A Consumer Action News Alert • December 2020 www.consumer-action.org

 
SCAM GRAM is Consumer Action’s monthly e-newsletter alerting you to the dirtiest players in the world of tech fraud, credit card scams, ID theft, and general con-artistry. Don’t be fooled by liars, cheats, and crooks; wise up with SCAM GRAM!
 

  A sting of their own
 
The good news? Scientists have risen to the occasion and created viable COVID-19 vaccines in record-breaking time, allowing governments around the world to soon pull off what will be the biggest, most lifesaving mass vaccination effort in history. The bad news? Con artists have been following the headlines, and they’re ready to jab the public. We’re here to inoculate you against those who will undoubtedly use confusion around the vaccination timeline and process in an attempt to “sell” you on their own concoction of lies.

The truth is that the Pfizer vaccine passed all administrative hurdles just this weekend (and (and is now being shipped to the U.S..for immediate use), and the Moderna version is expected to follow suit. But getting vaccinated shouldn’t cost you any money: The federal government has prepurchased millions of doses, although supplies will need to be rationed in the early stages, going to healthcare workers and the vulnerable first.

Knowing this, scammers may court you with calls, emails, and texts pretending to be with the CDC or your local health department, directing you to give them money or personal information in order to get “your” dose. The real government will never do this. Another tip? Based on its biology, the vaccine is very fragile and needs to be kept at far below freezing temperatures prior to use to remain effective.

As Operation Stolen Promise 2.0 (the government’s effort to stop COVID-19 vaccine fraud and other counterfeit ‘Rona products) states, the vaccine must be “properly and efficiently distributed through a secure supply chain.” This means the real deal will end up at your local CVS or Walgreens, where it can be kept cold prior to the administration–not on some strange website, online marketplace, or street corner kiosk. And would you really want to inject yourself with a mystery substance mailed to you from a deep, dark corner of the internet?  

  Puppy surprise
 
Whether you’re a singleton living alone and looking for someone to love or a parent in desperate need of a furry friend for your restless child, pandemic-induced social isolation–combined with holiday gift-giving–has pushed more people into attempting to procure puppies. Lots more! The rising demand for dogs and the increasing scarcity of the real deal has resulted in big business for con artists who know how to tug at our heartstrings (and our wallets) with professional-looking websites showcasing fluffy Fidos.

The gutsy grifters are even creating enticing social media ads that appear to come from legit animal rescue organizations! The problem is so widespread that the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has put out an alert summarizing how “the projected dollar loss from these [puppy] scams is expected to top $3 million [by the end of 2020], more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.” The median loss per victim? $750!

The BBB has analyzed the criminals’ changing tactics as well, noting that, whereas scammers before may have asked for money via wire transfer, which could have tipped off would-be victims, they’re now “accepting” payment through popular digital methods, such as Zelle and Cash App. And if you’ve learned anything from SCAM GRAM lately, it’s that scammers follow the news–which is why it’s not surprising to learn they’re also charging buyers “extra” for bogus COVID “vaccinations,” climate-controlled crates, and other such believable nonsense.

(This woman lost over $9,000 to the add-ons!) Worried the seller you’re considering isn’t legit? Check out PetScams(dot)com, where they may already be blacklisted. Oh, and that cute puppy pic you’ve fallen in love with? Do a reverse image search to see if it even belongs to the seller or if it’s been pulled off a breeder’s website. Finally, insist on at least having a live video chat with any seller (and doggo) before forking over hard-earned funds for your new BFF. Even better, check out your local animal shelter for dogs that need a home.  

  Presenting…  
 
This is (not) the way. Forgot to put that $60 animatronic Baby Yoda (sorry, “The Child”) toy in your cart when it was available in early November? Now is not the time to snag one from a rando Mando ad targeting you on social media, lest you meet a fate similar to that of many online shoppers who wrote that they “also made the mistake of ordering the one [Baby Yoda toy] offered on Facebook.”

And while “the pics & description were of this legit toy, including the animatronics,” they “received a cheap rubber hand puppet.” As the BBB points out, con artists have been showcasing the professional photos of in-demand toys, like the talking Baby Yoda, and claiming in pop-up ads in Google searches and elsewhere (even on “Star Wars” knockoff websites) that the toys are underpriced due to “flash sales” and the like.

Don’t buy it! “These are not the Star Wars deals you are looking for,” the BBB banters. In short, buy from a trusted retailer only, and be careful to whom you give your personal and/or financial info. May the force be with you.

Game over. If you think spending nearly $60 for a talking, Force-wielding Baby Yoda is a lot, try snagging a newer gaming console. Whether it’s the pricey PlayStation 5 or the extravagant Xbox Series X, you could find yourself shelling out close to a grand to get your hands on one. In an attempt to caution consumers who can’t grab the console of their choice,

CNN drives home the point that it’s “nearly impossible to buy anywhere,” before explaining (in detail) how “you’ve probably spent many an afternoon frantically refreshing multiple browser tabs to no avail, getting increasingly frustrated at your chances of joining the next generation of gaming.”

