How to Avoid the Latest Airbnb Scam

Airbnb should have shut down these scams the first time they happened to a customer using their site. But there's a reason they haven't.

A friend of mine showed up last night at a place we sometimes meet. He looked like Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale after lobbing a game-ending home run to Aaron Judge of the Yankees. He was supposed to have been on a plane to Italy. I asked him what happened.

“We were all set to head out,” he said. “First leg: Rome. But I just canceled our tickets, like, a second ago.”

I asked why.

“Airbnb scam,” he said.

It was supposed to be the perfect trip. He and his wife have a 2-year-old, so they were looking for a destination vacation that would let them hang out in one place. The patch of paradise they rented was not an easy journey: two flights, a long car ride, a ferry and another long car ride.

That said, it seemed worth it. The fairy tale villa was on an island off the coast with views of the Mediterranean, a swimming pool and more than enough room for three families. The fee was steep, but not terrible since it was being shared by three renters: 6,000 euros a week.

“We were bummed that we had to be a day late to the place, but it turned out to be a godsend, because when our friends got there yesterday, the owners were there,” my friend said. “They weren’t renting the place. It was the third time that month they’d had people show up who had rented their house on Airbnb.”

The only inaccuracy in his statement is this: They didn’t rent the house via Airbnb. They thought they did.

A similar thing happened to a woman who arrived in New York from Barbados to buy her wedding dress. Malissa Blackman rented two apartments in the heart of the city to accommodate her mom, two sisters and two bridesmaids. When they arrived at 400 Fifth Avenue, the doorman gave the bad news. They’d been suckered, and they weren’t the first victims to come looking for nonexistent rental apartments in the building. At least two other groups had succumbed to the same nefarious plot, paying as much as $400 a night for the fictional flats.

Out $2,000, Blackman was forced to pay for two hotel rooms at an additional cost of $2,600. The next day, she found her perfect dress made by her favorite designer, but after the swindle, the $2,500 price tag was just too much for her. She had to get a cheaper dress and was heartbroken.

What Makes These Scams Possible?

You’re not alone in thinking that Airbnb should have shut down these scams the first time they happened to a customer using their site. But they haven’t because the scams didn’t occur on their site.

Blackman had responded to a property on “airbnb.com” and started to discuss terms with the “owner” of the listing on the site’s proprietary and secure app. She was offered another option during that chat and was asked if it would be possible to email the link. She allowed it, and that was how the scam went down.

Airbnb is clear about the danger of going off its site or app to conduct business. They send a warning email if a member of Airbnb asks to communicate via email. The problem here is that these warnings can be missed in the flurry of email that is triggered when you do business online. Compounding that problem, warnings are so common these days we may ignore them so long as we feel we’re in familiar territory — for instance, while looking at a what appears to be a legit listing on the site warning us.

In Blackman’s case, the scammer sent her a link that took her to a clone site, a perfect copy of Airbnb with one key difference: The URL was airbnb.com-listining-online31215.info. At first blush, this might seem like a hard thing to detect, and maybe you are right there with Blackman, feeling perplexed. There is a tell though, and one you won’t miss going forward if you want to play it safe on the internet. The URL in question goes to a dotinfo address, not a dotcom.

Airbnb phishing tales abound, but these ploys are avoidable if you know what to look for. (Here are three dumb things you can do with your email.) If you are asked to wire money or pay in a way that doesn’t use Airbnb, stop communicating with the renter. It’s a dead giveaway a scam is afoot. Whether you are lured off the site by an Airbnb user or you receive an email with a link to the site, always look at the URL carefully. The differences can be subtle. Better yet, take Airbnb’s advice and stay on its site or app.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, don’t shrug it off. You can check for signs of mischief by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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Here’s How to Make Sure You Don’t Fall for the Latest Tax Scam

You know never to respond to a phone call from the IRS, because — say it with me — they never call. Well, this latest scam has been taking taxpayers for a ride.

True or False: The time for IRS-related swindles and scams is behind us — until next tax season. If you’re still reading this, you probably guessed “false.” And yep, it’s sad but true: Those pesky swindlers are still at it.

