How Trump’s Immigration Policy Spurred a Deportation Scam

Here's how Donald Trump's policies could affect your money.

For those who thought President Trump’s stance on immigration was the gossamer of election year overpromising, it’s time to adjust that thinking. The administration last week unveiled plans to target all “removable” aliens. It is a staggering number of people: 11 million.

If I told you that Price Waterhouse blamed the envelope mix-up at the Oscars on a practical joke devised by Warren Beatty and provided a link to the story, would you click through? How about if I included a link to a picture of the actual card that made Oscar history?

Fake news is the scam artist’s stock in trade — whether we’re talking about the kind that our 45th president keeps talking about, or something that takes advantage of a trending story.

Scam artists work fast, often riffing off the daily news to build their improvised traps, but sometimes they rip their scams from the headlines and take them to the street. (You can monitor two of your free credit scores for signs of foul play every two weeks on Credit.com.)

That’s what happened last week in reaction to Trump’s immigration policy. Criminals were waiting in the wings to capitalize on it, which inspired thuggish stick-ups and made necessary a warning from the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The alert was issued after raids were conducted nationwide by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to reports, hundreds of undocumented immigrants were arrested. It was big news, giving rise to political indignation by opponents of the Trump doctrine and sparking fear among immigrant communities.

Almost immediately, the scams began. According to Schneiderman’s office, four men wearing ICE apparel stopped a man on a street off of Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. They demanded cash. When he refused, they told the man he would be arrested. In another incident that made the news, a man in the immigrant-filled Queens neighborhood was told to hand over $250 or be arrested.

It’s unclear whether the ICE apparel was legitimate or duplicated by the thieves.

ICE gear can be purchased online, but Sallycopshop.com, one purveyor of such apparel, said it requires proof of employment by the law force. (Two other online sites offering ICE gear declined to comment for this article or failed to respond before publication.)

“The customer must ship their work address and have an ICE government email address for items with badges or lettering on it,” a Sallycopshop.com spokesperson said in an email. “We do go through each order individually to validate the customer is a federal agent or officer.”

Although many images of the recent ICE raids feature real officers wearing jackets and body armor clearly marked “ICE,” an agency spokesman told me that ICE officers and agents work in street clothes.

“I’m going to guess there are special requirements for clothing that indicate an official law enforcement capacity,” agency spokesperson Khaalid Walls said.

Regardless of the methods, there are several scams immigrants worried about the specter of ICE arrests need to be on the lookout for. Here are the big three, along with some tips culled from Schneiderman’s recent warning.

1. Fake ICE Agents

The attorney general states that ICE agents will never ask for money or threaten detainment and do not have the authority to enter your resident without a court-issued warrant. If a purported ICE agent knocks on your door, be polite, but firm. The law’s the law. Ask to see badges, and if you still smell a rat, call 911.

2. Beware Phone Calls

Some criminals stay out of sight, preferring to make phone calls that amount to the same sort of “pay or don’t stay” shakedown. Anyone who has read my columns warning of IRS phone scams will recognize this modus operandi — and this next tip. Remember: Just because your caller ID says the caller is from the government doesn’t make it so. Phone numbers can be spoofed. Bottom line: Immigration will not ask for anything important over the phone — not your personally identifying information and not money. If “they” do, hang up.

3. Notario Scams

As Schneiderman’s office points out, notario can be a much bigger and better job in Latin America — with a lot more power — than “notary” connotes in the U.S. In Latin America, a notario is anyone who can perform legal services — including lawyers. Beware people who try to make bank on this linguistic misunderstanding. Whether the claim is to speed up an application or otherwise help you get legal status, be careful. Check credentials and ask for references. If you are met with hostility, say goodbye and find a reputable service.

There are more tips and information regarding common traps and shady practices that immigrants face on the Attorney General’s website, which directs New York residents to report potential fraud or other issues regarding immigration services to its Immigration Services Fraud Unit Hotline at (866) 390-2992 or via email at Civil.Rights@ag.NY.gov. Those outside New York can get in touch with the Federal Trade Commission and file a complaint in their state.

Here is the great irony: Trump’s push to arrest and deport “removable” immigrants has given rise to fake cops, sewing doubt about the immigration enforcement authorities in a way that echoes Trump’s constant refrain of “fake news,” which has dangerously destabilized the public’s trust in our media.