This maddening combo of cost, scarcity, and what has become a “robust resale market” driven by unscrupulous bot-wielding buyers has been a boon for criminals, who have designed many an online “shop” to scam the desperate out of their dollars. Unfortunately, as the BBB points out, you’re unlikely to actually receive a package from an unknown “company” selling a major gaming system.

And if you do? It probably “isn’t a gaming console–instead, it’s a valueless phone cover or similar small object,” and subsequent “attempts to contact the company are predictably useless.” Don’t play games with your gifts–learn how to ascertain real sellers from virtual hijinks here.
 
Going once, going twice…Perhaps puppies and PlayStations aren’t really your speed; you’re more of the “grab a gift card and get it over with” type of holiday shopper. As simple as this seems as it should be, gift card giving is not without perils. One good thing about purchasing the plastic in a pandemic, however, is that you’re less likely to grab the card from a rack at your grocery store checkout line, where criminals could have tampered with it and altered or written down important numbers, and more likely to order directly from a retailer’s website–the safest way to go.

And although you might be inclined to buy a card, or bulk gift cards, for less through an online auction site, know that this is where scammers often sell used counterfeit and ill-gotten cards (including those bought with stolen credit cards), or cards that simply aren’t worth as much as they claim. As ScamBusters points out, “Auction gift card scams now pose a much bigger threat than gift cards displayed on public racks in stores.” Yikes!  

  Tips!  
 
Shop smart. So, you’ve read (above) about the massive amounts of gift-related fraud occurring online during the holidays and you’re thinking, “I won’t be a victim, because I buy local.” Think again! Because of the virus, crafty conmen have been going viral with targeted counterfeit “events” that sound like ones you’ve attended in the past, selling worthless tickets to those who would have shopped in person, but must now attend holiday markets and pop-up shops online.

Beware: Typically, real events don’t charge admission. In any case, the best way to protect yourself from bogus charges during the holidays is to use a credit card so that you can dispute the charges if anything untoward occurs (e.g., your card is rung up for hundreds of dollars when you thought all you had bought was one $20 ticket to a virtual market). Credit card companies can also alert you if and when something shady is occurring. American Express, for example offers cardholders account monitoring, online safety protection, and fraud alerts.

Chain of fools. ‘Tis the season for the tried-and-true Secret Sister, the Secret Santa, or some predictable variation of a secret something or other. The con’s out of the bag though: These social media-fueled “gift exchanges” are really just glorified pyramid schemes, which, like the chain letters of yore, promise more gifts, wine, money, etc. to those who forward the offers to more “friends,” yet always fail to deliver (and may even cost you those friends!).

And, well…they’re illegal. The misleading missives may be particularly enticing this year, however, since TIME magazine has now officially declared itas “The Worst Year Ever–and who wouldn’t feel better if “up to 36 gifts” showed up at their doorstep? “If there’s EVER been a year we need random fun presents to come in the mail IT’S 2020!!!!!!” shouts one exclamation-laden, punctuation-missing proclamation.

But like most things in 2020, no good will come of this–don’t make Annus Horribilis even more terrible by passing it along. What’s more, giving your address could make things go from bad to worse. You can do some good, however, by reporting these types of social media posts to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
 
Don’t bank on it. Perhaps it’s because they’re generally less familiar with paper checks, opting instead to use Venmo, Cash App, or the like. Whatever the reason, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that twentysomethings are “more than twice as likely as people over 30 to report losing money to fake check scams.”

It appears scammers are aware of this because they’re specifically targeting college students by pretending to be the students’ professors, even somehow mimicking .edu email addresses, “hiring” the students for various odd jobs, and writing them checks to pay for their work–checks for “too much” money. Check scams always follow this “oops, too much” pattern; the scammer will claim they need money “back.” Anytime you encounter this, it’s bogus!

Yet, sadly, you’ll still be on the hook for the real money that you sent the scammer from your bank account before your bank realized that the check you deposited was no good. Banks have to make the face value of a deposited check available in your account within a few days, but it can take them weeks to figure out it’s a fake. Still, confused? Check out the FTC’s excellent infographic on check scams here. 
 
Seeing the bigger picture. Zoom has been in the headlines a lot recently, and not necessarily for its heartwarming ability to connect people remotely in the cold age of COVID. The video conferencing giant just settled a very public case with the FTC over its failure to properly encrypt user meetings, leading to the infamous “zoom bombings,” as well as the shoddy software it installed on participants’ computers, allowing hackers an “in” through their webcam.

While Zoom is expected to get safer or to get fined by the FTC, the popular company can’t necessarily stop criminals from operating in its name, which is what scammers are now doing–sending emails prompting Zoom users to click on a link that (surprise!) downloads malware to the users’ computers. The emails state that the Zoom account in question has been suspended and must be reactivated, or that a meeting must be rescheduled, or some other such “bait” to get the users to click. But not you–you can zoom in to this article to see the whole picture.

 

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