Normally, when summer arrives with its parade of warm days and fewer demands on our attention, there is a quiet month or so when very little happens in the way of IRS-related activities (quarterly payments being the only thing you might expect on a list of tax-related things to do). So, you should be safe from the current scam making the rounds — but you’re not. The IRS recently issued a warning about a scam that’s been luring summertime tax-fraud victims.

You know never to respond to a phone call from the IRS, because — say it with me — they never call. (The agency does have debt collectors representing them now, but you’ll receive several notices before they call you and you can expect to be contacted by one of four firms —CBE Group, ConServe, Performant and Pioneer Credit Recovery — not an IRS agent, more on this below.) Well, this latest scam put a saddle on that old nag and has been taking taxpayers for a ride.

Here’s how: You get a call from the IRS telling you about official correspondence sent via snail mail — certified mail, no less. The letters were returned to the IRS as undeliverable. They tried to mail you the notice you needed. They have to call you.

So, what do you do? Hang up.

The thing about these scams is that they always have the ring of truth to them. (Remember, con man is short for confidence man.) If you stay on the phone, you will be informed that there was an issue with your tax return and you owe money that is extremely late in getting where it’s supposed to be. You have to pay with a card that is connected with the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS). Sounds legitimate, because the EFTPS is one of the ways you can pay your taxes. That said, you can’t do it with a gift card or any other kind of prepaid card, which is what the scam requires to pay out the fraudster. (You can also pay taxes with credit cards, which you can learn about here.)

The IRS never calls to bird-dog money, although there is one new exception. Congress has mandated that the IRS hire collection agencies to chase certain extremely delinquent taxpayers. If you receive such a call, get off the phone and contact the IRS directly to verify the situation.

Also bear in mind that taxpayers who owe the IRS money generally know it. They have received multiple notices, did not dispute the assessments and/or did not make the payments. If you get a surprise call asking for money, be doubtful. (You can see how unpaid taxes are impacting your credit by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

Can You Scam-Proof Yourself?

In this particular instance, you actually can avoid getting got 100% of the time. It’s pretty simple: Simply hang up. But there is no way to absolutely scam-proof yourself.

There are more ways to get burned by tax scams than you can shake a beach umbrella at — bogus tax preparers, scam artists who file a tax return using your identity and steal the refund, sleazeballs who promise huge tax refunds for an extra fee, which is nothing compared to the penalty you will pay after the IRS audits you.

My book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves provides countless stories about how cyber criminals lure victims, but the best way to stay safe is to do what you’re doing now: Stay aware.

Image: AleksandarGeorgiev

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5 Scary Wedding Scams to Avoid This Season

The wrong call can mean the difference between an unforgettable wonderful day and a day that makes you angry every time you think about it.

Weddings require many important decisions and the wrong call can mean the difference between an unforgettable wonderful day and a day that makes you angry every time you think about it.

The often unreasonably high expectations of families and friends and at least one spouse-to-be only makes matters more fraught. With such a high level of stress, it’s only a matter of luck that mistakes don’t get made. Scam artists are counting on that.

There will be a repeating theme in this article, and it’s this: Be certain you know who you’re dealing with, and when you think you’re sure, check some more. Here are five wedding scams you want to avoid.

1. Sham Wedding Planners

Scammers take advantage of distraction, and there are few things in life so exquisitely discombobulating as the planning of a wedding. Add to that the high likelihood that the bride and groom may not be overly familiar with different kinds of transactions that help make an event run smoothly — purchases, contracts, rentals, hiring — and you have fertile ground for fraud.

It is a good rule of thumb to look for trouble when anything out of the ordinary comes up. I’ve heard of scams that were run through radio stations, where the “planner” offered a free wedding to a couple who couldn’t afford one and then raised the money from listeners. That counts as out of the ordinary, but the scam that lands in your inbox may be subtler. In the radio scam, vendors are hired but never paid. The “planner” skips town with all the money.