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

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Phone Scams Reach Record 10.2 Billion. Here’s How to Protect Yourself

Phone scammers hit record breaking numbers this year, which is another reason to be aware of how to protect yourself from phone scams.

Does it feel like you’ve had more than your fair share of robocalls this year? If so, you’re not alone. Phone scammers were extra busy in 2016, making a record 10.2 billion robocalls to Americans, offering them everything from fake cruises and gift cards to opportunities to support bogus charities, according to a new report from Hiya, a company providing caller ID and call-blocker apps.

The same holds true for holiday scams, which saw an increase of more than 113% over last year, according to Hiya’s data.

“By taking advantage of the holiday ‘giving’ season, scam calls aimed at defrauding consumers are on the rise,” Jan Volzke, vice president of reputation data at Hiya, said in a prepared statement. “Whether preying on the spirit of gifting or the desire to get away after a rocky 2016, scammers are continuing to inundate the phone lines with fraud. We hope our data can educate consumers about these malicious and annoying calls so they can get back to enjoying their holiday season.”

These are the top phone scams for 2016, according to Hiya.

1. Telemarketer

Scammers are using telemarketing techniques to lure victims into giving out Social Security and credit card numbers, as well as bank account information.

2. Other Robocalls

Robocallers have been dodging regulations against their illegal activity by frequently changing or “spoofing” their caller ID so they appear to be calling from a local number.

3. Extortion/Kidnapping Scam

These scammers call random phone numbers and demand payment for the return of a “kidnapped” loved one.

4. IRS Scam

The caller pretends to be with the IRS and demands money for unpaid taxes or will trick the recipient into sharing private information. Remember, the IRS will never, ever call you about any taxes you owe.

5. Debt Collector

These scammers offer “solutions” to help victims pay off credit card and loan debt. Victims will give personal and financial information, enabling scammers to steal their identity and money.

6. Surveys

Scammers call victims offering prizes if they take a survey. However, before redeeming the prize, credit card information must be provided to cover “shipping and handling.”

7. Vacation Scams

Victims are notified that they have won a free vacation, but discover they have to pay a number of fees, provide a credit card number and are pressured to sign up for travel clubs to “earn” more trips.

8. Lucky Winner Scam

Scammers alert victims that they are the lucky winner of a contest or lottery. To redeem the prize, victims must provide personal and/or financial information.

9. Tech Support

Scammers pretend they are calling from a reputable tech agency (i.e. Microsoft or Dell) and claim that they have been notified of a virus on the victim’s computer. Scammers demand payment for services and third-party access to the computer to obtain private information.

10. Political Scams

During election season, scammers call victims requesting candidate donations, verifying voter registration, claiming they need to re-register to vote, or requesting that they take an election survey.

How to Help Avoid Being Scammed

To keep yourself safe from these and other scammers, the FBI recommends you exercise caution in how you respond to any call from someone you aren’t familiar with in order to help protect yourself from the damage of identity theft and fraud.

They urge you to:

Always be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls.

Never give money or personal information to someone with whom you don’t have ties and did not initiate contact.

Trust your instincts: If an unknown caller makes you uncomfortable or says things that don’t sound right, hang up.

If you think you or a loved one may have been a victim of a phone scam, it’s a good idea to check your financial accounts, credit reports and credit scores frequently for signs of fraud, like unauthorized transactions or unfamiliar entries. Be sure to immediately address these issues by notifying the authorities and even considering a credit freeze. Checking your bank activity for any problems is something you can do daily, but you can also get two free credit scores on Credit.com, updated every 14 days, to help you quickly spot some signs of identity theft, like that aforementioned sudden drop in scores. You can also get your free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.

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The Surefire Trick to Avoiding Holiday Phishing Scams

Holiday phishing scams are nothing new — Americans just keep forgetting to be on the lookout for them.

Every year I dedicate a column to the scams of the holiday season, and every year the roundup gets bounced around the internet — all too often among friends who’ve been scammed. (For a rundown of what’s out there, check out last year’s post.)

So what’s new this year? Unfortunately, not very much.

