told he would need to buy a phone for isolved-related business. Turns out, this employment prospect was dead on the vine—just an intricate ruse giving the crooks access to Martinez's sensitive personal data and money. The isolved website was fake (nearly identical to the real site). An HR rep from the real isolved, Amy Mosher, confirmed that Martinez was dealing with an HR impersonator. "This happens very, very often, more often than certainly most people realize,” Mosher said. Citing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data, NBC explained that job opportunity scams are trending upward. Among the article's and corresponding video's recommendations for job seekers—before turning information over to online recruiters—is to search online for the company name to find the authentic website, and compare that to the site you’ve been directed to; be leery of recruiters who require you to buy a phone or laptop from them before you start a new job; make sure the @ part of the recruiter’s email address matches the real company website URL; and insist on speaking to the recruiter and your future teammates, ideally by video or in person (a text-only interview is a red flag!). When you need a job, pushing back on “employer” requests can be a thorny issue. Martinez fortunately had friends who became suspicious and helped him avoid becoming a victim. He offers his own sage advice in the NBC piece: “...everyone needs to be more aware, no matter how experienced you are looking for jobs.” We concur.

  Springing into health?  

Real deal, or wellness scam? With spring comes the push to get in tip-top shape in time for the summer sun. A recent Business Insider article offers some tips for deciding if a wellness fad—like a "juice cleanse" or trendy workout—is worth doing or if it’s just an expensive scam. Citing Christy Harrison, author of the new book "The Wellness Trap," Insider explains that online misinformation, dubious diets, and sketchy "wellness" programs have run rampant on social media, but a few simple tips can help you determine whether a health claim is legit. The book, Insider continues, describes how the wellness industry works within structural inequalities like poverty and access to care, and how the industry often does more harm than good, especially to marginalized populations, such as people with chronic illness. When people feel like conventional health care is dismissive or unhelpful, the article explains, they may seek out unproven alternatives, like detox "cleanses" and "miracle cures." How to avoid falling for a wellness scam? Check out the Insider article for a quick rundown of the SIFT method for assessing online information ("stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace the claims"). Among the six steps offered to “avoid falling for faulty wellness info” are pausing before acting on claims you find online (consider, for example, whether you're reacting based on confusion, frustration or anxiety); thinking about who shared the information and considering their motives and background; and getting second and third opinions, including from medical professionals. If you're thinking of getting the book, you can check out a review in Kirkus Reviews (at p. 75) here.
Fake-o celeb endorsements, courtesy of AI. Last month, we shared the FTC’s warning about fraudsters' ability to use artificial intelligence (AI) to clone voices in fake emergency scams. This month, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns about AI used in celebrity impersonation scams, in which seemingly real celebrities appear on video endorsing weight loss products, health supplements and all sorts of quackery. In a complaint to the BBB, a consumer reported ordering “Oprah Winfrey’s keto gummy bear supplements” after seeing a phony endorsement by the mega-star. According to the consumer, Oprah described the product in the ad and offered a first-time buyer deal of "buy one bottle for $49 and get a second one free." The consumer ended up with a charge of $198, a denied refund, and gummies from a company with no affiliation with Oprah Winfrey. Want to see an actual fake video about the "Oprah Winfrey keto gummies diet" and the fake social media page it points to? Jordan Liles (who also reports for Snopes.com) captured and posted these on his personal YouTube page. Liles offers plenty of tips for spotting the fakes (so many dead giveaways!) and shares his extensive knowledge of scammer tactics. In its own list of tips for avoiding celebrity impersonation scams, the BBB emphasizes that just because something is shared widely on social media doesn’t mean it’s real or true. We should not assume celebrity posts, images or videos are legitimate until we verify they came from an official source, the BBB advises. Duly noted!


Pushing daisies. Mother's Day was yesterday, but if you forgot to honor one of the special moms in your life (be it a sister, a friend, a neighbor, or, of course, your own mom), it's not too late to order up some flowers for delivery. But don't let scammers botch your bouquet. Preventing peaked peonies or limp lilies from showing up on that special mom's doorstep is wholly within your power. If you heed the BBB's advice about wisely choosing a florist, you'll avoid the kinds of complaints the organization regularly receives, such as flowers being late, not what you chose, or undelivered. When sending flowers to another city, the BBB recommends finding a florist in that area, and make sure to allow enough time for delivery. The date should be specified clearly and guaranteed at the time you place your order. Don't forget to ask about all applicable fees, since there may be an extra charge during busy holidays. (BTW, next year, Mother’s Day is on May 12—plenty of notice.)