Another familiar scam involves blank checks and the flakiness of many vendor hires. A “planner” will ask the couple for checks written out for a specific amount but without filling in the payee because, they are told, it’s up in the air as to who’s going to get the gig. The scammer cashes all the checks, no one is hired and the wedding doesn’t happen quite so wonderfully as planned. (Here’s what you need to know about bounced checks.)

2. Pricey Wedding Photographer Scams

A photographer shows up and takes pictures. He sends proofs to you. They are tiny and low-resolution, but you can see they are fantastic. Next comes the bill.

Now, wedding photography is expensive, but we’re talking crazy-town prices here. One scammer banked $140,000 before getting nailed. The ruse: Take the money and never deliver the goods or extort a huge payment in exchange for them. The variation on this theme is taking a size-able deposit and simply not showing up.

3. Missing Flowers

When it comes to flower scams, we’re talking about a different line of business but very similar types of fraud. Maybe this scam takes the form of an independent contractor who assures you they make breathtaking arrangements for a fraction of the cost other places charge. All you have to do is write them a check for the flowers you need and show up to your wedding. They’ll handle everything. They never show up, and you can guess the rest.

How to Avoid Vendor Scams

There is no substitute for checking references. You should look for reviews online, but know that this will not help detect a fraudster with several aliases. Ask for references, no fewer than five, and then call them.

Bear in mind that a quality scammer may have a wing man or two, but not five. That said, you never know. Maybe they’ll give you what you request. You still have some agency here. Listen carefully to the references when you call, because if they’re not for real you’ll be able to tell. Get detailed. Be friendly. You’re getting married. They know how great and frenzied that can be (if they are for real).

Additional tactics: Ask about the reference provider’s honeymoon or for the name of another vendor used at their wedding. Be creative. Do your homework, and you won’t get got by these kinds of scams.

4. Gift Theft

According to Vogue, the average cost of a wedding gift in 2016 for a co-worker or distant relative was $50 to $75. For someone closer, it was $75 to $150. While some gifts are purchased online and sent straight to the home of the newlyweds, many are brought to the wedding. And you guessed it — thieves are waiting to steal them.

To avoid the tragedy of walking wedding gifts, make arrangements to either have all the gifts watched or stored somewhere secure.

5. Home Invasion

Nothing like a wedding to signal to a home-invasion specialist exactly when you and your relatives will for sure not be home. The best rule of thumb here is to avoid making public the precise plans for your wedding.

But assuming word gets out, what should you do? Let your neighbors know you’ll be away and ask them to keep an eye on things. If you have an alarm system, make sure it’s armed. It’s also worth calling your local police department to explain your concern. It depends where you live, but they may send a car out to check on your house while you’re away.

Weddings bring out the best and worst in people, but there are ways to ensure you protect what should be one of the most joyous occasions of your life. Avoiding scams is 99.9% a matter of approaching transactions with caution and common sense. When planning your wedding, take the time to make it the time of your life.

Finally, if you have reason to believe you’ve been the victim of fraud, don’t shrug it off. You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

Image: maximkabb

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How to Enjoy Your Vacation Without Getting Scammed

These are the scams to look out for while you're getting your vacation on.

Spring has begun, which means open season on travelers who aren’t well-versed in the various scams waiting for them on the seamier side of paradise. While the scams abound, being forewarned is forearmed.

Here are some typical scams that can ruin your vacation, drawn from my book Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Filled with Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves.

1. Asocial Media?

One seldom publicized use of social media (at least in crime circles) involves monitoring posted photographs for clues about where you live and what you have that’s worth stealing. In addition to providing a visual inventory, photographs can contain hidden information called geotags that allow a thief to pinpoint the location of your home. If you post pictures while you’re on vacation, you might as well display a flashing neon sign saying, “Rob me.” Rather than sharing your adventure in real time, it is far safer to relive the memories with everyone you know when you return. If you simply can’t resist the urge, at the very least tighten your privacy settings so that you strictly limit who can see these posts.

