How Do People Get My Information?

By Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

This is one of the most frequent questions I get from people, and my response to is always “we give it to them.” Here are some examples of the many different ways we freely provide information to scam artists.

1) Endless robo calls asking you to press 1 for more information or press 2 to get off their list. The typical reaction is to press 2 to get off the list, but in reality you are confirming that this is a good phone number with someone who answers the phone and follows instructions. Your number is added to a list then sold to the actual scammer who makes a live call to someone they perceive as a potential victim.

2) Legitimate looking spam offering the ability to unsubscribe. When you click that option and put in your email address you are actually putting yourself on a list to get alot of unsolicited offers that never stop. The other trick is receiving emails that purport to be from UPS or Fed Ex, referencing a failed delivery, and you have to click “here” for more information. The bottom line is never click on any link in an email until you have verified the validity of the source.

3) The Internet should come with a the daily warning “Use with Caution.” We surf and search for information but schemers are also searching for us. Far too often, when people are looking for specific information on issues related to insurance quotes or home equity loans and mortgages, they are asked to complete information in a pop up window to be allowed access to the information. Never put in a phone number or other personal information in a pop up window or on a website until you understand how this information will be used.

3) Using Craigslist to trick people into providing contact information. You have an item for sale and receive an email from an interested party asking if you will send your private email address for communication purposes. If you are familiar with Craigslist there is no reason not to use their encrypted service. So why are they asking for your email? They want it to put on a list to sell to spammers and scammers.

4) Then there is the old fashion way, reaching folks via mail. To find individuals vulnerable to sweepstakes scams letters are sent out promising riches for just a return of $10. The group that sends in $10 gets a letter asking for $20. Then the individuals who sent $20 are compiled into a list sold to telemarketers who then call the victims on the phone, gain their confidence, and start asking for money to get their millions.

It is important to stop and think before responding to any situation that requires you to provide any personal information. It will come back in some way you are likely to regret.

Top Ten BBB Scams for 2015

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

Drumroll please….the Number 1 scam in the top 10 list for 2015 is…tax scams! The Better Business Bureau revealed that 24% of the first 10,000 scam reports processed through the BBB Scam Tracker was related to imposters pretending to be from the IRS. The remaining scams in the top ten were all some form of imposter scam including: debt collection, sweepstakes, tech support, and government grant scams.

The good news, 85% of those reporting scams to BBB recognized them as frauds before any money was stolen. Bad news, these scams still account for more than $1 million dollars lost from those who filed complaints with BBB. Here is a recap of the Top Ten and how they work:

1. Tax Scam: You receive a phone call from someone who claims to be with the IRS claiming you owe money in back taxes and will be arrested if you do not pay. The number on the caller ID is fake and appears to be from Washington, DC.

2. Debt Collection Scam: You receive a phone call from someone claiming that you have an unpaid debt and they threaten you with garnishments, lawsuits, even jail time if you don’t pay right now.

3. Sweepstakes/Prizes/Gifts Scam: You receive a call, letter, or email claiming you’ve won a prize in a sweepstakes and in order to receive the prize, you must send money to cover expenses associated with delivery, processing, or insurance. The prize is not real; you should never have to pay money to claim a prize you have won.

4. Tech Support Scam: You are contacted by “technicians” claiming to have detected a virus or security threat on your computer and, for a fee, can log-in and correct the problem remotely. These hackers are trying to steal money or sensitive computer passwords.

5. Government Grant Scam: You receive a phone call, email, or letter informing you that you qualify for a government grant. To receive the grant, you are instructed to send money as a processing or delivery fee, usually by wire transfer or prepaid debit card.

6. Advance Fee Loan Scam: While searching for loan information on the Internet, you see an ad and click through to the website. When you complete the application you will receive an email or phone call stating you are approved for the loan, but you must first send a processing fee, security deposit or insurance.

7. Credit Card Scam: The scammer pretends to be from your bank or credit card issuer, and claims you are eligible for a lower interest rate, or they want to verify a recent transaction. The consumer provides the scammer with their credit card number and security code for verification.

8. Work from Home Scam: Many people spend time looking for a job from home. While you may see ads promising you riches from a comfortable chair at your computer, they are all schemes to steal money from you. If you complete online applications you are at risk for identity theft, or you may end up as part of a criminal enterprise handling stolen merchandise for organized crime.

