A new identity theft scheme may target your child’s Social Security number, but con artists don’t have to resort to entirely new tactics to execute a successful scam.
“Thieves are very crafty these days,” Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist Denise Richardson says. “They keep updating old scams with new twists.”
As such, it’s always good to brush up the basics. To help you avoid becoming a victim, MainStreet rounded up the most popular scams many Americans can’t seem to avoid.
Counterfeit Cashier’s Check Scam
A cashier’s check is a scammer's favorite form of currency. For starters, it’s hard to trace a cashier’s check or money order to its source. Second, banks identify fraudulent copies less easily than counterfeit cash. In fact, most take seven to 10 business days to determine whether a cashier’s check or money order is actually legitimate. This wouldn’t be a problem if many banks didn’t provisionally clear most cashier’s checks 24 hours after they’re deposited.
Scammers try to capitalize on this discrepancy in a variety of ways, but a popular modus operandi is using a cashier’s check to purchase high-priced items online from sites like Craigslist or eBay. Unwitting sellers cash the counterfeit and, believing it has cleared, send the goods. Days later, the check effectively bounces, turning the auctioned items into stolen property.
An advanced version of this scam involves the “buyer” backing out of the purchase last minute. The catch is, they’ve already paid via cashier’s check and are requesting that a monetary refund be wired to them directly. The seller acquiesces, believing that the check has already cleared. However, days later when the bank contacts them to tell the check was a fraud, it’s too late and they’ve been had.
You may be hip to the fact that you haven’t won $1 million in the Publishing Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is. In fact, according to Shawn Mosch, co-founder of ScamVictimsUnited.com, scammers know most people won’t fall for old tricks, so they target who they think will be the most vulnerable, particularly senior citizens.
One recent variation on the popular lottery scam informed prospective targets that they’d won the Canadian lottery. These “winners” could receive their cash prize only after they paid foreign processing fees, ranging from about $475 to $60,000, which were to be deposited into commercial mailboxes located in Vancouver.
“Any legitimate lottery would deduct these type of fees from your winnings and then issue you a check,” Mosch says. “But in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to think ‘I can have all this money, all I have to is this one thing.”
Scam Alert Scam
Lottery scams can be successful because they play off a prospective victim’s elation. As Mosch puts it, “who doesn’t want to believe that they’ve won the lottery?” However, the scam’s prevalence has made it less of a cash cow these days and scammers are moving on to different emotions. A new trend uses the fear and paranoia evoked by a potential con to actually execute one.
For example, on Monday, Richardson sent out a scam alert after fraudulent order confirmations from Zappos started popping out in people’s inboxes. Scammers were trying to bait victims to click on infected links and find out why they owed the online retailer $928. The recipients’ alarm at being charged for merchandise they didn’t purchase was only compounded by the fact that these e-mails seemed reasonably authentic. After all, they contained Zappos' official phone number and logo.
Similarly, scammers send e-mails from a well-known bank, remit with letterhead and accurate contact information, saying that fraudulent charges have appeared on a customer’s checking account.
“Part of the twist these days is that scammers use legitimate businesses to disguise what they are doing,” Richardson says. “If you ever receive one of these e-mails, contact the institution directly. Don’t respond to the e-mail.”
Similarly, scammers use legitimate nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross, to ask for charitable donations via e-mail. These e-mails may look legitimate, but the philanthropic shouldn’t donate by using the links inside of them. The worst-case scenario leaves them with malicious software designed to damage, disrupt or gather personal information on their computer. At best, they’ll help the scammer and not the intended charity.
“Scammers have programs used to pick up e-mail addresses from people in their target market,” Mosch says. The goal behind charity scams isn’t to get one giant monetary return, but several small ones. “They know not everyone is going to fall for the scam,” she explains.
Jury Duty Scams
The jury duty scam, an old-school con originated in 1995, saw such a resurgence in March that the FBI issued a warning on its website. According to the FBI, communities in Florida, New York, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, California, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Hampshire issued separate warnings about cold calls from people claiming to be court officials seeking personal information for its residents.
The con itself is simple: A scammer calls prospective victims directly to inform them that a warrant is out for their arrest. The reason for the potential incarceration, apparently, is a failure to report to jury duty. Scammers then use their target’s subsequent distress to elicit personal information such as a Social Security number that can sold or used later. In some instances, scammers aren’t after your identity. Instead, they’ll inform you that the warrant can be easily dismantled … for a fee.
Lovelorn Americans aren’t the only one taking advantage of the online dating scene. According to Mosch, con artists sign up for popular dating websites, but unsurprisingly, it’s your money — not your heart — that they’re after. Scammers masquerade as soulmates long enough to ask for a financial loan. Less brazen artists will target daters long-distance then offer to fly out to see them — if they agree to front the money for a plane ticket. Once the money is sent, the scammer conveniently skedaddles.
“Scammers tend to target Christian dating sites,” Mosch says. “They believe those users will be more trusting.”
Another traditional money-making scam that resurfaced recently is FakeGrandkids.com, MainStreet previously reported. Essentially, a scammer calls up senior citizens posing as their grandchild and claiming to be stranded somewhere (often, they say they’re in Canada). They ask the targets to wire some money so that they can get home. Sometimes the scammer doesn’t pose as the actual grandchild, but as a law enforcement officer calling because the relative is stuck in jail.
According to the Federal Trade Commision, complaints about this type of scam are rising as con artists get better at executing it. Oftentimes, they’ll provide exact names and perform deft impersonations to sucker in unwitting relatives.
Mosch points out that this scam (and practically every scam that they mention, really) can be avoided by taking one simple piece of advice: “Never, ever wire anyone money.”
What are some of the other scams targeting seniors? Check out this MainStreet article to find out.
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