2. Ticket Scams

You receive a letter informing you that you have a chance to cash in on a big win: free airline tickets. There have been several attempts to contact you about the tickets (you won them through a sweepstakes you have never heard of, in which you were automatically enrolled), and you’re going to lose them if you don’t contact the travel agency or cruise line immediately. The letter provides a toll-free number to call. You call it and there are … well, certain requirements (like providing a credit card or Social Security number). Meeting those obligations will cost you far more than the alleged free tickets. (Fallen for this one? Be sure to check your credit for warning signs of identity theft. You can view two of your credit scores for free, with updates every two weeks, on Credit.com.)

3. Hotel Front Desk Scam

Your plane gets in late, you can’t get a taxi and by the time you arrive at your hotel all you want to do is take a shower and go to bed. About an hour after checking in, the phone in your room rings. It’s the front desk calling to tell you that the credit card you gave them was declined. “Can you please read me your credit card number again? Or, if you would prefer, you can give me another credit card.” If this happens, in lieu of readily handing over your digits, take a trip to hotel lobby to confirm whether there is an actual issue.,

4. Hotel Pizza Scam

When you check into your hotel, you see flyers in the lobby or under your door for a pizza joint. It’s late and you’re starving, so you call the number on the flyer. Someone answers exactly the way you expect they will. You place your order. They ask for your credit card number, which you immediately provide because your mind is on the pie and not your personally identifiable information. Several hours later, you’re still waiting. And starving. Unfortunately, the only one getting fed is the thief — and your credit card is for dinner.

5. Vacation Rental Scam

A thief finds a rental property online and uses the details to create his own website and listing. They’ll even have bogus five-star reviews from fake renters, and it will be particularly affordable, possibly due to a one-day-only internet sale. You book the listing and pay either by credit card or wire transfer, and you get ready to pack your bags.

Here’s the problem: When the time comes and you show up for your vacation, that’s not your condo. It’s not just a matter of bait and switch, where the gorgeous property on the website doesn’t exactly live up to reality. In this case, the property is very real and even very beautiful … but you didn’t rent it. There may even be another family staying in it that week. You now find yourself on vacation with nowhere to sleep, and your scammer is nowhere to be found.

If the person can’t answer questions accurately — or takes too long to answer, which indicates that they’re also doing an online search —that could be a red flag. It is possible that the rental agent is located in another city, but someone in his or her offices should have at least laid eyes on the property and be able give you an idea of the answers.

Tip: Whenever you’re booking a rental property — for any reason, not just a beach getaway — there’s a sneaky little trick you can use to verify the authenticity of the listing and the property. Instead of emailing, call the person on the phone, but first do an online search for other businesses in the area surrounding the property, then ask the listing agent some specific questions that you’ve already figured out the answers to. How far is it to the nearest beach access? Where is the nearest restaurant with a kids’ menu? How far are we from an emergency room in case someone in our group gets hurt?

6. Skimmers

Keypad overlay devices, ATM skimmers (you can see one in action here) with a pinhole camera — there are many versions. Sometimes skimmers and the hardware associated with them can be spotted (if you know what you’re looking for and it’s one of the skimmers you can detect, for instance, by banging on the ATM machine or trying to shake the user-interface module), but often it’s impossible to detect a skimmer scam. When you’re out having fun, by definition you are distracted and understandably off guard. Try to remember that even in the midst of the time of your life there are bad guys out there intent on a major buzzkill. And monitor your bank statements carefully so you spot any fraud that may have occurred.

7. Wi-Fi Scams

Not all Wi-Fi is created equal, and it’s not all secure. If you’re not sure about a Wi-Fi connection, be careful about what you do online. Do your banking and bill paying on your secure home network, and let your time off truly be downtime so that you don’t end up having a downer of a vacation. You can go here to learn more tips for better internet safety.

Image: filadendron

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Here’s What to Do the Next Time a Business Asks for Your Credit Card by Phone or Email

When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft. Here's why.

Recently, I was booking a hotel reservation for a family member and in the process was asked to provide certain information. It was a simple third-party credit card authorization. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty.