9. Fake Check/Money Order Scam: This one usually happens to individuals selling an item through an online service. You receive a check that is larger than the amount owed. Oops their mistake, but they know you are honest so just cash it and send them the difference. The check is a fake and when it bounces, you are out the money.

10. Grandparent Scam: You receive a call from an individual who says they are your grandchild. They assume any name you use to identify them and begin a story about being in jail in a foreign country and needing money. You have to keep it a secret. If you get a call like this, immediately check with family, do not believe the caller. Never keep secrets and never wire money overseas.

Remember, scammers are skilled, trained individuals. This is their job and most of them are very good at their chose profession. They will work to build a relationship with you. They will confuse you by sounding legitimate maybe with fake websites, social media posts or emails that look like they come from friends and family. They will also get angry and threaten you and your family with bodily harm.

What can you do? First, stop answering your telephone and screen all your calls. Better to miss a few calls than to get involved with these thieves. Other ways to save yourself are:

• Do not respond to pressure tactics. Take time to research the organization. Check them out on bbb.org, search online, etc.
• Never provide your personal information to strangers who call you on the phone.
• Do not click on links from unsolicited email or text messages. If you are unsure about a call or email that claims to be from your bank, utility company, etc., call the business directly using the number on your bill or credit card.
• Never send money by wire transfer or prepaid debit card to someone you do not know or have not met in person.
• Never send money for an emergency situation unless you can first verify there is an actual emergency.

Beware of Email Scams during the Holidays

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

If you have an email address, you most likely get countless emails from retailers, organizations, and companies. Much of this unsolicited email, or “phishing” email, comes from someone you have done business with through an online purchase.

Falling victim to “phishing” emails is easy if we do not pay attention and exercise caution. When you are instructed to click on a “link” provided in an email, you need to stop and think before taking action. Read the email carefully and make sure you check the source before clicking on anything.

A common trick, is to get you to “unsubscribe” from an email list. Often times, these are scams that are searching for good email addresses. If you click “unsubscribe” then you are actually confirming your email and putting yourself on a list to get even more bogus offers.

Here are a few of the most common email scams you will see over the holidays:

Complimentary Vouchers or Gift Cards
A popular holiday scam is big discounts on gift cards. Don’t fall for offers from retailers or social media posts that offer phony vouchers or gift cards paired with special promotions or contests. Some posts or emails even appear to be shared by a friend (who may have been hacked). Develop a healthy dose of skepticism and “Think Before You Click” on offers or attachments with any gift cards or vouchers!

Bogus Shipping Notices From UPS and FedEx
You are going to see emails supposedly from UPS and FedEx in your inbox that claim your package has a problem and/or could not be delivered. Many of these are phishing attacks try to make you click on a link or open an attachment. If you do click then your computer will be infected with a virus or even ransomware which holds all your files hostage until you pay $500 to release your files.

Holiday Refund Scams
These emails pretend to come from retail chains or e-commerce companies such as Amazon or eBay claiming there is a “wrong transaction” and you are prompted to click the refund link. You are then asked to complete a form with personal information that can be sold to cyber criminals.

Some finals points:
• Never use an insecure public Wi-Fi to shop with your credit card. Only shop with a secure connection at home.
• NEVER pay online with a debit card, only use credit cards. Why? if the debit card gets compromised, the bad guys can empty your bank account quickly
• Microsoft will never call you and say you have a virus on your computer. This is a scam to steal your money and get access to your computer files.

Shopping online is easy and convenient, but be wise and be careful.  Report phishing and spam emails to the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov.

Managing Someone Else’s Money

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

Last April, the New York Times published an story title “As Cognition Slips, Financial Skills are the First to Go.” The article states that several studies show the ability to handle simple math and financial matters are the first skills one loses with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Then there are other studies that demonstrate that an individual’s ability to handle financial matters can begin to decline in their 50’s.

Here are some startling statistics. There are 44.7 million people 65 and older, representing 14 percent of the population, and this number will grow to an estimated 66 million in 10 years. This older population has trillions of dollars in wealth, and they are frequently struggling to manage their own finances as they become increasingly vulnerable to financial exploitation.

