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Better Business Bureau lists top scams of 2011

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 4 2012 12:30 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The  Better Business Bureau of Utah Tuesday released its list of the most prevalent fraud schemes of 2011, with the Internet and email being key tools used to defraud people.

The top job scam involved emails, websites and online applications that all looked very professional with the candidate even interviewed for the job — usually over the phone. Upon receiving an offer, the candidate is required to complete a “credit report” or provide bank information for direct deposit of their paychecks. However, the online forms are just a ruse to obtain sensitive personal data that can easily be used for identity theft — and, in reality, there was really no job.

Sweepstakes and lottery scams were quite popular as well. The schemes typically indicate that the victim has won a large sum of money, and in order to claim the funds the victim would have to send a smaller amount of money. The year's top sweepstakes scam was an email claiming to be from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announcing that the recipient was the winner of $1 million. These kinds of scams often use celebrities or other famous names to make their offer seem more genuine.

The BBB warned that on the Internet, "it is easy to pretend to be someone you are not." With so much information available online, a scammer could pretend they know the potential victim. Potential victims are prompted to “upgrade your Flash player,” for instance, but the file that is downloaded contains a worm that logs into the victim's social media account, then sends similar messages to their friends and searches for personal data.

The BBB advises, "Next time you see a sensational headline for the latest viral video, resist the urge to peek."

Home improvement scams are always near the top of complaint data and 2011 was no exception, the BBB stated. The schemes usually involve contractors who leave a home worse than they found it. Scammers typically knock on doors with a story or a deal — the roofer who can spot some missing shingles or the paver with some leftover asphalt who can offer a great deal on driveway resealing. The worst are those who move in after a natural disaster, taking advantage of desperate homeowners who need immediate help and may not be as suspicious as they would be under normal circumstances. Reliable contractors can be found at www.bbb.org/search.

Two legitimate companies — Craigslist and Western Union — were used for an inordinate amount of scamming, mostly involving check-cashing schemes. The scams target victims through a Craigslist posting, maybe for a reason like buying an old couch or hiring the potential victim as a secret shopper.

In either situation, the scammers send victims a check for more than the amount owed, then the person is asked to deposit the check into their bank account and send them the difference via Western Union. While a deposited check takes a couple of days to clear, wired money is withdrawn from the victim's account instantly. When the original check bounces, the victim is out whatever money they were wired and still stuck with the old couch.

Another top fraud is “phishing” — when a potential victim receives a suspicious phone call asking for personal information or an email that puts a virus on their computer to hunt for personal data. The most pernicious phishing scam this year was disguised as official communication from the National Automated Clearing House Association, which facilitates the secure transfer of billions of electronic transactions annually. The email claims a transaction did not go through and hopes the recipient quickly clicks on the provided link before thinking it through. The scam may take you to a fake banking site to “verify” personal account information, or it may download malware to infiltrate your computer, the BBB warned.

Of the numerous methods of stealing someone’s identity, one of the most prevalent is one that many hotels are posting warnings about in their lobbies. A guest gets a call in their hotel room in the middle of the night from someone claiming to be the front desk clerk, saying the hotel's computer has crashed and he needs to get your credit card number again, or they must have gotten the number wrong because the transaction won’t go through. Scammers are counting on the potential victim being too sleepy to realize the call is not from the hotel.

One of the top financial scams targeted homeowners. Because the federal government announced or expanded several mortgage relief programs this year, countless look-alike websites popped up last year attempting to trick consumers into parting with their money. Most ask for an upfront fee to help deal with the mortgage company or the government agency, and almost all leave the homeowner in more debt than when they started.

The Internet has also introduced penny auctions as a new way to rip people off. They have become popular because it seems like consumers can get something useful — cameras, computers, etc. — for far below retail price. But the scam charges a small fee for each bid — usually between 50 cents and one dollar — and if you are not the winner, you also lose the bid money.

The BBB reported that although not all penny auction sites are scams, some are being investigated as online gambling and the BBB recommends treating them like gambling in a casino — know exactly how the bidding works, set a limit for yourself, and be prepared to walk away before you go over that limit.

The "scam of the year," according to the BBB, was a phishing scam. Victims receive emails that look like an official notice from the BBB with the subject line “Complaint Against Your Business,” and the instructions tell the recipient to either click on a link or open an attachment to get the details. If the recipient does either, a malicious virus is launched on their computer.

The BBB is working with security consultants and federal law enforcement to track down the source of the emails, and has already shut down dozens of hijacked websites. Anyone who has opened an attachment or clicked on a link should run a complete system scan using reputable anti-virus software. If your computer is networked with others, all machines on the network should be scanned, as well.

For more information on these and other scams, go to BBB Scam Source (www.bbb.org/scam). Sign up for Scam Alerts and learn about new scams as soon as the BBB does. In Utah, visit www.utah.bbb.org or call 801-892-6009 or toll-free at 800-456-3907.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1

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