Beyond the fact that I am professionally paranoid — I wrote a book about it — there are so many ways for your information to wind up in the wrong hands, especially your credit card information. When we provide our credit card information via remote means, we are often made more vulnerable to identity theft by the authentication process itself.

There is no best way to conduct this sort of business remotely without putting ourselves in danger of becoming victims of identity theft, but there are better and worse ones. These days, it’s more expedient to focus on the very few ways sensitive information can be made available to third parties without creating unnecessary exposure.

A Better Way for Another Day?

If you are unfazed about sending your information via electronic means, consider something similar: paying for a meal with a credit card. We expose our data and send it on a journey every time we pay a bill at a restaurant.

I saw my first portable credit card reader on American soil the other day when paying the bill at a new restaurant. First, I want to say that the lunch was excellent, and I would have gone back even if the waiter hadn’t trotted out that marvelous handheld identity theft reduction device. I am scam-obsessed, and have long envied our friends on the other side of the Atlantic — and locations in other directions as well — for the ubiquity of at-table card payment.

The reason those machines are great is simple: The server has no opportunity to write down or photograph your card information.

Let that sink in … It’s unsettling now that you think about it, right? All those times a server has walked away with your credit card, what stopped him or her from snapping a quick pic of the front and back before returning to your table?

That reader is new technology. The service industry is finally (belatedly) getting hip to the challenge of protecting consumers from identity theft and other scams, but what should you do while it’s still in catch-up mode?

How to Send Your Stuff

The form that was emailed to me by the hotel made the threat of a sneaky waiter snapping pics of my credit card seem like amateur hour.

Obviously, the reservations department asked for my credit card number and expiration date. They also wanted my billing address, work and home phone numbers, email address and signature. Then there was the outline of a box, under which were the words: “Copy front of the credit card” and “Copy of ID.”

Now, I’ve already confessed to being someone who looks for the angle crooks will try to use. The idea of sending, in addition to all the other information requested, an image of a valid form of identification — in my case, my driver’s license — was truly unthinkable. I’d sooner have my Social Security number puffed out by a skywriter over the House that Ruth Built during a Yankees-Red Sox playoff game. (Not convinced? Read up on the surprising ways identity theft can hurt you.)

The form gave me the option of sending my cornucopia of sensitive personal information via email or by way of fax. Which is the better choice?

Hackers Are Really Good at What They Do

Phone calls and faxes conducted over phone lines can be rerouted, emails can be intercepted. Phone calls can also be listened to, and therein lies another problem. When you call a service provider — any kind that costs a set amount every month— there will come a time during the call when you will have to provide your Social Security number so that the company can run a credit check. A service rep is going to ask you for it — the whole thing.

Remember the waiter? Same problem.

Absolutely nothing can stop that person from writing down your information. And before you ask why you can’t input the information on your keypad, remember: Phone calls are not secure, the tones can be intercepted. Encryption is both complex and costly. This is why the federal government has been investigating the possibility of a universal identifier. But in the meantime, those credit checks or authentications pose the same, if not greater, peril as your credit card’s journey at most restaurants.

Old Is New (But Not Fail-Safe)

As counterintuitive as it seems, using the fax in this scenario is the safer path, though it is not completely safe given the possibility of data interception.

Pro tip: Call before sending a fax that contains personally identifiable information or anything else that is for as few eyes as necessary, and ask the person on the phone if they are near the fax machine, or if not if they can be. Call again to make sure the transmission has been retrieved and isn’t just sitting in a tray waiting for a scam artist to come sauntering by with a smartphone and a shopping list of things they want to purchase using your information.

While we await better solutions, you are the ultimate guardian of your personal information, and your vigilance given the myriad threats out there will lead the way for change. In the meantime, get in the habit of monitoring your finances for any sign of mischief. You can view two of your free credit scores, with helpful updates every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.

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You Have Just 100 Days to Plan for Holiday Scams

christmas-scams-2016

Whether you are hoping we can “Make America Great Again,” working tirelessly for those who say that we are “Stronger Together,” or simply trying to make it through another day, it is highly likely that Christmas is the furthest thing from your thoughts right now.