As people are living longer, well into their 80’s and 90’s, who ends up being the primary caregiver…most likely aging children! One advisor quoted in the New York Times article said he wished that when people reach 65, they would simplify their investments. But what we have are 65 years olds managing both their own finances and the finances of parents and loved ones who no can no longer handle even the basics of paying monthly bills. In other words, it doesn’t get less complicated only more complicated.

Becoming the financial caregiver can be challenging. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has developed a set of guides to help you “Managing Someone Else’s Money.” These guides provide information on:

• Agents under a power of attorney
• Court-appointed guardians of property and conservators
• Trustees
• Government-benefit fiduciaries (Social Security representative payees and VA fiduciaries).

The guides help financial caregivers in three ways: they walk them through their duties, they tell them about protecting their loved ones from financial exploitation and scams, and they tell them where to go for help.  But be aware, that your power to oversee an individual’s finances does vary from state to state so make sure you know the rules in Texas and use the guides to assist in your decision making. You can always find an Elder Care Attorney through the Texas Bar Association to help you with the appropriate legal documents for Texas. The guides are available at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website, at http://www.cfpb.gov.

Sweetheart Scams Target Lonely Elderly via the Internet

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

Finding that perfect match online is something we hear about commercial after commercial. Young people are often very successful in meeting Mr. or Ms. Right, but older adults are frequently targeted by swindlers who steal thousands of dollars from them while breaking their heart.

There was a recent article in the New York Times describing one woman’s experience with an online dating service. Her email conversations with someone who said they were a German business man were warm, caring and engaging. He wanted someone just like her in his life to travel with and see the world. A confident woman with whom he could share his life. She was hooked.

And once a swindler knows their target has swallowed the bait, the request for money begins. Maybe they have a sick mother and just need a little help. They have cancer and their funds are running short. They are always in a foreign country, so maybe they need to get home to “die” in their arms, so please send money. This one woman, over a period of several years, sent over $300,000 to her online soul mate.

Online dating services are not the only way these swindlers find their target. Social media is another area where you have to exercise caution interacting with strangers and even people you think are your friends.

Social media websites like Facebook are a great way to connect with long ago friends. Your class reunion or high school Facebook page connects you with pass friends and this can include past loves. All of a sudden that long lost love, the one that got away, is back in your life. Making you smile, you feel like you are 16 again experiencing that first kiss. But, they are not that old flame, they are a con artist preying on your vulnerabilities to steal your money.

Be very careful how you connect with people over the Internet when you are unable to meet them in person. Do not respond to strangers who seem to know you but you cannot remember them. And most importantly, the minute anyone asks you for money…cut off all contact. There is absolutely NO reason you should ever wire money overseas to anyone, no matter how well you think you know them.

Watch out for your friends and family. If there is someone in your life who is talking about this wonderful person they met online, talk to them about the dangers of online dating. They may not believe you because THEIR special person is the exception and would never harm them. Ask them if they have ever sent money and what would they do if they were asked. They may not listen or want to listen, but it is always worth a try if you can save them the heartache of losing not only their money but their confidence.

Beware of Scams and Fraud during Medicare Open Enrollment

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW

It is that time of year again, open enrollment for Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage plans takes place from October 15 to December 7. Because it is so important that you review your Medicare Part D plans and your Medicare Advantage plan (if you have one) every year, I am repeating this column from last year.
This is your opportunity to review your current health needs and make adjustments based on your needs and your healthcare costs. But it is also an opportunity for scam artists and unscrupulous people to take advantage of you so here are some pointers on what you should and should not do.
You should always shop for a drug plan each year. Plans change more than the cost of their premiums; they also change the drugs they cover. You need to make sure you are getting the best price for your medication by going to http://www.medicare.gov for your search. Get a family member to help if you don’t use the Internet or call the Area Agency on Aging at 832-393-4301 and speak to a qualified Benefits Counselor.
What you should NEVER do, is give personal information over the phone or in person to a stranger just because they are telling you Medicare is changing. All the information you need to now from Medicare comes to you in your Medicare and You Handbook every October. There are no “new” Medicare cards, there are no “new” drug cards, so hang up if you get one of these calls.
You should also evaluate your overall health care costs and decide which is best for you, traditional Medicare or enrolling in a Medicare Advantage plan. When it comes to Medicare Advantage plans, Medicare has strict marketing guidelines that insurance agents and plans must follow. Agents and or brokers:
• Cannot say they are from Medicare or imply that Medicare endorses them,
• Cannot solicit by going door-to-door,
• Cannot send unwanted emails or voicemails or call you unless you have asked to be called.
• Cannot approach you in a parking lot, lobby, mall, or other common areas.
• Cannot approach you in an exam room, dialysis center or pharmacy counter.
• Cannot provide meals at sales presentations.
• Cannot conduct marketing or sales activities at an educational event.
• Cannot market non-health related products such as life insurance during educational sessions.
• Cannot offer you a gift worth more than $15.

