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 Signs Your Fad Fitness Program Is Really a Money-Waster

Here's how to tell if a fitness fad will have you losing dollars, not pounds.

There’s nothing wrong with paying for a fitness regime. If the program works, isn’t driving you into debt or causing any health problems, its costs could be negligible.

Unfortunately, fitness fads are a dime a dozen and many programs, plans or products don’t work as advertised. In fact, plenty are downright bogus. Do a quick search for “weight loss scams” on the Federal Trade Commission website, and you’ll see what I mean.

To help you avoid falling prey to a useless or predatory pitch, here are five signs a fitness fad will have you losing dollars, not pounds.

1. It Claims You’ll ‘Lose Weight … Effortlessly!’

Exercise, by definition, requires effort. To lose weight, you need to burn calories, which are units of energy, so expect a fitness regime to be accompanied by sweat, deep breaths and discomfort. If a workout involves little time, zero effort and minimal movement, it’s probably not worth the cost. Yes, doing a few minutes of crunches is better than nothing — but it’s still very close to nothing.

2. It Claims You’ll ‘Burn X Number of Calories!’

A popular — and effective — sales tactic in the fitness industry involves advertising the exact number of calories a client can burn over the length of a particular exercise program. But there’s more than one reason to disregard that promise.

For starters, the number of calories you burn during exercise can vary enormously. Second, it’s hard to tell what that number means in relation to actual weight loss. You’d have to be tracking your calorie consumption and keeping a regular log of your weight to have a frame of reference. Plus, even if you lost the exact number of calories promoted by a program, it might not matter. Remember, diet is a critical factor. What happens if you’re consuming twice as many calories as you need to burn to lose weight?

3. It Claims You’re ‘Guaranteed to Lose X Pounds in a Week!’

As in life, there are no guarantees in fitness. No one can know how you will respond to a given exercise. Educated health professionals and medical practitioners can’t make guarantees regarding your health, so be skeptical when some voice on the TV claims it can. Often the burden of success lies exclusively with the customer.

4. It Has an Asterisk Anywhere … or Everywhere

Qualifications abound in the fitness industry and a little star or cross can signify a number of things. “Only $29.99*!” Expect hidden fees. “Free Trial*!” Be prepared to enter credit card information that’ll get auto-charged if you don’t cancel the program before the promotional period ends. See “testimonials*”? Those claims may be unsubstantiated or only accurate under a narrow set of conditions.

Bottom line: If you come across an asterisk, read the fine print and ask plenty of questions before shelling out money. (Keeping track of your finances? You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

5. It Uses a ‘Secret Proprietary Blend’

There are plenty of fitness companies out there, particularly those hawking supplements, that do their best to make you believe they hold some super-secret, space-age, chemical formula developed by a team of sleep-deprived engineers in a lab 5 miles below the earth’s crust that’s totally essential to losing weight. But there are no secrets in fitness, just the truths you may refuse to accept, so there’s reason to be extra discerning when a company drops the “p” word.

Food and Drug Administration regulations don’t require manufacturers to include how much of each ingredient in a “proprietary blend” is actually in their product, just the weight of the mix itself. In other words, the term is often code for caffeine pills, plus some unpronounceable, inert filler chemicals that do nothing to advance your fitness goals.

While getting in shape can take hard work, the formula is basic: diet and exercise. Plus, you can get fit without breaking your budget. Here are a few ways to get started.

Image: BogdanBrasoveanu

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6 Summer Scams & How to Avoid Them

Just as mosquitoes can ruin a summer picnic, a good scammer can turn a winning day into a master class on losing your mind.

As the weather gets warmer, mosquitos and ticks re-enter our lives, and along with them comes their larger cousin, the scam artist. There are ways to prepare for those seasonal meal stealers. The same goes for scams, as foreknowledge is the best repellent.

Ticks and mosquitos aren’t harmless — they are well-known vectors for serious illnesses. Scam artists are also vectors for a plague that affects millions of people each year: identity theft. But sometimes a scam is of the simpler smash-and-grab variety.

Either way, some scams never seem to get old, as evidenced by the huge number of people that continue to fall for them no matter how many warnings we issue. There are always new variations that snare even the wariest consumers.

With that, I give you this summer’s smorgasbord of scams.