But with only 54 days ‘till Election Day, I can already tell you what’s going to happen, and it’s not going to be pretty. I’m not talking about the continuing controversies over hacked email accounts or electronic voting systems. I’m not even talking about all the sore losers and obnoxious winners there will be no matter who wins.

You Better Not Cry

On November 9, America will wake up to a new leader of the free world. And with all the feelings (elation, dread, boredom) to which that gives rise, I still want to point out another horror show waiting on the other side of the election. There will be just 46 days until Christmas.

If you didn’t have insomnia leading up to Election Day, the night after might be your unlucky day.

Not worried? Consider for a moment that while you were thinking about politics, football and maybe Thanksgiving, the economic juggernaut that is Christmas has been rolling since January. All the people who make the holiday profitable have already spent tons of time thinking specifically about you.

That said, there are a lot of not-so-nice guys out there (also known as scam artists, criminals, swindlers and crooks), who have also spent a great deal of time thinking about you, and have been sharpening their proverbial knives in anticipation of a very merry Christmas. With all this in mind, here are some of the things you should look out for in the 100 days until Christmas.

1. Charity Scams

‘Tis the season to give until it hurts both emotionally (oh, those family get-togethers) and financially. But if you’re not careful, the emotional and financial will intersect when you are scammed by a fake charity.

I know, pretty harsh, right? Well, if only the likes of the Grinch can steal the entirety of Christmas (and as you’ll recall he actually couldn’t) there are plenty of grungy cranks out there who are perfectly happy to steal your donation of $10, $20, $100 or more (and they can). They do it with phishing scams: an email or text designed to look like it’s from a charity. Or that strategically placed dinnertime call when your impulse to be a good neighbor collides with your desire to get off the phone and back to the table.

How to avoid this: Always give directly to a charity. This goes for your cyber giving and real-time charity. Not all bell-ringing Santas are working for the Salvation Army, but if you go to the right site (that you have independently confirmed), with the right security (HTTPS and the little lock), you can be sure your money gets to the right people.

2. Fake Jobs

With the holiday rush, companies hire. This is a boon for everyone, potentially, but it also opens the door to identity-related scams. Be on the lookout for job applications that require detailed personal information just to qualify, and if you are applying online, make sure the site and the company are the real deal by making phone calls, searching online and relentlessly checking consumer reviews. If you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, it’s a good idea to check your credit to see if your scores have fallen. (You can view two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.)

3. Holiday E-Cards

Holiday cards are fun. You get to see how kids have grown and check out your friend’s new car (I’m amazed at how many family portraits include the family car). But be careful because there are plenty of fake cards sent using your hacked or otherwise compromised address book or one that belongs to someone you know. The result: a holiday card that doesn’t seem odd, but open the wrong one, and you’ve just been phished.

Solution: There’s no silver bullet here, but always look at the URL and make sure that it is spelled correctly, because many of these scams operate spoof sites that require sharp powers of observation to detect, such as words spe1led slightly differently. (Did you catch that?)

4. Unsafe Online Shopping

No matter how pressed for time you are, no matter how forgetful-so-you-better-get-it-done-while-you’re-thinking-about-it (like me) you might be, try to avoid using public Wi-Fi to do your holiday shopping and never, ever use public Wi-Fi and your credit card at same time. There are often hackers sitting nearby either manning fake public Wi-Fi or ready to grab your information with a man-in-the-middle attack.

Tip: Rather than familiarizing yourself with every scam out there, just avoid public Wi-Fi for anything other than browsing the Internet.

5. Unlocked Devices

Doubtless you noticed several mentions of phishing scams above. This final suggestion is wildly popular with parents: Get your child their own tablet or smartphone.

It is impossible to police a child’s every click, and if that kid is on a family-wide device that also contains cookies and bookmarks and the like associated with bank accounts and other information housed by financial institutions, putting that device in a child’s hand is courting disaster.

There, I said it.

The Takeaway

The takeaway should be not to get taken (or carried away) this holiday season. Never let your Fear of Looking Like a Grinch (FOLLAG) trump your Fear of Getting Ripped Off (FOGRO).