You should also be aware of changes to Medicare in The Affordable Care Act. Benefits rolled out in 2012 but, remember to watch out for scam artists. Change brings confusion and scam artists are standing by to capitalize on that confusion.
If you are unsure about a phone call or want to check out a company, please call me first at 713-341-6184. If you need assistance to enroll in a Part D plan, you can contact the Area Agency on Aging by calling the United Way Information and Referral Hotline at 211 and asking for the local number. We want you to be safe…not sorry.

Educated Employees are the First Line of Defense in the Fight Against Data Hacking

by Barbara Parrott McGinity, LMSW
BBB Education Foundation

Data Breach! System has been hacked! Personal information stolen! From the IRS to Chase Bank to Blue Cross Blue Shield, we are reading about security systems being infiltrated by criminal hackers every day. How can this happen? Hackers seek out weaknesses in your computer system and one of those weaknesses can be untrained personnel who mistakenly click on the wrong email.

Here is one recent email from my inbox:
Today, 3rd June, 2015. We are upgrading our email system in order for our email server to be compatible with the newer versions of software 2015 spam filter. This service creates more space and easy access to email. Please update your account by clicking on the link below. Click for Activation
CLICK HERE<http://owaadminportal.jimdo.com/&gt; And follow the instructions on the pop-up page for upgrade
Failure for any user to do this will render his/her account inactive.
Thank you,
IT Support Desk

Another example:
Hi my name is Annabella
my resume is pdf file
I am looking forward to hearing from you
Yours faithfully
Annabella

Both of these emails demonstrate how systems are breached, they require the recipient to get more information through the click of their mouse, one has a link and the other has an attachment.

Every day, we receive numerous unsolicited emails at both work and home. Some of it from sources you have done business with or ordered products from, while others come from unknown sources. Often you give that information away by putting information into pop-up windows, handing out business cards, or responding to unsolicited emails.

A couple of weeks ago I received a very simple, seemingly innocent email:
Hi Barbara:
For us newbees can you give me the crossroads for the location of the garden sale.
Thanks.
Jan LeCates
Your first instinct might be to reply, “What garden sale?” And that is what the sender was hoping for, because this type of email is looking to confirm good email addresses which then get sold to people sending the spam. For me it was easy to hit the delete button because I knew I was not going to a garden sale and I do not know Jan LeCrates. But what would your employee do?

The National Cyber Security Alliance has a website, http://www.staysafeonline.org, that provides information for businesses on cyber security. This includes accessing your risks, protecting customers, and education tips for employees. Here is what you need to pass onto your employees:

  • Keep a clean machine: Your company should have clear rules for what employees can install and keep on their work computers. Make sure they understand and abide by these rules. Unknown outside programs can open security vulnerabilities in your network.
  • Follow good password practices: Making passwords long and strong, with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, along with changing them routinely and keeping them private are the easiest and most effective steps your employees can take to protect your data.
  • When in doubt, throw it out: Employees should know not to open suspicious links in email, tweets, posts, online ads, messages or attachments – even if they know the source. Employees should also be instructed about your company’s spam filters and how to use them to prevent unwanted, harmful email.
  • Back up their work: Whether you set your employees’ computers to backup automatically or ask that they do it themselves, employees should be instructed on their role in protecting their work.
  • Stay watchful and speak up: Your employees should be encouraged to keep an eye out and say something if they notice strange happenings on their computer.

The hackers are getting better, more sophisticated, and more difficult to catch. Everyone needs to be vigilant, stay alert to cyber threats, and never assume things are as they appear. Protecting your business by taking the time to educate your employees is the best way to defeat these criminals.