There’s the latest holiday phishing scam, I guess. But really? It’s about as surprising as the President-elect’s reaction to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live.

An email arrives telling you that there’s been a shipping problem with a gift item that you ordered online. In this particular ploy, there’s a link embedded in the email message that takes you to a bogus site that looks exactly like a real one that many people use for their holiday shopping. It doesn’t particularly matter which site. What matters is that the link leads to a page that doesn’t just look like the site. It is a perfect replica.

Sounds like every other phishing scam, right? Well, that’s the point of this year’s holiday scams column, folks. So, why are we still falling for these things?

It’s simple. Most people still don’t consider phishing scams to be a part of everyday life because most people have busy lives. If you live in an area where mosquitos spread the Zika virus, you’re hyper-aware of when they’re around. We all live in a phishing hole, yet we’re not constantly on guard against the various kinds of bait scammers throw out there — even though the damage caused by ransomware and other kinds of malware can be very serious.

It doesn’t matter how many times I say this. Most people don’t think scams are as ubiquitous as they are, and as a result, they tend to forget about them while they are going about their daily business. If only they kept malware and the constantly evolving delivery systems that bring it into our homes and offices top of mind, scam artists would quickly have to come up with a new game.

So let’s go back to this latest holiday phishing scam. How can it be avoided? You just have to look at the web address. But not the way your kids look at you when you ask them to do something. I mean, REALLY look at it. The only thing that’s different on this new scam site is the URL address.

There is a reason people never remember this. Scammers are smart, creative and persistent.

Social Engineering

Social engineering has nothing to do with any sort of “brave new world” scenario. It describes the hacker’s skill in the area of psychological manipulation.

The hacker’s exploits all work on emotion. In some cases, they will have gone on social media and figured out who you’re friends with. The next step is to send an email — either using your friend’s hijacked account, or just their name. You’ve seen these emails before. Your friend is on holiday and lost their wallet, or asks if everything is all right between you and your partner because they saw a picture (click the link and tell me, that IS your husband, right?). Maybe someone from college found a hilarious picture of you. The gambits are clever, playing on various emotions — fear, jealousy, curiosity.

The URL of a bogus site is something you might not notice this time of year because you are completely freaked out that a package is not going to arrive on time and someone’s holiday will be ruined. While you are a still rattled, you are provided with a link and instructed to enter your name, address and credit card information. When you do that and hit send, the page redirects to the real site, and the scammer is given all the ammunition necessary to go on a shopping spree.

Reverse Engineering

The solution here is simple. Social engineering is only possible in a world where people don’t know they’re being targeted.

The first order of business is to remember you live in the phishing hole. You need to get into the mindset that you’re always one click away from getting got. As I write in my book, SWIPED: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves, there are some very good tactics for avoiding scams, like going directly to websites in lieu of clicking urls in emails, calling companies to verify they’re trying to contact you and refraining from over-sharing on social media.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam, don’t brush it off. Monitor your credit report for signs of identity theft — mysterious addresses, unknown accounts opened up in your name. (You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and viewing two of your free credit scores every 14 days on Credit.com.) Report any fraud to your local authorities and the Federal Trade Commission.

Also, help others avoid scams. Talk about the threats out there with your friends and family (even strangers on a bus) because public awareness is the only inoculation against the viruses and malware that are spread through phishing email.

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The Job Scam That Even You Could Fall For

online_job_scam

This might be the most sophisticated job scam I’ve ever seen. Thanks to a near-victim, you’ll get a rare chance to see a real pro almost pull off a nearly perfect digital caper.

You do things when you are job hunting that you wouldn’t normally do. You meet strangers. You share a lot of personal information with the world, on resumes and through job sites. You’re vulnerable. And most critically: You generally need money. It’s a scammer’s dream, and that’s why job-hunting scams are so persistent and prevalent.

Every chance I get, I try to explain that “smart” folks fall for scams all the time — and those at greatest risk are those who think they are too clever for criminals. This is one of those stories.

Josh Belzman is not just a tech savvy worker; he’s spent the better part of the last decade as a social media professional in Seattle. He’s been working in and around the internet’s cesspools for years.

Still, he recently went halfway down the aisle with a criminal offering the false hope of an exciting job in social media. Like all victims and near victims, he couldn’t stop blaming himself as he described the sequence to me— but I can see exactly why Josh danced with the devil.