In addition to all those manufacturers and retailers and marketing wizards hoping for a robust Black Friday and magnificent Cyber Monday, there will lurk all stripes of holiday exploiters as we wend our way toward the holidays. While ‘tis the season for commerce and acquisition ecstasy, there is an army of potential holiday wreckers out there, so be careful.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

Image: kzenon

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6 Scams to Watch Out for This Summer

Summer will be here before you know it, and with it come new and old scams. As you consider possible escapes — travel to exotic places; trips to the beach, the mountains or the golf course; a staycation to get much needed work done around your house — bear in mind that these diversions provide the perfect opportunity for con artists and identity thieves just waiting to insinuate themselves into your life, becoming the sand in your picnic basket (or bathing suit) — a vacation-killing burn that no ointment can soothe.

Here are few scams to be on the lookout for this summer.

1. Thanks for the Robocalls, Congress!

Thanks to a new provision slipped into important federal legislation, you may start receiving legitimate robocalls to your mobile phone — something that was previously forbidden by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. According to Consumer Reports, buried in a recent Congressional Budget bill is a provision that allows loan servicers and other collectors of federal loan debt to use robocalls “to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”

While these calls will mostly target student loan borrowers, fearless fraudsters will certainly take advantage of this newly legal means to dial for dollars and try to extract money from those among us who don’t read Congressional Quarterly.

TIP: Caller ID is by no means a fail-safe protection. If someone calls you regarding money you allegedly owe, ask for the name of the debt holder, hang up, double-check that the number is legit online, and then call them directly.

2. Your New Chip Card Opens the Door for Fraud

There’s a newish phishing scam that has reared its ugly head in New York state, after a fairly long run on the road involving EMV chip cards. It’s a pretty straightforward phishing scam. The emails look authentic — that is, they appear to be from a bank with which you do business — and they target people who haven’t received their new chip cards. The ask: your personal information to authorize the new card. There may be a link, and if you click, it installs malware on your computer or mobile phone.

TIP: If you have your chip card already and this scam poses a threat to you, you have bigger issues. If you do not have your new card and receive an email or call about it, either go directly to the issuer’s site or call them directly and communicate with a representative. Don’t take the bait!

3. Summer Jobs & First Jobs

New college and high school graduates, and kids home for the summer exploring the job market — possibly for the first time — are getting duped into putting their personally identifiable information (PII) to work for fraudsters via fake job scams, according to a warning from the Better Business Bureau of Central Oklahoma. Sometimes the scam is focused on collecting PII to be used in identity-related crimes, but there are other scams that involve handing over bank account information.

TIP: Check out the company online, and don’t provide your bank account number or any other sensitive personal information. While I know this is incredibly painful for anyone born after 1980, pick up the phone and call your prospective employer.

4. A Moving Scam

A Georgia family learned the hard way that hiring a “man with a van” or any other mover can be risky business. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a woman who asked not to be identified hired movers she found through an online classified ad. They delivered her things, minus about $75,000 worth of personal items. Authorities later learned that the truck used by the suspects had been stolen shortly before the “job.”

TIP: Summertime is when many people choose to relocate. If you’re moving and you need help, hire a reputable company. And always check references.

5. Summer Rental Scam

Here’s an old favorite: You begin your search for a summer place way too late and assume there will be nothing available. But hold on — suddenly you fall upon the absolutely best summer rental ever! You reach the owner or realtor (it makes no difference to a scammer if he or she pretends to be one or the other), and you send a check to the address provided or wire money to an account. He or she then gives you the details about the place. Unfortunately, you have just rented a vacant lot or an empty warehouse. Or when you show up, you discover that you are but one of five families who also rented the house — or landfill.

TIP: If you get a real estate agent on the phone, get his or her license number and check it. Also request references if there are no reviews online, confirm that the address is real and the premises are truly available for rent. Use common sense.

