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Your guide to common consumer scams

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Criminals may use different ways to try and get you to give them money. They may pretend to be someone they’re not or make promises that sound too good to be true.

Scams are on the rise – in 2020, the FTC reported 2.2 million complaints of fraud from concerned customers, an increase from 1.7 million complains of fraud in 2019.

There have been reports of many kinds of scams, from pretending to be a bank employee, to an IRS ‘investigation’. Familiarize yourself with some of the more common schemes and find out how to protect you and your family.

Gift card scams

Someone may call you asking for payment for a service they offered, or even just as a favor. Instead of wiring the cash, though, they’ll ask you to buy a gift card and give them the details so they can get it faster.

If you think a gift card is a strange way to pay someone, that’s because it is. Wiring money leaves a paper trail, whereas giving gift card details over the phone doesn’t. Consumers should only purchase gift card for gifts, not payments. If someone insists you pay with a gift card, it’s a scam.

Elder scams

Scammers will use tricks to form close relationships with vulnerable elderly people, before offering to take care of their finances or help them with a big purchase. They can reach their targets through a variety of methods, including telemarketing scams or pretending to call on behalf of a bank.

Be extra vigilant when it comes to phone calls and emails from people and companies you don’t recognize.

Email scams

Whether they’re pretending to be a Nigerian prince or someone who works for Amazon, scammers use emails in different ways to try to get you to part with your hard-earned dollars.

Some messages may claim to be from your bank or an online shopping website asking you to click a link and fill out your details or from money transfer services like PayPal, claiming your account has been compromised and you need to re-enter your information. This is known as ‘phishing’. Others use a sob story to try and get you to send money directly to them. Reputable companies will never ask for such information either via email or over the phone. If you’re concerned about your account, call the provider directly.

Check scams

There are two kinds of check scams to watch out for:

  • Check alteration – a fraudster has got their hands on your check before it can be paid in and made changes to the information, such as adding a co-payee, so they’ll receive some of the money.
  • Overpaid checks – this involves receiving a check for much more than you expected and being asked to refund the difference.

If you think a check looks suspicious, contact the issuer and ask them to send another.

Online purchases

If you find an offer when shopping online that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Look for the same product or service on other websites to get an idea of what the product is worth. Scammers could be promising something they can’t – or won’t – deliver.

When paying for your goods, always make sure you use a trustworthy third-party payment service and don’t pay cash directly. A third party can track your money and may be able to return it in the event something goes wrong.

Charity scams

Someone you don’t know might call on you and ask for donations to a relief fund or another kind of charity. They may pressure you into donating to them personally, rather than elsewhere.

If you do want to donate to a charity, it’s always best to go through the proper channels, such as calling them directly or visiting the official website.

Money order scams

Like the check scams, people can use counterfeit money orders to get cash from you. You may receive a money order in return for something you’ve sold online or be asked to exchange it for cash so the person who gave it to you can avoid paying fees.

You can check with the money order issuer to find out if the money order is genuine.

Lottery or sweepstakes

You may receive a phone call or an email congratulating you on winning a cash prize for a lottery or sweepstakes contest. If you don’t remember even entering that lottery or sweepstakes, alarm bells should be ringing.

The sender will usually tell you that to claim your winnings, you’ll need to send a smaller sum of money for customs or processing. Never send funds to someone you don’t know.

Relative in need

There’s a type of scam where you’re asked to pay money to help a family member who has got themselves into a sticky situation. It could be bail money or a steep repair bill – either way, the relative has asked you to step in and send the cash.

If you don’t hear from them personally, or if something doesn’t add up, don’t send any money.

IRS extortion scam

One of the most stressful scams that people have experienced is being contacted from someone claiming they work for the IRS. They’ll demand money and may even threaten the victim with jail time if they fail to pay. The IRS would under no circumstances do this to anyone.

If you are contacted by someone claiming to be from the IRS, do not give out any personal information. Instead, end the call and ring the IRS directly to check your tax status.

Covid Scams

The situation with the coronavirus has, sadly, made people more susceptible to scams, allowing criminals to use the circumstances to gain an advantage.

Stay on your guard when it comes to messages regarding protection from the effects of COVID, as scams are happening more and more.

Pile of US dollar bills

These might include:

  • Emails or phone calls from impostors who pose as government or healthcare officials engaged in COVID-19 contact tracing activities. They may imply that you must share personal or financial information as part of their contact tracing efforts.

  • Someone advertising products such as face masks and hand sanitizer, who wants the money upfront.

  • Emails apparently from your cable or internet provider asking for your account details.

If you are the victim of a consumer fraud, or spot anything you think may be suspicious, you can report it to the FTC online or by calling the FTC’s Consumer Response Center at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

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