Josh, 39, is job hunting, and he received an email from a woman named Morgan who said she worked for a big law firm and needed contract social media work for $39-$45 an hour. That kind of short-term gig is exactly what people like Josh need while they look for their next career step.

“I probably should have trusted my spidey sense and not engaged at all but you know how it goes when looking for work— your guard and confidence can drop,” he said.

Morgan asked for a Google hangout chat as a first step. Josh did his due diligence, and Googled her. Up came a LinkedIn profile that checked out. She had a long professional history in the Seattle area, including alleged stints as a ski instructor at nearby Snoqualmie Summit. It said she had worked at various law firms dating back to 2009. The firm (I won’t mention it) was real. So he jumped online, ready to answer her questions and ask a few.

Generally, con artists betray themselves during real-time interactions. They speak poor English, they show obvious lack of subject matter knowledge, and there are awkward delays. Morgan exhibited none of those. In fact, her questions for Josh were spot on. Here’s a partial list I pulled from a transcript of their chat.

“Could you give us an example of a limitation on a social platform that you have experienced? How did you overcome this?”

“Have you ever had to handle a Social Media crisis? If so, could you provide an example and how would you describe your work ethics?”

“How would you allocate our Social Media advertising budget and How do you evaluate new social platforms? How do you stay on top of the latest updates and innovations in Social Media?”

“Do you have your own blog? Do you currently write content for various Social Media platforms and why should we hire you?”

Josh answered each one deliberately. After each response, she replied, “good,” “very good,” and eventually “great.” All what you’d expect, or even hope for, during an interview.

Reading through the full transcript, you can see in retrospect that all these questions could have been cut and pasted from a script. In fact, I suspect the criminals somehow lifted them from an actual interview involving a social media position— perhaps they’d applied for a job themselves earlier just to understand what “marks” would expect.

Only once was there something more that might have tipped off Josh. When he, smartly, tried to interrupt and ask his own questions, Morgan’s reaction was a bit off.

Josh: Mind if I ask a few questions about the role?

Morgan: Sure when we done with this process so you can get all the details you need to know.

But that’s it. The rest of the interview went as you might expect. LinkedIn page and all. Until …

Morgan: How soon can you begin work if luckily chosen for the position, do you need any our Company benefits and what means of Payment would you prefer; Check Or Direct Deposit?

Morgan: What bank are you with for Direct deposit/Check so we can see if it tallies with our preferred banks and do you have any question before i move forward?

Josh: I’m not comfortable sharing banking info online.

(Morgan may not be on Hangouts right now. Your messages will be seen later.)

The “line” went immediately dead.

Fortunately, after an hour of “seduction” and with the lure of a $35-an-hour job, Josh did listen to his spidey sense and threw up a roadblock. And as soon as Morgan saw he wouldn’t play along, she “hung up” on him.

An hour or so wasted, but it could have been much worse.

“I should have never entertained this — the initial email was sketchy but I chalked that up to some office admin being asked to help find candidates,” he said. “Going back through I see very few comments in ‘her’ voice— just a lot of cut-and-paste questions and ‘OK good.’ Amazing the tricks your mind plays in you when you’re visualizing a certain situation.”

After the disconnect, Josh called the firm and was told no one by that name worked there.

I, however, did find someone with her name who had posted a resume that was similar. It’s likely the con artists assumed elements of her identity for the scam. I emailed her, and got no response. I also emailed the person who chatted with Josh and got no response.

“The initial email was unsolicited with that odd name but I saw the LinkedIn profile and I’ve had some of those mails come through (job sites),” Josh said. “The hangout thing raised eyebrows but I suspended some of that because I got caught up answering the questions.”

Tips for Avoiding Scammers

So what should you do? The big one: Always trust your gut. I pretty much never talk to anyone who falls for these things who doesn’t say they had a queasy feeling in their stomach at some point.

Also, do what Josh did. Say it out loud: “I’m not comfortable with that.” It’s a handy phrase. A real person will react with an apology to that, like “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” A con artist, or a bad person, will push you instead. Or hang up.

