A Consumer Action News Alert • July 14, 2023
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  S-s-supreme scams  

Just in time for what many celebrated as a long 4th of July weekend, the U.S. Supreme Court handed debt-burdened student loan borrowers a fireworks-dampening downer of a decision. On the last day of June, as reported by USA Today, a majority of the court ruled, in Biden v. Nebraska, that the Biden administration overstepped its power by attempting to forgive $400 billion in student loans. Wasting no time, the FCC’s Robocall Response Team and the attorneys general of Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Hampshire (who clearly know just how fast scammers work!) teamed up to warn consumers about a potential rise in student loan debt-related scam robocalls and robotexts in the wake of the high court's decision. Scammers, the agencies' release explained, often exploit broadly publicized current events to lend legitimacy and familiarity to their fraudulent calls and texts. They might use these communications to pressure consumers to make a payment, or to extract private information while purporting to be from the “student loan forgiveness center” or from a state “forgiveness center” that provides debt relief. The agencies also warned about incoming calls and texts fraudulently reflecting seemingly legitimate caller ID information to convince consumers to respond. The tell-tale signs of a scam listed in the release include being pressured for money or personal information (like your Federal Student Aid ID, bank account number or credit card information); being asked for an upfront payment to "apply or appeal" an application; being asked to contact the caller/texter via an app-based message platform; or seeing a suspicious caller ID, such as a name that is inconsistent with the substance of the message, or a number with the same area code and first three digits of your own phone number. The FCC also reminded consumers that they accept complaints about scam robocalls and robotexts. So, has the Biden Administration given up on getting more help for weary student loan borrowers? Not quite. There's always a Plan B, which you can read about here.

  Care for seconds?  

As Consumer Action has warned in the past, victims of scams often become targets of follow-up schemes related to the initial scheme. Last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office warned that the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), a part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), has received multiple reports that individuals claiming to represent OVC or other DOJ agencies are calling members of the public as part of imposter scams. The scams usually are intended to convince victims to send money to the fraudsters under the guise of legitimate, official agency business. Examples of these ruses include scammers falsely representing themselves as OVC Director Kristina Rose or as members of law enforcement agencies, such as INTERPOL, the FBI or the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, in an attempt to obtain personal information or money. And, you guessed it, if a consumer falls for one of these scams, fraudsters may go back to the well, telling the person that they are eligible for victim compensation or restitution from OVC. According to the agency announcement, OVC never offers victim compensation or restitution in this manner. The U.S. Attorney's Office advises recipients of suspected scam calls to not respond directly. Instead, check the agency's website for legitimate contact information and contact the agency to verify the information received. This is one case in which avoiding seconds will preserve more than just your waistline. Report scams to the Federal Trade Commission and to the FBI.

  Looking out for Ma 'n' Pa  

Is your mom a scammer? A humorous New Yorker column, Phishing Scammer or One of Your Parents?, offers, along with plenty of chuckles, some bits of wisdom that can actually help us stay alert to scams (and over-protective parents). As a SCAM GRAM reader, you’re surely adept at spotting the fraudulent gotchas out there. But how might throwing mom or dad into the mix lead to, well, a mix-up? For a bit of comic relief and food for thought, check out the New Yorker's list of curious communications you might receive from a parent or from a scammer, and how to tell them apart. For example, an email without a subject line would be from your parent, the New Yorker jokingly explains, because scammers know how to write a subject line. (Boy, do they!) See our Tips section below for more about spotting scam emails by their subject lines.
Speaking of the folks. Some of our favorite sources of trusted consumer advice were featured in NerdWallet's update on ways to protect our parents from financial scams. The article includes tips from the National Consumers League, AARP and the FTC, among other experts. Citing the FTC, NerdWallet explains that consumers age 60 and older filed almost half a million fraud reports in 2021, reporting total losses of more than $1 billion. Although consumers age 60 and older are less likely to report losing money to fraud than those age 18-59, the post continued, when they do report a monetary loss, it tends to be for more money. Consumers 80 and older had the highest median loss of all groups, at $1,500. We kids who want to protect mater and pater from fraud would be wise to follow some of the steps offered by NerdWallet, including talking openly about scams, employing available anti-fraud tools (not only protective settings for social media, email and phone accounts, but things like financial account monitoring and transaction alerts, and credit report freezing), and being alert for signs of fraud. We should also refrain from shaming ma and pa if they fall for a scam (the article includes specific tips for reassuring words we can use). And, because we know you love your parents as much as we love ours, give them a copy of our Just Say No to Scams (Quick Tips).


Don’t pick the flowers. About those phishy email subject lines: The Kim Komando website recently offered some tips to help us better recognize fake subject lines in the aptly titled article "Email subject lines that scream, 'This is a scam!'" The article's author, Jon Martindale, reminds us that, although scam emails have their roots way back in the ‘90s, they are flowering profusely in the 2020s. Martindale keenly points out that AI is now helping scammers correct their typos, which could certainly lead to more people opening the messages and becoming victims. The article goes on to list several suspicious subject lines to watch out for—"Action required: Your Payment Was Declined,” for example—and explains why we might be likely to fall for them. We love the tip about watching out for subject lines that begin with "Re:" followed by anything else—an attempt to make us think we've already been communicating with the sender. Like everyone else, we at Consumer Action get our share of phishing emails with enticing subject lines. One recent message informed a staffer about an "audio note" waiting to be listened to. A careful reading of the subject line revealed that the so-called "audio note" was a month old—and probably worth discarding on that basis alone! The body of the email further confirmed its phishy nature, asking the recipient to click on a link to download the message from an unfamiliar platform. Needless to say, regardless of the initially tempting subject line, we were not about to subject ourselves to a scammer’s shenanigans by clicking links or responding to the message. The only subject of interest at that point was how to nip this ruse in the bud (delete!). 