1. The Summer Rental Scam

It’s not the easiest thing on earth to find a summer rental that has all the right elements: a reasonable distance from the beach, the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms, a pets welcome policy. So, when you do find the right one, the tendency for most people is to pounce. Don’t be most people. If you get scammed on a rental, you’re not going to know till you show up at the front door and a puzzled person peers back at you. Oh yeah, and good luck finding the rental office, because it’s an abandoned drive-in.

The best thing you can do is visit the property in question beforehand. If you are working with a real estate agent, ask for his or her license number and check it, request references if there are no reviews online and confirm that the address is real and the premises are truly available for rent. Some home-rental websites have their own vetting processes and offer guarantees that will protect you in case of fraud.

2. Summer Job as Credit Application

It is not completely bizarre to need a background check before getting hired, but chances are that the young person in your life looking for a summer job is not applying to be a bank clerk or armored car driver. When it comes to providing personally identifiable information to an employer, use your head.

It is sadly a common occurrence that when kids are offered a “job,” they provide their information for tax purposes, including their Social Security number, and then never hear back. The reason: The only “job” was a robbery. Their identity is stolen, and because kids will be kids, it often takes a long time for them to realize the jerk who flaked on a summer job offer gutted their creditworthiness. (Here are four ways identity theft can impact your credit.)

Never provide sensitive personal information to a job site or anyone claiming to offer a job at the start of the process. Before you show up for an interview, make sure the job is legit: You can figure this out by doing an online search or making a few phone calls.

3. Door-Knocker Scams

Summer is the time for door-knocking scams. It can be anything really. Sometimes the knocker wants you to help save an endangered species or an embattled population far away, sometimes they are selling a lawn service, home maintenance or sustainably produced electricity — all these causes, services and products may be legitimate, but the person offering them … not so much.

If a stranger comes to your door, your level of suspicion should be high from a personal and digital security perspective. If you like what a knocker has to say, tell them that you will go online to help their cause or buy a product, and send them on their way.

4. Wi-Fi Scams

This is a year-round thing, but people still get got all the time by phony Wi-Fi scams, and the problem is only getting worse now that more municipalities are offering free access to the internet. The problem is that free Wi-Fi doesn’t guarantee secure Wi-Fi.

Always check with the network provider or someone of authority before logging on to any new wireless connection. Use a VPN, or virtual private network, to conduct any transactions that involve sensitive information. (Here are 50 more ways to avoid falling victim to hackers.)

5. Front Desk & Fake Menu Scams

Hotel scams are many and various, and it’s best just to remember that you are a target whenever you are traveling, but there are two scams that are sufficiently common. The first is the front desk scam, which is pretty simple.

You check in late, you’re tired and your phone rings. The scammer doesn’t know when you checked in. He or she is calling random rooms. You are told there is a problem with your credit card. Can you please confirm the number? The second scam to look out for is the menu scam. Scammers produce fake ones, and then steal your credit card information when you call to place an order.

If you get a call from the front desk, hang up and call back or go in person to confirm your payment method. Use your smartphone to order food or call the front desk for suggestions.

6. Moving Scams

Summertime is moving time. Just make sure your relocation isn’t a moving experience of the hair-pulling kind. While there are many great services out there, there are also some fraudulent ones that could wind up costing you big time.

With new online services like Task Rabbit and Angie’s List to name but two, there are ways to choose a moving service, large or small, that suits your needs and provides reviews. Just make sure you check out their reputation online before they show up at your door.

You May Have Identity Theft Repellent

Just as mosquitoes can ruin a summer picnic, a good scammer can turn a winning day into a master class on losing your mind as bank accounts are drained, credit cards are maxed out and large purchases are made in your name. There’s a way out, and you may already be covered.

If you think you might have been a victim of identity theft, it’s important to monitor your credit for anything out of the ordinary — primarily accounts and delinquencies you don’t recognize. You can get a copy of each of your three major credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com and you can use a free tool like Credit.com’s credit report card to check for signs of identity theft every month.

It’s also a good idea to check with your insurance agent, bank, credit union or the HR department where you work. It is increasingly more common as a perk of your relationship with the institution to be offered free access to a program that provides education, proactive assistance and damage control if you become a victim of identity theft.

If it’s not free, you may be able to get it at a minimal cost. (Full disclosure: CyberScout, a company I founded in 2003, provides these services to institutional clients, and they in turn offer the service to their clients, customers, members or employees.)

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

Image: Imgorthand

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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.

Image: ginosphotos 

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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.

Image: FatCamera

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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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