Finally, be realistic. If you are out of work, you are vulnerable. No matter how smart and put together you think you are. Know that going in. You’ll be more likely to hit the pause button if things go south, and generally, hitting pause is enough to scare off bad guys.

Here’s a handy list of ways to spot “Work at Home” scams. And if you think you’ve already fallen prey to an identity theft scam, it’s a good idea to keep an close eye on your credit. New accounts you don’t recognize on your credit reports or a sudden drop in credit scores are signs that fraud is afoot. (You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and view two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.) You can find more steps to take if you are an identity theft victim here.

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As If the Zika Virus Wasn’t Bad Enough, Now There Are Zika Scams

zika-scams

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control issued a travel warning, urging pregnant women and their partners not to travel to a small community north of downtown Miami, where the Zika Virus is spreading. But while health officials work to contain the outbreak, a group of alleged scammers appear to have cropped up to prey on people’s fears.

On Wednesday, the New York Attorney General issued cease-and-desist letters to seven companies marketing products that claim to protect against Zika. Two of these include tiny wristbands and ultrasonic devices.

Bug-repellent wristbands, like MosQuiTo Repellent Bracelet Wristband Band and Neor Mosquito Repellent Bracelet, claim to create a forcefield around the user, but contain no EPA-registered insect repellents with at least one of the five CDC-recommended active ingredients, the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a press release.

Meanwhile, ultrasonic devices, like the STAR Ultrasonic Pest Repeller, which claim to emit high frequency sounds similar to those of a dog whistle, are said to be equally pointless. In fact, they may even attract mosquitoes, the New York Attorney General said.

Credit.com attempted to reach out to the companies mentioned above as well as the others listed in Schneiderman’s press release. However, their contact information was not readily available and many of their online product listings had been taken down or were not working as of press time.

“Consumers should also be aware that there is no cure for the Zika virus as of this date, and products claiming to be cures are deceptive,” Schneiderman’s office said. To protect against Zika, the CDC recommends people avoid travel in areas with active mosquito-borne transmission of the virus. If you must travel to these areas, it recommends people wear pants and long sleeves; stay in places with air conditioning, door and window screens; sleep under mosquito bed nets; and treat clothes with permethrin or purchase pre-treated clothing.

Save Your Money

Whenever an outbreak or national scare occurs, there are usually scammers looking to capitalize on it. Do your research and don’t fall for their tricks. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Consumer protection bureaus have likely reported on it as well.

And, if you believe you’ve been the victim of a scam where your personal information was compromised, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit for signs of deeper identity theft. You can do so by pulling your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and getting a free summary of your credit report, updated each month, by visiting Credit.com.

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ID Scams Target Parents Just Trying to Protect Their Kids

child-ID-kit-scams

Ask a parent how far they’d go to protect their child, and their answer would probably be along the lines of, “I’d do anything.” That’s a powerful statement — and it’s also a dangerous one. Sometimes, parents’ efforts to keep their kids safe can actually put their children at risk.

The Identity Theft Resource Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently issued a warning on this topic, telling parents to watch out for scams in the form of child ID kits. These kits contain all sorts of information about a child, and the idea is to have them readily accessible to assist law enforcement in finding a missing child.

We’re talking about a lot of personal information: a detailed description of the child, a color photo, fingerprints, DNA samples, dental records and medical reports. These things can be invaluable in an investigation regarding a missing child, but they’re also a treasure trove for identity thieves. Some child ID kits actually put a child at risk, and some are flat-out scams, according to the centers’ warning.

Whenever you’re prompted to share sensitive information with a third party, it’s important to research who you’re working with and maintain as much control over your data as possible. When it comes to child ID kits, here are some questions to ask before paying a company to put one together for you, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

1. What Happens to the Child ID Kit?

The centers recommend parents hold onto the kits and keep them in a safe location, because the more places this information is, the more likely it is to fall into the wrong hands. A company that offers to keep copies of the records should send up a red flag, the centers warn.

2. What Information Are They Asking For?

Some information about your child won’t help law enforcement find them if they go missing, like Social Security numbers and birth certificates. The centers advise parents to avoid companies asking for such information as part of a child ID kit.

