Protect yourself from scams

Scam artists are always trying to target unsuspecting victims through the internet, phones, credit cards, and they’re finding more ways to try to steal our identities and take our money so we have to stay on top of our game! David Smitherman, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of central and south Alabama, tells Cherish Lombard the 2013 Scam of the Year was the Affordable Care Act Scam. He says scammers used Obamacare as a tool to fool Americans into sharing their personal information. He says people were getting calls from scammers claiming to be with the federal government, telling the would-be victim he or she needed a new insurance card or Medicare card, but before the card could be mailed, they needed to collect personal information.

Another top healthcare scam in 2013 was the Medical Alert Scam. He says scammers would call would-be victims, promising them a “free” medical alert system. The scam targeted seniors and caretakers and claimed the alert system was free because one of their family members or friends had already paid for it. He says in many cases, seniors were asked to provide their bank account or credit card information to “verify” their identity, and as a result, were charged the monthly $35 service fee. Of course the system never arrived and the seniors were left with a charge they had trouble getting refunded. He says as a rule of thumb, be wary of “free” offers that require your personal information upfront and always verify with the supposed friend or family member that the caller says paid for the service.

Smitherman says the Auction Reseller Scam was also a big one in 2013. This one targeted people selling things on Ebay and other online auctions sites. He says scammers figured out a way to fool sellers into shipping goods without receiving payment. Usually the buyer claims he or she needs an item fast for an “emergency” situation, like a birthday, and asks the seller to ship the same day. The seller receives an email that looks like it’s from PayPal confirming the payment, but emails are easy to fake. Smitherman says you should always confirm payment in your Ebay and PayPal accounts before shipping, especially to an overseas address.

One scam that’s very scary is the Arrest Warrant Scam. In this scam, con artists are taking advantage of technology that can change what is visible on Caller ID, so your Caller ID would show that the scammers call was coming from your local sheriff’s department, or police station. The scam artist tells the would-be victim there is a warrant out for their arrest, but that they can pay a fine to avoid criminal charges. Smithermans says the caller won’t take a credit card number and says only a wire transfer or pre-paid debit card will do. He says sometimes these scams seem very personal and the scammer may refer to a loan or other financial matter. He says hang up and call your local law enforcement.

The Invisible Home Improvements scam is another scam the BBB received a lot of complaints about in 2013. Smitherman says home improvement scams vary little from year to year, and most involve some type of shoddy workmanship from unlicensed or untrained workers. The hardest for homeowners to detect, and therefore the easiest for scammers to pull off, are repairs or improvements to the areas of your home that you can’t see including roofs, chimneys, air ducts and crawl spaces. He says scammers may simply knock on your door offering a great deal because they were “in the neighborhood,” but they’re starting to use the telemarketing, email and even social media to reach homeowners. Helpful videos on YouTube can add legitimacy to a contractor, but consumers have no way of knowing if the video is real or “borrowed” from a legitimate contractor. He says check out home contractors at bbb.org before hiring one.

Smitherman says another scam to watch out for is the Casting Call Scam. Scammers pose as agents or talent scouts looking for actors, singers, models or reality show contestants, and use phony audition notices to fool aspiring performers into paying to try out for parts that don’t exist. He says you may be asked to pay for things like acting lessons, modeling classes or photography services, or it can be an outright scam for things like fees for online “applications” or upcoming “casting calls.” Even worse, the information provided on an online application could be everything a scammer needs for identity theft.

The Foreign Currency Scam is another one to be aware of. Investments in foreign currency can sound like a great idea, and scammers frequently use real current events and news stories to make their pitches even more appealing. Smitherman says scammers advertise an easy investment with high return and low risk when you purchase Iraqi Dinar, Vietnamese Dong or, most recently, the Egyptian Pound. The plan is that, when those governments revalue their currencies, increasing their worth against the dollar, you just sell and cash in. Unlike previous hoaxes, you may even take possession of real currency. The problem is that they will be very difficult to sell, and it’s extremely unlikely they will ever significantly increase in value.

Smitherman says scammers are also using Scam Texts to try to steal your information. With online and mobile banking skyrocketing, it’s not a surprise that scams quickly follow. One major tactic recently is the use of scam texts, known as “smishing,” to steal personal information. They look like a text alert from your bank, asking you to confirm information or “reactivate your debit card” by following a link on your smart phone. Banks of all sizes have been targeted, and details of the scam vary, but the outcome is the same: scammers get your banking information, maybe even your ATM number and PIN. You may even inadvertently download malicious software that gives the scammer access to anything on your phone.

Also be aware of Do Not Call Scams. The National Do Not Call Registry offers consumers a free way to reduce telemarketing calls. Scammers call anyway, and they’ve even found a way to scam consumers by pretending to be a government official calling to sign you up or confirming your previous participation on the Dot Not call list. In one variation, scammers ask for personal information, such as your name, address and Social Security number. In another, scammers try to charge a fee to join the registry. Either way, just hang up. These services are free, but sharing personal information with a scammer could cost you a lot.

Finally, be aware of the Fake Friend Scam. If you ever get a Friend Request on Facebook from someone you already thought was your Friend and hit “Accept,” you may befriend a scammer. A popular recent scam has been the theft of people’s online identities to create fake profiles, which can be used in a variety of ways. A new Friend can learn a lot about you to scam you later, “recommend” sketchy websites that download malware, use your account to scrap information on your other Friends, even impersonate a military officer or other trustworthy person to perpetrate a romance scam. Be careful on social media, keep your privacy settings high, and don’t share confidential information. You can’t always be sure that your Friends are really your friends.

The Better Business Bureau of Central Alabama and the Better Business Bureau of South Alabama have joined together, and now have offices in Mobile, Birmingham  and Dothan. The result is a BBB with almost 4,300 accredited business members serving 50 Alabama counties. Through enhanced technology and combined resources, the organization will bring new opportunities for businesses throughout the service area.

Smitherman says due to the BBB’s high internet presence, BBB members will have a greater opportunity to show higher in searches. BBB is the leading organization in the United States and Canada for helping consumers find businesses, brands and charities they can trust. It also monitors and alerts the public of scams and offers resources for the prevention of identity theft. In 2013, the Birmingham office fielded almost one million inquiries from consumers and businesses from across the globe.

BBB monitors scams based on reports from consumers, law enforcement, federal agencies and numerous other sources, including recent alerts concerning fake Sochi Winter Olympic merchandise and warnings of scams concerning the Affordable Care Act. BBB offers complaint resolution, arbitration and mediation services when there are valid complaints over business transactions. The BBB Educational Foundation, through business grants and local government contracts, provides programs to educate Alabama consumers about fraud, scams, identity theft and to aid in financial literacy.

To be accredited by BBB, a business must meet stringent standards to assure that it treats consumers fairly and honestly. It also accredits charitable organizations in an effort to ensure that donations are being made to valid groups. If you would like to know more about BBB, please visit www.bbb.org.

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