Threadbare privacy? Launched on July 6, Threads, the new social media app rolled out by Facebook owner Meta, already has over 100 million users, making it the fastest-growing app yet. While the debate may rage on over whether Threads is a good Twitter alternative, we know that savvy consumers like you still care about any new app's privacy policy. Ars Technica, a publication geared mainly to "alpha geek" technologists and IT professionals (but also valuable to regular folk), recently provided readers the lowdown on the Threads app privacy policy. The online publication explained what data is collected when consumers sign up for Threads and compared it to the data collected by other social media apps, including Twitter and smaller social networks, like Mastodon, Bluesky and Hive Social, whose CEOs aren't necessarily making headlines in the nightly news cycle. As for Threads, Ars Technica explains that it potentially collects a wide assortment of personal data that remains connected to you, from your purchase history and physical address to your browsing history and health information. Some of the “sensitive” information that could be collected includes race, sexual orientation, pregnancy status and religion, as well as biometric data. Ars Technica explains that this is comparable to what's collected by Instagram and Facebook, both owned by Meta. You'll also want to check out the guidance on what's collected from Android versus Apple device users by various social media apps (you may be surprised that the answer can vary from app to app). And, if you simply want to know which apps collect less or no personal data, Ars Technica has those answers for you too.

Your superpower. In its new scam protection guide, Consumer Reports laments the fact that although technology offers us many ways to keep in touch with friends and family (cell phones, email, text messages, social media), it also allows would-be scammers to contact us on these platforms relentlessly. Encouragingly, and, shall we say, almost enlighteningly, Consumer Reports emphasizes that we are not powerless against scammers. The brief guide aims to help us sidestep "criminal gambits in the making" and informs us about what to do if we've been scammed. The guide covers several types of fraud, including text and phone cons, suspicious emails, social media schemes, ATM card rip-offs and QR code scams, and includes several examples of each type of deception—even some less familiar ones. For example, although many people have heard of scam texts, what they may not know is that, according to Experian's head of data breach resolution, 60% of scam texts are designed to transmit “malware.” The malicious software can infect our devices and grab enough personal information to take over our shopping, financial and social media accounts, and even steal our identity. Another novel scam the guide warns of is the “glue and tap” ATM scheme. In this iteration of ATM scams, Consumer Reports explains, a fraudster jams an ATM card slot reader so that you can’t insert your card. The scammer, who may be lingering nearby, then suggests you bypass the slot and use the card’s “tap” function instead. However, Consumer Reports warns, unless you log out after a tap transaction, which you might not realize is necessary, the scammer can access your account once you’ve walked away. Check out the guide for tips on avoiding a litany of scams and what to do if you engage with the scammer or fall victim. And, may we suggest you keep your inner cool by reminding yourself often (perhaps when others aren't watching) "I am not powerless against scammers."

Let’s not get physical. The Internal Revenue Service warned taxpayers in early July to be on the lookout for a new scam mailing that tries to mislead people into believing they are owed a refund. Yes, this arrives at your doorstep via delivery service, in the form of a physical letter in a cardboard envelope. (It's not just the typical email or text scam that many of us are already on to.) The fraudulent letter includes the IRS masthead and wording that the notice is "in relation to your unclaimed refund." Among the letter's many red flags, the IRS highlights, is the awkwardly worded request for "A Clear Phone of Your Driver's License That Clearly Displays All Four (4) Angles, Taken in a Place with Good Lighting." [Sic, sic and sic.] What!? These tricksters want to scam us and they have the nerve to demand an Ansel Adams-style shot? (Or were they hoping our local DMV pic was shot in a studio setting?) The IRS press release continues with a bit of an understatement, referring to the letter's "odd punctuation" and other problems. Here's a sample of those orthographic issues: "You'll Need to Get This to Get Your Refunds After Filing. These Must Be Given to a Filing Agent Who Will Help You Submit Your Unclaimed Property Claim. Once You Send All The Information Please Try to Be Checking Your Email for Response From The Agents Thanks." (Sorry, but that's more than just odd punctuation.) If you suspect a tax scam—even if it comes via special delivery—report it to the IRS and other appropriate authorities, as described here.

Speaking of good photo opportunities. This wouldn’t be a midsummer SCAM GRAM issue if we didn't mention summer travel. Summer vacations should be nothing but fun. Yet, citing the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) reported that travel-related fraud cost U.S. consumers $105.1 million in losses in 2022. It accounted for 16% of all fraud reported to the FTC that year, with a median loss of $600. To prevent scammers from having more fun than you this summer, check out the BBB's tips to ensure an enjoyable vacation. Even though it's mid-July, try not to skip past tip #1: Plan ahead. You'll want to allow plenty of time to research hotels, flights and your stay area—key to getting the best deals—advises the BBB. Note that even though we just said "best deals," you shouldn’t use such an overly broad phrase in your internet search, since such searches, the BBB warns, can yield websites that look official but are designed to rip you off. There are many more good tips, including some practical advice for ensuring your safety and security. One great tip that people don't seem to think about much these days is to pack a map or atlas in case of technical difficulties while on the road. For those of you wondering where to get a physical map (or if you've never seen one or forgot what they look like) try your favorite online shopping site or check with your local bookseller. If you belong to the Auto Club, you can still find free and for-sale maps at their offices. And for some inspiration for mapping your way to your next adventure, read here about how the New York Times Wirecutter team, armed with a road atlas, made it from Ventura to Joshua Tree, California, with no phones and no GPS, on roads they'd never driven before. Happy trails!

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