Financial scams, new and old, try to trap consumers

By By Claudia Buck

The Sacramento Bee (MCT)

Published: Monday, Sept. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Knight, a Sacramento, Calif., nutritionist, said it was an ordeal that took weeks to resolve, complicated by the fact that her father lives in Southern California. Concerned about potential identity theft, the family had to cancel his credit cards, close his bank account, change his automatic deposits for Social Security and pensions, as well as shut down his computer and erase the hard drive.

On a website page devoted to warning consumers about such phony “tech support” scams, Microsoft says it never makes “cold calls” to offer computer security or software fixes. It warns customers to “not trust” phone solicitors and never give out credit card information, provide computer access or pay for any tech-support services.

‘UNLOCK’ YOUR COMPUTER: You’re sitting at your computer and a screen pops up, purportedly from the FBI, National Security Agency or Department of Homeland Security. It says your computer has been locked due to illegal activity, such as downloads of copyrighted videos and music or pornography. In some instances, consumers are directed to pay a $300 fee to “unlock” their computers, using a prepaid money card, such as GreenDot.

It’s a scam known as “ransomware,” which is essentially a ploy to extort money from gullible consumers.

“The government is not going to lock your computer over this issue, nor are they going to require anyone to wire money to pay a fine,” said BBB’s Peterson, who said this scam has recently hit both PC and Mac computer users.

If you’ve been targeted by online fraudsters, contact the legitimate company that’s been spoofed, such as Microsoft Corp., or report the incident to the federal Internet Crime Complaint Center at IC3.gov.

PROPERTY DEED ‘COPIES’: It comes in an official-looking envelope with a government-sounding letterhead. In big, bold letters, it calls itself a “Deed Processing Notice,” alerting homeowners that a property deed in their name was recently recorded by their county recorder’s office. It gives a brief description of the property, including address, year built, square footage and parcel number.

The notice urges consumers to obtain a copy of their property deed and includes a “compliance response date,” the deadline for sending in an $83 check. It’s payable to a vaguely named company, Record Transfer Services in Wilmington, Del.

“We’ve had a number of frantic calls (about these) the last couple of months,” said Sacramento attorney Heather Chubb, who has had several clients receive the notices by mail.

Chubb says they appear to be triggered when clients have made a change to a property deed, such as retitling their home as part of a living trust.

It’s a variation of the “grant deed copy” scam that’s been around for years, according to California real estate officials. Scammers can easily troll the public records at county recorders’ offices, looking for potential targets.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” said Tom Pool, spokesman for the California Bureau of Real Estate. “Depending on what is occurring in the (real estate) market, marginal players look to make a buck. Today it’s the ‘You-need-a-copy-of-your-deed’ ploy. … As more resales and real estate transactions occur, there’ll be even more of a target-rich environment to tap.”

Although clearly trying to entice unknowing consumers into paying an unnecessary $83 fee, the notice itself may not be illegal. It clearly states that homeowners can obtain a copy of their property deed — for a nominal fee — from their county recorder’s office. It also says it is “not a bill” and that “you are under no obligation to pay the amount.”

That kind of terminology is required under California business laws. But, Pool and others say, consumers could easily mistake the notice as a bill and send in a check.

Best advice: Ignore the notices. Better yet, shred and forget them.


©2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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