By Pete Zamplas-‘Tis the season for an upsurge in attempted scams, from the usual sweepstakes fee trap to phone calls preying on the federal mandate to buy medical insurance.
Scammers’ main objectives include to collect personal data to use to sign up for fraudulent credit cards in your name, or to trick you to send money or charge a credit card such as to cover fees for supposedly getting winnings sent in return, Henderson County Sheriff’s Major Frank Stout said.
“We have been inundated with frauds over credit cards lately during the holidays — more than throughout the year,” he said. Criminals are grabbier to afford gifts. Victims are extra vulnerable such as donations for charitable causes, or holiday gift cards from other than the official retailer.
“They are taking advantage of hard-working people,” Maj. Stout said. “Many have said they’re getting pressured to give to relief efforts, such as for the Philippines disaster or the less privileged. Multiple people are reporting they’ve been defrauded out of money.”
The widest-reaching scam here in recent weeks is a caller falsely claiming to be from Publisher Clearing House Sweepstakes (PCHS), and bilking people out of hundreds of dollars each in up-front fees and one victim for $7,000, Stout said. The trick was claiming a state-to-state transfer fee and taxes had to be paid to collect winnings — which were never paid.
“Do not send cash, money order, or pre-paid debit cards to anyone telling you you’ve won a prize of cash, a vehicle, or any other item of value. You should never have to pay for anything you’ve won.” In the PCHS phone scam, the bait was the caller telling people they each won $2.5 million and a new car.
A newer scam is luring people into paying for what turnout to be exorbitant overseas phone calls. One method is by dropping off a card, instructing to call to claim a parcel.On another scamming front, Stout said “many say their credit card is compromised.” Perpetrators may initially “try a $20 charge, which may not flag through a bank. Unless your bank sees you don’t typically make purchases in those cities. Then amounts go up. Most reported to us are $200 to $400 a charge. Soon after that, they might try $1800 to $2000.”
Newer scams relate to the Affordable Health Act (“Obamacare”) requirement to get medically insured. A scammer might demand an enrollment fee for a state insurance exchange, or get personal information in supposedly registering the victim. Since the much-maligned federal website to sign up for coverage has processed few people, more are prone to phone sign-up scams.
Business should be conducted in person as much as possible, and with reputable people preferably in their stores or offices, Stout said. This is a major bonus of shopping and banking locally. Unrealistic exorbitant merchandise and travel discounts or prize drawings — from potentially fake websites, social media pages, emails and texts — are red flags of a trap.A common trick is sending a false email pretending to be the victim’s financial institution, perhaps with a link to a counterfeit website, and asking for data update or verification such as a security code. Recently, locals have gotten calls from “card member services” supposedly offering rate discounts on existing credit cards and seeking account data.These tactics lure victims of potential identity theft, into disclosing personal information (name, birth date, etc.) and credit card number such as to reserve a deal or pay minor initial fees. If shopping or paying bills online, consider doing so only via a secure “https://” page.During holidays with many traveling, there is extra risk of home break-ins. Do not disclose when you will be gone, to a caller or on Facebook, Stout said. This spending season is also prime time for ATM fraud. It is crucial to use a familiar machine, and detect data-skimming devices over real card reader slots or pin pads or thin sleeves or film that trap your card for remote access. Then the crook pretends to help retrieve the card, suggesting to reenter the code — which they see. Real codes are essential for making false cards. Or crooks glance at an ATM user’s password from behind, reflected view or via a video camera.
To fight identity theft, “be extra vigilant” and wary, Stout said. “If it doesn’t sound right, just hang up on them. If you’re not aware where these calls are coming from (IDs on Caller ID can be falsified) and if they are who they say they are, you can say ‘I can’t talk now. Give me your name and number, and I’ll call back in a minute.’”
In the PCHS scam, a reference is a fake IRS phone number manned by cohorts who claim tax fees are required to get prizes. They urged sending money via pre-paid debit cards, to a New York address. Investigators detected scam mail forwarded back overseas, “funneled through New York,” Maj. Stout said. He said culprits were “banging hard” with this scam.
A legitimate organization already has needed data about you, and conducts business mostly in person or by official mail, Stout noted. It helps to visit or call (from bills, not generic letters) the company the suspicious caller purports to represent, especially with prompt payments at stake. Many companies’ fraud investigation units welcome tips, and can verify if phones or websites are truly theirs.
One can provide investigators with evidence by writing down phone numbers and supposed identities of suspicious calls, what was said and asked, to record such calls and retain (not erase) Caller ID logs.
The Sheriff’s Department has pooled data and resources with the FBI, Secret Service, and Postal Service more in the last two months, Stout said. “We do joint investigations and share information to get a handle on this” for prosecution. He added, “We let people know there are multiple scams.”
Maj. Stout warned that with a suspicious caller, “Keep it simple. Do not engage in conversation” to avoid pressure tactics to prove one’s identity. “It can get you sucked in, so quickly,” Stout said. “You’re thinking you’re doing good, helping others this time of year. But they’re pulling information from you.”
Most coveted data includes numbers of checking accounts, credit cards and security codes, and one’s Social Security ID. Small talk can uncover security screen nuggets such as maiden name or favorite pet’s name.
There have been documented cases of door-to-door solicitors claiming they will do repairs and collecting hefty fees up front — but doing little if any work.
Wariness against scams makes it more difficult for legitimate visits or calls, such as for donations or telemarketing. But the resident can ask that offers be mailed, or make the donation locally in person.
Yet one has to also be wary of counterfeit documents of government, business or non-profits mailed, emailed or from linked websites. Stout said there is an upsurge in false websites, and detouring users from usual websites such as via false emails. Computer hackers lure online victims into clicking links by claiming they can get a package meant for them, downloading an image or opening a holiday e-card. Doing so can download invisible hacking “malware” or “spyware,” such as a keystroke logger to detect victim passwords and other vital data typed in. Criminals even “hijack” a PC, using it to shield malware or to send fraudulent emails or viruses.
Further, Stout said, accessing a victim’s computer helps track websites the victim makes payments to. These are ones to masquerade as. “Browser hackers blast out their own cookie to you. It deflects you to their website,” he said. “They take a legitimate website, and recreate their own changing only a letter or adding a dot to the web address. It looks very similar. Check closely to make sure it is the usual site, and a secure company you are very familiar with.” He suggests routinely deleting web browser “cookies” text files of user consumer data for one’s computer. They can trigger a jump to customized pages, such as for products previously bought online. Cookies may be required, to access a legitimate site’s secure server. But they can be reestablished.
“Phishing” is fraudulently gathering personal and financial information for identity theft. One method is to use a bogus email with a link to a counterfeit website such as of money-collecting eBay and PalPal. Spoofing a bank is to collect one’s user name, password and credit card or bank account details supposedly verify identity.
A false credit card might have the culprit’s address, so the victim does not find out until after getting the next billing statement. People should thus promptly report irregularities they detect, in bills or if their card gets jammed in an ATM machine, Maj. Stout said.
To report suspected scams to sheriff’s criminal investigators led by Capt. Lowell Griffith, call 697-4911.