3. Do Their Claims Hold Up?

Parents should do a little digging if they’re looking at a company that claims to be endorsed by law enforcement or says all their profits go to charity, the warning states. The centers suggest parents contact the law enforcement and charities in question to check out the claims themselves. Looking at reviews through organizations like the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator could also be helpful.

4. Do You Feel Pressured to Buy a Product?

Keep in mind you can put together a child ID kit on your own — if you pay someone to do it, what you’re really paying for is convenience. It’s up to you how you want to collect and store the information about your kids, so beware any company trying to scare you into buying their service.

The Identity Theft Resource Center is encouraging parents to be especially careful with their kids’ biometric information (fingerprints, DNA, etc.) because it’s an increasingly popular security tool. That makes it a target for identity thieves.

Besides being careful with child ID kits, it’s also a good idea to watch out for signs your child’s identity has been stolen, like if they’re getting loan or credit card offers in the mail. Before your child has credit of their own, they shouldn’t have a credit report, but each of the three major credit reporting agencies has tools for protecting your child’s credit and resolving child identity theft, if you’re concerned their personal information has been abused. As for your own identity protection, regularly checking your free annual credit reports and credit scores will help you spot any suspicious activity. You can get two free credit scores every month on Credit.com to help you stay on top of it.

More on Identity Theft:

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Watch Out for Charity Scams in Wake of the Orlando Shooting

orlando-charity-scam

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, many want to help victims and their families by giving donations. Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of their kindness.

“Scammers depend on heightened emotion and often follow closely behind tragic events,” Holly Salmons, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Central Florida, said in a press release.

In these situations, crowdfunding sites can be set up quickly to collect donations. Because these sites aren’t generally vetted, anyone may be able to set one up, including scammers, which we saw following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The Better Business Bureau expects we’ll see fraudulent sites and other scams appear in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

“We are already hearing about clickbait schemes and questionable solicitations, and we expect there will be numerous scams and frauds,” H. Art Taylor, the President and CEO of Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, said in the release. “We urge those generous donors to give wisely so their gifts can do the most good.”

If you are considering making a donation to the Orlando shooting victims, the Better Business Bureau encourages you to be safe online. Don’t click on links you aren’t familiar with, and be sure to check the URL for accuracy. Scammers often register a misspelled version of a popular website to lure people who hit the wrong key. (You can read more about how to spot an internet scam here.)

Here are a few other things you should be aware of:

  • Vague Appeals: If the site doesn’t explain how they intend to use the funds being donated or say when they’ll be used, the Better Business Bureau says it’s a red flag.
  • Government Registration: The majority of states require charities register with a state government agency before soliciting, so be sure you’re giving to a registered charity.
  • Family Funds: Families may set up their own assistance fund, so it won’t be registered with the government, but the Better Business Bureau says to make sure the money is received and administered by a third party (like a bank, CPA or lawyer), as this will help ensure the funds are used appropriately.
  • Transparency: A charity should clearly account for the funds they receive and how they’re spent after they’re raised.

If you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, you may want to notify authorities. And, particularly if you’ve turned over sensitive personal information, you may want watch for any signs of identity theft, which can include a sudden drop in your credit scores, mysterious accounts being opened in your name and unknown addresses appearing on your credit report. (You can view two of your credit scores, updated each month, for free on Credit.com).

More on Identity Theft:

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iTunes Gift Card Scams Are Flourishing

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iTunes gift cards have become a common tool for online scammers to wring money out of victims, according to new warnings from Apple and U.S. federal authorities.

One agency received a deluge of complaints during a recent weekend, including word from one victim who lost $31,000 in a recent iTunes payment scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency said the problem has grown so bad that Apple recently posted a notice on its gift card page:

“iTunes Gift Cards are solely for the purchase of goods and services on the iTunes Store and App Store. Should you receive a request for payment using iTunes Gift Cards outside of iTunes and the App Store please report it at ftc.gov/complaint.”

Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

Criminals convince victims to buy iTunes gift cards, either online or in a store, and then email the secret code so the value can be drained — or traded.

“As soon as you put money on a card and share the code with (scammers), the money’s gone for good,” the FTC warned in a blog post.

Karen S. Hobbs, an attorney with Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said scammers like iTunes gift cards because they are “cash-like” in a few critical ways. It’s pretty hard to reverse an iTunes payment — unlike a credit card payment — and movement of iTunes dollars can be virtually untraceable. (See more reasons consumers fall for scams here.)

