New Twists on an Old Scam

Beware! Scammers are up to their old tricks in brand new ways. The Grandparents Scam has been around for years, but it seems with all of our vigilant work to spread the word about this classic, the fraudsters have adapted and thought up new ways to exploit the unyielding love you have for your grandchildren.

In the original scam the fraudster would call in a panicked state claiming to be a grandchild in trouble on vacation far away, usually in a foreign country. They wouldn’t sound like themselves, but of course that was because they were injured, a broken nose from the car accident in which they were just involved and jailed for, so they needed money to bail them out right away! They would be so embarrassed and plead with you not to tell their parents. Grandchildren hold the sweetest spot in your heart, so of course you don’t want to get them in any more trouble. You oblige and wire the $3,000 they need for bail and to cover damages. After all, you just want them home safe.

Scam artists involved in this scheme tug right at the heartstrings of caring and loving grandparents. Now we know you still love all your grandkids the same, but you’ve become so savvy to the old tricks, you’ve shared your stories, and you’ve warned your friends about what to look out for when they get these suspicious calls. Now, the scam artists have had to get more creative and are once again targeting grandparents with new twists on this old scam.

The first frightening twist involves the alleged kidnapping of a grandchild. Naturally, we would want to do anything and everything to keep our loved one’s safe, so if someone calls threatening to harm your grandchild unless you wire them the ransom money it’s tempting to spring into action, no questions asked. This is exactly what the scammers are banking on. Hang up and call the police immediately. If someone has been kidnapped you want professionals handling such a serious matter, but in the more likely event that it’s a scam you can save yourself hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The next new twist on the grandparents involves exploiting the military status of our service men and women. This tactic works so well because it is harder to determine the whereabouts or get in direct contact with someone deployed overseas. Calling your grandchild directly to confirm details of a story as we encourage you to do is a less plausible option when they are serving in the military, so it’s an excellent opportunity for scammers to convince you they are in trouble and the only way to help is to send them money immediately. As if that isn’t bad enough, these scam artists have caught on to the fact that we all know when someone asks for a wire transfer or green dot money card it sends up a big red flag. Now, they have taken to demanding cash concealed in magazines to be sent overnight to supposed legal help. Sometimes they even increase the sense of urgency by putting a six hour time limit on payments sent within the U. S.

The Federal Trade Commission has also reported scammer are calling grandparents and telling them their grandson or granddaughter has defaulted on a loan and they will either lose their job, go to jail, or something equally as bad unless a payment is made immediately. They will proceed to ask for credit card information for payment or offer other payment options such as a wire transfer or a prepaid card. There are a few important things to remember in this situation. First, unless you have co-signed a loan for the grandchild in question you are not responsible for someone else debt. In fact, it is illegal for a debt collector to even tell you about someone else’s debt, even if it is your grandchild. If you do receive one of these calls hang up! Do not confirm any personal or financial information. You may also report such calls to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Even if the Grandparent Scammers are using new schemes all the old rules still apply. Screen all your calls. If you do get a call from someone claiming to be your grandchild from an unfamiliar phone number just hang up and call back to verify on their personal cell phone. Taking the few extra minutes to verify their story can save you thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache. In scenarios like the ones listed above it is best to get as many people involved as possible to deter these thieves. Continue to share your stories and pass along the information you know to raise awareness. Feel free to contact the BBB Education Foundation at 713-341-6141 if you have any questions or want to share your experience.

Tax Season Scams

It all starts with a phone call. The caller ID reads “IRS” and the agent on the other end of the line provides you with his name and badge number. He may even know personal details about you as he claims you owe back taxes, which you must pay immediately by pre-paid debit card or wire transfer before he sends local law enforcement to your home to pick you up and haul you off to jail!

When you read the above scenario you may think there is no way you’d ever fall for such a farce. We are warned year after year of scams and schemes that come along every tax season, but still these con artists continue to make victims of well-meaning taxpayers. They are professionals scammers, experts at creating a sense of urgency, and all too convincing of the threats they concoct to scare us.
Don’t fall victim to scammers calling claiming to be IRS employees. Impersonators will call, demand payment, and even threaten legal action if you refuse to cooperate in their scheme. Remember, the IRS will NEVER:
• Call to demand immediate payment—the IRS will first mail you a bill and then allow for opportunity for you to question or appeal the amount owed
• Require specific methods of payments such as a prepaid debit card
• Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone
• Threaten to bring in local police to have you arrested for non-payment
We have to be increasingly vigilant in this ever advancing technological age as these imposters now have more avenues than ever to swindle us out of our money and personal identifying information. The IRS has reported a new phishing scam where unsuspecting victims receive an email, apparently from the IRS, and are then lead to a bogus website resembling the official IRS website to “update your IRS e-file immediately.” Beware: these emails are not from the IRS and the websites closely resemble the legitimate site making the scam hard to detect. Look for mention of USA.gov or IRSgov (without a dot between “IRS” and “gov”) in the message.
Though the IRS offers a completely safe and convenient e-filing option for us to file our taxes, they will NOT initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request person or financial information. If you suspect you are receiving these messages do not respond or click on any links! Instead, you can forward these emails directly to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.
For free tax help and preparation you can contact the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program help line at 800-906-9887 to find a location nearest you.
If you are unsure about the authenticity of any call or email you receive this tax season please don’t hesitate to call us here at the BBB at 713-331-6141.

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.