Financial scams, new and old, try to trap consumers

By By Claudia Buck

The Sacramento Bee (MCT)

Published: Monday, Sept. 16 2013 9:25 a.m. MDT

Vice President Joe Biden, accompaned by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz, announces that companies promising over the phone to reduce your credit card or other debt can't charge you a fee until they do their job, in this Thursday, July 29, 2010, file photo.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Hang up, shut it down or toss it out. That’s the advice for consumers amid a new wave of financial scams circulating by phone, mail and online.

Some are seasonal, tied to what’s in the news, like Obamacare. Others are perennials that seem to sprout up regularly.

Regardless of how they arrive, they’re highly bothersome, if not potentially financially disastrous. Here are some that have been making the rounds lately:

‘MEDICARE’ CALLING: Four days in a row last month, the same early-morning calls woke up Corin Gomes’ 85-year-old mother. Each time, the caller asked her to “verify” personal information, including her name, age, address and bank account number, in order to receive a free medical I.D. card for seniors. The caller, claiming to be from Washington, D.C., said the new government-issued card would cover any medical expenses not covered by Medicare.

Recovering from a stroke, the Elk Grove, Calif., resident wasn’t sure how to respond. That’s when Gomes took charge of the 6 a.m. calls, which she quickly determined were coming from a cellphone in South Florida, not the nation’s capital. She also discovered the company, GMY, had been flagged by the Better Business Bureau in multiple states.

On the company’s fourth call, Gomes picked up the phone. “I told them to never call back again. They were arguing with me: ‘But we’re trying to protect her against unscrupulous people!’ ”

It’s a common scenario.

“We probably get at least a call a day about Medicare (scams),” said Cailin Peterson, spokeswoman for the Northeast California Better Business. Sometimes the caller claims to be from Medicare and needs to update personal financial information, such as bank account or Social Security numbers. Others promise new benefits or services that require confirming personal data.

“It’s been around awhile but we’ve seen an increase with the Affordable Care Act coming into play,” said Peterson. “There are a lot of scam phone calls about Obamacare. They tell people: ‘It’s coming; be sure you’re signed up; we need your bank account so we can put money in to pay for your health care.’ ”

Consumer complaints about fraud attempts tied to health care reform became more apparent in 2012, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which issued a warning about health care scammers earlier this summer.

Peterson’s advice: Hang up on unsolicited callers who ask for your bank account information. Do not accept offers of “free” medical services, medic-alert bracelets or other items in exchange for your Medicare number. Always remember: the “government” will not call, text or email to ask for your Social Security number or address. (It already knows.)

TECH SUPPORT ‘HELP’: Another fraudulent phone ruse is callers who claim to be from a “Microsoft tech support” or a “Windows help desk” team, saying they need to resolve a computer problem, update your customer account or install a security fix. What they really want is to nab your credit card info, install malware to steal your user name/passwords, or gain remote access to your computer.

Jane Knight’s father, a 91-year-old former math teacher, fell for a phony Microsoft call this summer, handing over his computer passwords, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name and credit card numbers. The caller, sounding professional and thorough, said Microsoft was checking for a computer virus, which required confirmation of passwords and other details. There was also a fee for the so-called “service.”

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.

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©2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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