With any fraud scheme — from sweetheart scams to fake IRS tax bill scams — a criminal’s biggest challenge is getting paid. Wire service payments are their preferring method, because wire payments are generally impossible to reverse. But apparently consumers are slowly heeding warnings about wire services, leading criminals to turn to other payment methods.

iTunes gift cards aren’t the only alternate money system scammers have adopted. The FTC warns that they are using Amazon gift cards, PayPal, reloadable cards like MoneyPak, Reloadit and Vanilla, too.

Of course, criminals aren’t using the iTunes gift cards to feed their voracious appetite for music. They sell the cards on thriving gift card black markets, where iTunes cards — all cards, really – can sell for pennies on the dollar. Still, that gives criminals a great way to receive funds from victims and quickly cash them out.

“I think most people are surprised about the black market for iTunes cards,” Hobbs said.

It seems a bit far-fetched that consumers would believe the IRS, or any government agency, would ask for payment via iTunes “bucks.” But clearly, people are falling for the tactic.

“In some cases, (criminals) stay on the phone (with victims) while they go to the store and buy the gift cards, talk them through it,” Hobbs said.

The trend is international, too. Here’s a story about a similar tactic working in the United Kingdom: a criminal tricks a victim into believing she has a big tax bill that must be paid immediately.

“One victim is revealed to have purchased over 15 iTunes gift cards from Argos – each one valued at £100 – and handing over the codes to scammers on the phone. Another victim shelled out an incredible £15,000 on iTunes gift cards after receiving a cold call, the codes for which went straight to criminals,” TrustedReviews.com wrote on Friday.

One reason these scams might be working: Apple and iTunes are both recognizable brands, and criminals may be borrowing a bit of their “halo effect” to gain credibility.

So the big message the agency is trying to deliver is simple: “If you’re not shopping at the iTunes store, you shouldn’t be paying with an iTunes gift card,” the FTC says.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: AnthonyRosenberg

The post iTunes Gift Card Scams Are Flourishing appeared first on Credit.com.

7 Questions Every Debt Collector Should Be Able to Answer

A “debt collector” call can arrive at any time for just about anyone. Even if you’ve never missed a payment on a bill. There’s only one way to protect yourself: Know what questions to ask.

Debt collector telemarketing scams are incredibly persistent because they work. “Debt collectors” can sound scary, and when they catch consumers at the right time, they can quickly trick people into paying up before they realize what’s happened.

The IRS has issued near-continuous warnings about the taxman flavor of this scam for years.

“Taxpayers across the nation face a deluge of these aggressive phone scams,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said earlier this year.

These scams work because fake debt collectors have a huge advantage over other kinds of telemarketing scam callers: You really can’t just hang up on them. Even if you are sure you’ve paid all your bills and taxes on time, a call about a debt could be an important warning signal that your identity has been stolen or some other foul play is at work. So it’s unwise to simply hang up on a debt collector. You should stay on the line long enough to get answers to the questions posed below.

Of course, many fake debt collectors aren’t randomly dialing victims. They are working off lists that make it more likely they hit a decent “mark.” Online payday loan lead generators are known for selling consumers’ personal information to scammers, even if the consumers don’t ultimately take out loans. Why? People who look up payday lending information are much more likely to be in some kind of financial trouble, and ripe for the taking. Similarly, consumers with old debts that are no longer collectible (every state has a different statute of limitations on debt collection) often receive phone calls from collectors hoping they can talk consumers into paying up anyway.

Whatever the circumstance, here are the questions to ask anyone who calls claiming to be a debt collector. They’ll help you sniff out potential scammers.

Part 1: Establish Identity

1. Who are you? Who do you represent? What is your direct telephone number? What is the address?

If the caller is at all squeamish about sharing his or her name and full contact information, that’s the biggest red flag of all. Don’t continue any conversation with anyone who won’t answer these questions. Do repeat them several times, as any contact information you can get – even partial information – might be useful to you in any legal action later on (such as a Do Not Call lawsuit). You can learn more about your debt collection rights here.