Testing our limits. If you recently received a COVID-19 test kit without requesting one, you’re probably a scam victim, USA Today reported this month. In the lead-up to May 11, the official end of the COVID-19 national public health emergency, scammers were busy sending out free COVID-19 tests to consumers who never ordered them. Why? To bill Medicare for the tests. The FTC explained that, although the money doesn’t come directly out of your pocket, fraudulent charges could affect your Medicare coverage. (The FTC previously warned about the "free COVID test" scam, in which perpetrators try to get consumers' personal information in order to bill Medicare.) As of May 12, however, Medicare stopped fully paying for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests, and private insurers are no longer required to cover the costs of testing. For consumers concerned about losing access to free COVID tests, USA Today offers some options: Medicaid recipients will be able to receive free at-home tests through September 2024, and consumers may be able to turn to state and local organizations—for example, a state department of health and human services. Also, the Rockefeller Foundation will continue providing free kits to at-risk communities through June 30. Report Medicare fraud and unsolicited COVID-19 tests here or call 800-HHS-TIPS. Oh, and toss any unordered tests you may have recently received, since you don’t know if they’re real.

Insta-scam. The police department of the City of Oviedo, just outside Orlando, Florida, recently issued a public warning on its Facebook page about a "sextortion" scam. The May 6 alert warns of a new wave of fake Instagram accounts being used to blackmail users with compromising photos. The law enforcement agency explains that fraudsters are creating fake profiles, luring victims into sharing compromising photographs, and then using these images to extort money. The Instagram impostors often use attractive profile pictures and engage in conversations with users to gain their trust. Once a relationship has been established, the department alert continues, the scammers will request or share explicit content, only to later threaten to expose these images to the victim’s friends and family unless they receive a payment. The department recommends Instagram users take several precautions to combat the fraud: Be cautious about accepting follow requests or engaging with strangers on social media; keep your profile's privacy settings restricted to friends and family; never share compromising photographs or personal information with people you do not know well; and report suspected fake accounts to Instagram. The social media alert also reminds us that even seemingly trustworthy accounts can be compromised or faked. Scam victims should submit reports to local law enforcement and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). You should also block and report the offending account on Instagram. And may we suggest this rule of thumb: Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want to see on a Times Square billboard.

Confirm here for free Benjamins. Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based WGAL-TV reported that scammers are targeting the peer-to-peer payment service Cash App. One of the station's viewers forwarded an email that claims someone is having trouble delivering $500 to the viewer's Cash App account. However, the viewer has never used Cash App. Take a look at WGAL's video to see what you think of the email message. Would you have fallen for it? It reads like this, in part: "We're having some trouble to deliver your $500 To Your CashApp(R) Account. Please complete your contact info to make sure..." You get the point. As WGAL points out, the email has grammatical errors (and other issues), which are always a sure sign of a scam. How many can you spot? Citing advice on the Cash App website, WGAL explains that this type of email can lead to several different scams if you click on the "confirm here" box at the bottom. The link could lead to a request for bank account information, a Social Security number or other personal information. WGAL advises that we trust our instincts and avoid unexpected messages like this. If you're a Cash App user, check out the advice the company offers here. It includes tips for avoiding scams that promise to increase your money if you first make a payment, and ones where scammers want you to pay back money they’ve supposedly mistakenly sent you, as well as several other schemes. If we ever come across a real opportunity to get five crispy C-notes for free, we’ll be sure to mention it here.

A rude awakening. Several news outlets reported about a couple caught in the middle of a marijuana scam when their Boston-area home was listed as the address of a nonexistent marijuana dispensary. According to WCVB, Denise King reported that multiple people have shown up at her home to pick up orders placed on the Starlight Greens Delivery Dispensary website. Visitors included one man who came to her home to pick up $154 worth of cannabis products. King had the unenviable duty of breaking the bad news to the scammed visitor, telling him she thought he'd been "taken to the cleaners." Another visit was by a young woman who stopped by to pick up her cannabis at midnight on a Sunday. The apparently good-spirited King joked in the video news interview that, in Massachusetts, you can't get beer after 11 p.m., let alone marijuana at midnight. Fortunately, the news story states, King filed a police report, and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office has confirmed that it is investigating. Also, although the news report showed live footage of the fraudulent website, when we visited the site, we were met with a message that the "account has been suspended." We think this story offers a reminder of how scammers can quickly set up shop and impact not only would-be buyers, but other unrelated victims, like Ms. King in this story. Kudos to King for contacting law enforcement immediately and for sharing her story. As for the victims who were unable to buy marijuana, we remind them of the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true (Massachusetts, midnight, marijuana?), then it probably is.

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