A Consumer Action News Alert • June 15, 2023
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  A bad influence[r]  

For the victims of this fraud ring, “Instascam” might seem a more appropriate name for the popular social media platform. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, from about 2013 through 2019, Mona Faiz Montrage, a Ghanaian public figure who rose to fame as a top Instagram influencer, was a member of a criminal enterprise based in West Africa that committed a series of frauds against U.S. individuals and businesses, including romance scams. Montrage received money from victims of romance frauds tricked by members of the enterprise. Among the false pretenses used by members of the enterprise to induce victims to send money were "payments to transport gold to the United States"; "payments to resolve a fake FBI unemployment investigation"; and "payments to assist a fake United States army officer in receiving funds from Afghanistan." And something that should be unbelievable but just isn’t these days is that, using her real name (!), Montrage sent one victim a tribal marriage certificate purporting to show that the victim and she had been married in Ghana. The would-be groom ultimately sent Montrage wire transfers totaling approximately $89,000 to supposedly help with the phony wife's father's farm in Ghana. We are glad to learn that the DOJ is untying this unblissful knot, and implore anyone looking for love online to back away from the keyboard lickety-split if asked for money or gifts by someone you’ve never met.

  No more heads in the sand  

XCast Labs, a nationwide provider of VoIP technology based in Los Angeles, enables customers to send and receive phone calls over the internet. The company was recently sued by the FTC for funneling hundreds of millions of illegal robocalls through its network, even after receiving multiple warnings. “XCast Labs played a key role in helping telemarketers flood homes with unlawful robocalls, including robocalls impersonating the Social Security Administration,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “VoIP providers like XCast Labs that bury their heads in the sand when their customers use their services to break the law can expect to hear from the FTC.” The FTC says that many of the suspect robocalls were part of organized campaigns designed to generate telemarketing leads—potential customers who telemarketers can pester with even more unwanted (and illegal) calls. We'll keep an eye on the outcome of this lawsuit, as it's been only a month since its filing, but we’re hoping it deters other companies from playing ostrich when it comes to facilitating others’ dirty deeds.

  Getting scammers out of the picture  

Saving young sextortion victims’ lives. As reported by CNN last month, a new South Carolina law will help protect young residents who could be driven to commit suicide by sextortion scams. The legislation, which was signed into law since publication of the CNN story, was first proposed by State Representative Brandon Guffey after the death of his teenage son Gavin. CNN reported that after Gavin's suicide, his family learned that scammers masquerading as a young woman had sent him nude photos and asked him for similar images of himself. Once Gavin shared photos with them, they blackmailed him with a threat to publicize them if he didn’t pay. Representative Guffey discovered that the scammers used a vanish mode feature that deletes messages as soon as the recipient exits the chat, which can make kids feel safe in the technology. What the victims don't realize, Guffey explained in the CNN story, is that the messages are still getting captured by the perpetrators. In this case, Gavin sent the scammers $25 and pleaded for more time to pay them more but, of course, they didn’t care. The story cites FBI statistics revealing how alarmingly frequent the online sextortion of minors is (more than 7,000 reports in 2022, including over a dozen related suicides). It goes on to note that law enforcement has made progress against the suspects in two cases in which teenage boys caught up in sextortion scams killed themselves. Under the new law, scammers who extort a minor or an at-risk adult will face up to five years in prison for a first offense. The FBI wants to assist sextortion victims, and offers information and tips here. You can contact the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI, or report this type of crime online at tips.fbi.gov. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988. 
Malicious manipulations. Even if we don’t share compromising photos with scammers, we could still be the target of sextortion scams, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI). The FBI warned last week that malicious actors are creating synthetic content (commonly referred to as "deepfakes") by manipulating benign photographs or videos and using them to target victims. Technology advancements are continuously improving the quality, customizability and accessibility of AI-enabled content creation, the FBI explained. The agency has observed a recent uptick in sextortion victims reporting the use of fake images or videos created from content posted on their social media accounts or other websites, images provided unwittingly to recipients who ended up being scammers, or clips captured during video chats. The altered photos and videos are publicly circulated on social media or pornographic websites and used to harass or extort victims, including minor children and non-consenting adults. Often, explains the FBI, the malicious actors demand payment and threaten to share the altered images or videos with family members or social media friends if funds are not received. The perpetrators have also demanded that the victim send real sexually-themed images or videos. The FBI is urging the public to exercise caution when posting or direct messaging personal photos, videos and identifying information on social media, dating apps, and other websites and platforms. The FBI's public service announcement explains that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides a free service known as Take It Down, which can help victims who have possession of the image or video files remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit content that was taken while the victim was under 18 years old. Check out more tips from the FBI here.