2. What is your professional license information?

Many states require debt collectors to be licensed. This is the easiest way to verify a collector’s identity. Take the information provided, and double-check it with your state’s authorities online – don’t just take the caller’s word for it.

3. What is the name and address of the debtor you are trying to reach?

That might sound obvious, but it’s not always the case. A “cold call” scammer wouldn’t have this information, for example.

4. Can I call you back in a few minutes?

After you get this information, it’s probably a good idea to hang up and call back. This will verify that the contact information is accurate, and will often trip up scammers who are lying about their location – if the call is coming from overseas, for example, but spoofed to appear local. It also gives you a moment to stop and collect your thoughts.

Part 2: Establish the Financials

5. What is the amount of the alleged debt and who is the current creditor?

The current creditor should be the party calling. Be sure to ask for specifics, such as: What was the original amount, and what is the breakdown of other fees that have been added?

6. How can you seek verification and validation of the debt?

Debt collectors do not have to provide debt specifics during the initial call, though they often will. Collectors legally have five days from initial contact to supply it. This legal process, defined in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, is called “verification.” Simply asking, “How can I request written verification of this debt,” and getting the paperwork in hand, is good practice. (A sample debt verification letter is here). The process is also called “validation.” Any legitimate collector will not balk at requests for verification or validation.

7. How can I dispute the debt?

Disputing a debt initiates another legal process that requires collectors to produce additional documentation supporting its right to collect, such as paperwork from the original creditor. No one should ever pay a debt bill to a firm that can’t produce paperwork supporting it.

Remember, it’s a good idea to regularly check your credit for any errant or erroneous debt information. You can get your credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com and you can find out how the information they contain affects your credit by checking your credit scores. (You can get your credit scores for free on Credit.com, updated monthly.) If you discover your credit report contains erroneous information, dispute it, but give yourself plenty of time to get the item(s) corrected and the dispute resolved before you apply for a mortgage, car loan or credit card.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

Image: Steve Debenport

The post 7 Questions Every Debt Collector Should Be Able to Answer appeared first on Credit.com.

How to Avoid 3 Common Tax Scams

Tax return check

It’s March, which can only mean one thing — it’s time to start stressing about taxes. The deadline is looming, so it’s time to

If you haven’t done yours already, you’re probably smack dab in the middle of gathering all the pertinent pieces of paperwork and trying to track down all those missing receipts you can’t seem to find for write-offs. Into this fun mix let us add one more worry — avoiding tax scams. Unfortunately it’s par for the course these days that would-be thieves are just dying to get their hands on your information and your money … but there are ways to stop them. Being prepared is half the battle, so here’s what to be on the lookout for this tax season to ensure that all your information and money stays right where it should be — with you.

1. File as soon as possible

The longer your tax information is out there and unfiled, the more chances crooks have to swoop in and file your taxes for you, thereby receiving the refund that should be going to you. Once you’ve received all your tax documents and have any other paperwork on hand that you’ll need, the smartest thing to do to avoid theft is to file yourself as quickly as possible.

2. Be aware of fake phone calls

The number one thing you need to be aware of when it comes to calls from the IRS is that the agency has already stated plainly that they will never ask for someone’s credit card numbers over the phone, nor will they ever request payments via pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers. In fact, the IRS rarely makes calls right off the bat anyway — usually their first mode of communication is through mail — so if you receive a call from the “IRS” out of the blue asking for money to be sent via wire transfer or pre-paid cards, it’s a scam. If you do receive one of these calls, inform that caller that you’re aware of these types of scams, and that you’ll need to make sure this call isn’t one by reaching out to the IRS yourself to verify, and then hang up. You can then report the incident to the Treasure Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1.800.366.4484, as well as with the FTC Complaint Assistant program.

3. And fake emails

Pretty much the same rules apply for emails that do for phone calls. The IRS almost always attempts to connect with people through regular mail first, not via email or phone, and you’ll never receive an email from out of the blue about refunds or back due taxes. If you’ve received an email from the IRS about money owed, don’t open it until you’ve verified directly with the IRS yourself that it’s actually valid.

Check out this piece on the IRS Dirty Dozen Tax Scams to avoid other potential tax pitfalls.

The post How to Avoid 3 Common Tax Scams appeared first on MagnifyMoney.