If it walks like a scam and talks like a scam ...

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There are many ways you can tell communication is a scam. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:

1. If the offer sounds too good to be true. Some consumer advocates say “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” I replace “probably” with “always.” You did not inherit money from a distant relative and you didn’t win the third prize in the Publisher Clearing House Sweepstakes.

2. If whomever contacts you insists you act NOW. Scammers want to get you off-balance so you stop thinking. Either you will lose a great sum of money OR you will immediately suffer a grievous calamity — like getting arrested.

3. If the area code of a caller is one you don’t recognize. If you have access to the internet you can always Google the area code. (Hint: the Internal Revenue Service does not call — EVER — and they certainly don’t call from Beaufort, North Carolina!)

3. Accents and language usage. Accents are not necessarily a great indicator of a scam. On the other hand, if your company is legitimately selling a good or service by phone, it would make sense to have your callers, or your employees, speak clearly in a very understandable manner. When on the topic of language, I’ve noticed some very identifiable characteristics that many scam callers share. For example, you may get a call informing you, “There are serious charges pressed against you.”

Use of the word “pressed” is very British. It indicates that the speaker’s native language is not American English.

4. Background noise and sounds. Many scammers call from “boiler room” operations, 10, 20 or more callers contacting random numbers attempting to hook consumers into revealing personal information, or causing consumers to provide information so that the scammers can steal from the consumers’ credit cards or bank accounts.

LESSON: If you notice any of these signs of scams, hang up, throw out the letter or delete the email. You won’t be scammed. You won’t lose money and, you will sleep better.

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GARAGE SALE GIFT CARDS: A consumer told me about a new scam, a local one. Honestly, it’s not often someone tells me about a scam that’s new to me. Here’s what happened:

The consumer was at your typical weekend garage sale. The garage sale had some high-end stuff. A guy pulled up, looked around for a few minutes and made a lowball offer on a very nice dining room set. The seller and the would-be buyer talked price for a few minutes and finally agreed on an amount. The buyer (read: scammer) then offered half the agreed upon price in money and the other half in gift cards.

The seller was considering it when the savvy consumer (and avid reader of this column) suggested that the lady selling the dining room set may not want to accept gift cards as partial payment because she had no idea how much money was remaining on each of the $100 cards. There might have been a couple of dollars left, thereby cheating the seller out of the price she had agreed upon.

•••

“IRS” DOING TRIPLE DUTY: A quick tip. I don’t know why, but the old IRS scam — “We’re Coming to Take You Away” — was reported to me more than 50 times last week. Don’t fall for it. Just hang up.

If the IRS wants to communicate, they’ll write you a letter. One young mother was told that the “agent” had her house under surveillance as they were talking and that if she was arrested, her children would be immediately taken into custody by the Department of Children and Family Services. Fortunately, she called me.

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YOUR “CHECK ENGINE” LIGHT: Ignore it at your peril! In a number of TV sitcoms the characters, often when asked about the check engine light flashing, remark “Oh yeah, the tape fell off of it.”

That might be funny on TV, but in real life ignoring a check engine light can have expensive and/or highly inconvenient consequences. One consumer related a story where a driver ignored the light flashing on the dash. Not long after, the entire transmission of the vehicle needed to be replaced.

Remember: Funny on TV might not translate well into real life.

•••

SOCIAL SECURITY ACCOUNT SUSPENDED: Many people are living on their Social Security. If your circumstances are similar, you’ll appreciate the panic it caused one consumer when she got a recorded call from a scammer posing as a representative of the Social Security Administration, informing her that her Social Security account would be immediately suspended unless she returned the call, within six hours, to the number provided by the scammer. She did call the number provided and guess what the first questions were? You guessed it!

The scammer wanted her full name as it appears on her Social Security card, her address, the bank account routing and account number used to receive her monthly payment, and her birthdate — all to “verify” her identity before they could talk with her about the suspension. The scammer was attempting to gather all her personal information as the first step in an identity or financial scam.

This lady was sharp. She had made up an entire identity to provide scam callers. She kept it by the phone and has provided it to scam callers over a dozen times. As she told me, “I’m a shut-in and everybody needs a hobby.” (P.S. — She’ll turn 90 on her next birthday!!!)

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YOU MAY BE A SCAMMER (and not know it): Once your Facebook account is hacked and the scammer can sign into Instant Messenger as YOU, they send out instant messages to everyone on your friends list. Usually these instant messages inform your friends that you have just received a completely free government grant amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The instant message then goes on to urge your friends to immediately call a special number. You won’t even know you’ve been used until your Facebook friends call you.

Hopefully they’ll only laugh at you and tell you that you’ve been hacked. If they’re less lucky and more gullible, they could lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

LESSON: Don’t trust any instant message you get — call your friend or relative and verify what you received from them on Instant Messenger. Also, CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS, at least every 90 days (and don’t use simple passwords like “1234.”)

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REMEMBER BILL: “He’s On Your Side”

•••

I have many more tips and interesting cases that I’m working on. Call me at (208) 699-BILL. You can follow me at www.billbrooks.us. I am available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups. Bill Brooks is a consumer advocate who lives in Coeur d’Alene with his proofreader, Bobbi (who is also his wife).

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