A gift that's a real steal. The Alameda Police Department offers a close look at how a gift card tampering scam works in a new video that includes tips for avoiding the scam. The department had heard of the scam going on in other parts of California—crooks accessing the PINs for gift cards and then putting them back on the rack to be sold and loaded with funds—and decided to see if it was happening locally. Well, you guessed it, the scam was alive and well in Alameda. In just one hour of investigative work, the police rounded up $6,000 worth of gift cards that had been tampered with. The police department's video explains that criminals steal gift cards in bulk, scratch off the protective film to reveal the cards' pin numbers, reattach the stickers to make it appear as if the cards are unaltered, and return to the store to put the cards back on the shelf for unsuspecting consumers to buy. The criminal will get notified when you purchase the compromised card (in other words, load your money onto it at the store), and, as the Alameda PD explains, will likely be "using your funds before you exit the store." The police department's video also offers specific tips for recognizing what an altered card looks like, including packaging that appears to have been resealed with a hot glue gun, and cards with glue residue on them. Tips for protecting yourself at the time of purchase include: (1) asking a store clerk to inspect your gift card, (2) asking for a card that has not been placed on display, and (3) using a digital gift card. Check out the quick video of just over a minute to see how you can spot a spoiled gift card. Your loved ones will be especially grateful if you do this before their next birthday.

And the Oscar goes to... If you appreciate a good performance, you have got to check out the Securities and Exchange Commission's mock pitch video for the "HoweyTrade Investment Program." The video announcer acknowledges that there are a lot of scammers out there posing as experts, but, he emphasizes, everything he's telling us is 100% true! Investors can earn $500 per week—guaranteed!—and more than 65% of accounts earn $10,000 per week after 12 months in the program. You're catching on, right? But don't let us spoil the show for you. The brief video, just shy of two minutes, demonstrates in a polished and fun style a slew of red flags that would-be investors should watch out for. From exaggerated credentials to fake testimonials, you won't be disappointed in the slick delivery of the cast. Community educators, trainers and teachers won't want to miss the SEC's supplementary materials to help learners capture the lessons packed in the video. As you embark on your next trip down the video rabbit hole, warm up with this SEC gem, and pass it along. (Learn more from the SEC in our recent investing webinar.)

Real estate chameleon. The Sunshine State's Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) recently announced the arrest of a Loxahatchee woman accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from dozens of victims in a complex real estate scam. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who will be prosecuting the case, said that the defendant, 20-year-old Tabria Anorria Josey, took advantage of Florida’s red-hot real estate market to rip off homebuyers and renters. Her crimes spanned six counties, involved 25 properties, and duped more than 45 consumers out of nearly $300,000. FDLE agents explained that the defendant listed properties for sale on various real estate websites without the owners’ knowledge and would often impersonate the owners. Once a victim committed to buying the property, Josey would act as the title agent facilitating the closing. As part of her alleged scheme, she also created fictitious title companies, websites, title agent identities, and unique email addresses, making the sale appear legitimate. Learn about eight other homebuyer scams to avoid here, including "wire fraud sellers," who steal photos and information from actual listings and then pose as the seller or the seller’s agent. And know that rental home-seekers aren’t spared by scammers. So, renters, avoid rental listing scams by following these tips from the FTC and the FBI.

No thanks for the update. The cybersecurity software company Trend Micro issued a warning to Google Chrome users about a new attack campaign that distributes malware by posing as a Google Chrome update error message. Trend Micro explained that the attack starts when you visit a legitimate, but compromised, website that has been infected with a malicious code. While on these websites, a fake Google Chrome error message will prompt you to download an update to fix a supposed security issue. What you’re really downloading is a ZIP file with an EXE file inside. This EXE file contains a Monero miner that will use your computer’s processing power to mine cryptocurrency for the attackers. (Learn more about this type of "cryptojacking" or "malicious cryptomining" here.) According to Trend Micro, if you become infected with the malware, your computer may slow down and become unresponsive due to the Monero mining process consuming system resources. The downloaded malware also has the potential to acquire sensitive information, such as login credentials and financial data. And if all that weren’t bad enough, your device will be vulnerable to further attacks because the malware is capable of modifying system settings, including disabling or interfering with security solutions. Trend Micro's tips for protecting yourself include exercising caution when downloading anything from unknown sources, and limiting software downloads to only trusted websites; keeping your operating system and software (including your browser) up-to-date; installing antivirus software; and, for Google Chrome users, using the built-in update feature by clicking Help and selecting About Chrome. Good precautions we say. Our hardworking computers have enough to do, never mind helping a hacker trying to get rich.

Return to sender...please! The FTC is hearing from folks who are being charged for magazine subscriptions they don’t want and never ordered. When contacted by the consumer for help, some magazine companies tell people they must speak to a different company. Consumers are also reporting getting error messages when they try to cancel online. The FTC reminds us that we never have to pay for something we didn’t order. If you get a product in the mail, you never have to return it. If, somehow, the offending company gets your billing info, that’s unauthorized debiting, and it's a crime. To stop a subscription, the FTC recommends contacting the offending company and following any cancellation instructions you’re given. Consumers should also keep a copy of their cancellation requests, along with notes about any conversations they had, and how and when they canceled. Additional tips include checking for charges on debit and credit card statements after canceling the subscription. If a company won’t stop charging your account after you’ve canceled, file a dispute or “chargeback” with your credit or debit card issuer. (You can use the FTC's sample letter for disputing credit and debit card charges.) If you’ve been charged for a subscription you didn’t agree to, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov, or to your state attorney general. If you're ever actually considering a "free trial" offer, check out more tips from the FTC here.

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