6. Scalpers

Summertime is tour time for the record industry, and the hottest acts can sell out thanks to ticket brokers who horde big blocks of seats for resale at extortionate prices seconds after they go on sale. While this isn’t a scam per se, it creates a fertile field for fraudsters, who offer tickets at more reasonable prices, though they’re often still more than face value. The only problem: They don’t have tickets, or at least not real ones.

TIP: If you are tempted to buy tickets secondhand, be exceedingly careful because there are all sorts counterfeit tickets for sale. Go to reputable sites or deal with folks whom you trust and have established a relationship with.

The Takeaway

Unfortunately, in a world where identity theft has become a near certainty, the season is pretty much irrelevant. When it comes to scams and other kinds of fraud, it’s always open season on you.

Minimize the damage by monitoring your credit for signs of fraud. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and viewing your credit scores, also for free, each month on Credit.com.

More on Identity Theft:

Image: Robert Vautour

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How to Spot a Bogus Diet Plan

eating_healthy_meal

It’s the time of year when people look at their bank accounts — and their scales — and resolve to do a bit better next year.

There’s more than a coincidental connection between eating healthy and saving money. Researchers have found that, at least in some cases, the same part of the brain that promotes good choices also promotes good eating habits, i.e., “trade a cookie today for a healthier tomorrow.”

So it should come as little surprise that come-ons you’ll see for get-rich-quick schemes seem almost identical to pitches for weight loss programs. “Everyone will lose weight” sounds a lot like “You can’t lose with this investment;” “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days” sounds an awful lot like “15% returns or more.”

False diet claims got a lot of national attention last year when Dr. Mehmet Oz was hauled before Congress as it investigated “The Oz effect.” Products that Oz hawks on his show, many with dramatic and unproven claims, sell like hotcakes online. Oz was criticized for helping these products, but he was not accused of breaking any laws.

At the hearing, the FTC’s Mary Engle said that the agency had brought “82 law enforcement actions in the past 10 years challenging false or unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy of a wide variety of weight loss products and services.”

New Year, New Weight Loss Gotchas

By some measures, two-thirds of Americans are overweight. That’s a really big potential market. During the holiday season with all the feasts, parties and cookies, that market only gets bigger. January is the time for making self-improvement resolutions. If you are thinking about living a healthier life, that’s great. But first, resolve that you won’t fall for a diet scam.

The Federal Trade Commission sums up the medical literature on weight loss nicely on its website devoted to avoiding bogus diet plans. There’s only one healthy way to lose weight — eat less, exercise more, stick to it for a long time and don’t expect dramatic results.

“For most people, a reasonable goal is to lose about a pound a week,” the FTC says. “Getting to a healthy weight takes work. Take a pass on any product that promises miraculous results without the effort. The only thing you’ll lose is money.”

Here is the FTC’s list of most common weight loss claims, per its website:

  • Lose weight no matter how much you eat of your favorite foods! Beware of any product that claims that you can eat all the high-calorie food you want and still lose weight. Losing weight requires sensible food choices. Filling up on healthy vegetables and fruits can make it easier to say no to fattening sweets and snacks.
  • Lose weight permanently! Never diet again! Even if you’re successful in taking weight off, permanent weight loss requires permanent lifestyle changes. Don’t trust any product that promises once-and-for-all results without ongoing maintenance.
  • Just take a pill! Doctors, dieticians and other experts agree that there’s simply no magic way to lose weight without diet or exercise. Even pills approved by FDA to block the absorption of fat or help you eat less and feel full are to be taken with a low-calorie, low-fat diet and regular exercise.
  • Lose 30 pounds in 30 days! Losing weight at the rate of a pound or two a week is the most effective way to take it off and keep it off. At best, products promising lightning-fast weight loss are a scam. At worst, they can ruin your health.
  • Everybody will lose weight! Your habits and health concerns are unique. There is no one-size-fits-all product. Team up with your health care provider to design a nutrition and exercise program suited to your lifestyle and metabolism.
  • Lose weight with our miracle diet patch or cream! You’ve seen the ads for diet patches or creams that claim to melt away pounds. Don’t believe them. There’s nothing you can wear or apply to your skin that will help you lose weight.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Ingram Publishing

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