This month, the Connecticut Better Business Bureau released its top 10 list of scams for 2012, and neither donors, job-seekers, the elderly nor financially distressed consumers were immune.
“Everyone is a consumer and consumers are all targets for scammers,” according to Paulette Scarpetti, Connecticut Better Business Bureau president. “Many of these types of fraud have been around for many years; however, consumers have to be more vigilant than ever to avoid becoming a victim of today’s technology-savvy scammers.”
Although the Better Business Bureau handles complaints against identifiable individuals or businesses, the BBB system is able to collect data about scams from various sources, including consumers and federal agencies.
It is difficult to quantify the “biggest” scams in terms of the number of victims or amount of money involved because many of the crimes go unreported or are underreported. The list is made up of the ones that were most prevalent and egregious during 2012.
Scam of the Year: Phony Newtown Charities
Within hours of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, social media pages dedicated to the child victims began cropping up, and some of them were scams asking for money. The FBI has already arrested one woman for posing as the aunt of one of the children killed, and state and federal agencies are investigating other possible fraudulent and misleading solicitations.
Although the number of people defrauded and total dollars stolen by these phony appeals is most likely low, the audacity of the scheme merits its selection as the “Top Scam of 2012.”
Top Home Improvement Scam: Sandy ‘Storm Chasers’
Following Super Storm Sandy, tree removal, roofing and general home repair contractors started showing up in neighborhoods looking for work. Some were legitimate, while others were unlicensed, uninsured and ill-prepared for the work, or simply took a deposit and disappeared.
Top Overpayment/Fake Check Scam: Car Ads
The online ad says something like “Get Paid Just for Driving Around” — a prominent company is offering $400 or more per week if you’ll drive around with their logo all over your car. The scammers send you a check to deposit and ask that you wire a portion to a graphic designer who will customize an ad for your vehicle. The check inevitably bounces, the wired money disappears and the “graphic designer” is nowhere to be found. The FBI’s Internet Complaint Center, ic3.gov, says it saw this one a lot in 2012.
Top Employment Scam: Mystery Shopping
Many of these job offers are nothing more than a variation on the Overpayment/Fake Check Scam (above). Sometimes they even tell you that evaluating the wire service company is part of the job, which is why you are told to send back part of the money.
Top Emergency Scam: Relative in Distress (Grandparents) Scam
A grandchild/niece/nephew/friend is traveling abroad and calls/texts/emails to say he or she has been mugged/arrested/hurt and needs money to be sent by wire transfer right away. Social media have made it easier for scammers to tell a more plausible story because they can harvest real facts from the supposed victim’s online profile.
Top Advance Fee/Prepayment Scam: Nonexistent Loans
Most of the scams in this category advertise online and promise things like no credit check or easy repayment terms. Then the hook: You have to make the first payment up front, buy an “insurance policy,” or there is some other kind of fee required in advance to secure the loan.
In a new and aggressive twist, scammers threatened consumers with lawsuits and arrest if they didn’t pay back loans they never even took out in the first place. Some con artists contacted relatives and employers, and victims paid up, even though they didn’t owe the money, in order to avoid the embarrassment of being thought of as a delinquent.
Top Phishing Scam: President Obama Will Pay Your Utility Bills
At the peak of summer with utility costs soaring, consumers got emails, letters and even door-to-door solicitations about a “new government program” to pay their utility bills. Victims “registered” with an official-looking website and provided all of the personal and financial information the criminals needed to commit identity theft.
Top Sweepstakes/Lottery Scam: Jamaican Phone Lottery
This is an old one that flared up again this year. The calls come from Jamaica (area code 876), although the person claims to represent a company, the FBI or other trusted source. They tell you you’ve won a terrific prize (typical haul: $2 million and a Mercedes-Benz) but you have to pay a fee in order to collect your winnings.
Top Identity Theft Scam: Fake Facebook Message, Texts and Tweets
You get a direct message through Twitter or text from a friend that mentions an embarrassing video or photo of you on Facebook. In a panic, you click on the link to see what it could possibly be, and you get a pop-up error message that says you need to update Flash or other video player. The link downloads malware that can steal confidential information from your computer or smartphone.
Top Sales: Real Stars, Fake Goods
Sports memorabilia and phony tickets always make the list of top counterfeit goods. Counterfeiters profited by using the Super Bowl, World Series and London Olympics to sell cheap knockoffs. Some online scam sites just took credit card information and never delivered anything.
The Better Business Bureau this past year launched two websites to help consumers figure out which offers are real and which ones are possibly frauds:
BBB Smart Investing (bbb.org/smartinvesting) was developed in partnership with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, and informs consumers about investment fraud, Ponzi schemes and risky investments, and helps them assess their risk, check out brokers, and avoid getting taken.
BBB Scam Stopper (bbb.org/scamstopper), developed with Western Union, educates consumers about the major types of wire transfer scams and provides information on how to avoid and report them.
The BBB says the bottom line is that it is crucial to research all charities, businesses, contractors, and websites before signing a contract or handing over credit card information. In addition, be wary of any unsolicited email, text or telephone call that supposedly comes from a financial institution, government agency or business and asks for personal or financial information.
For more information, visit bbb.org or call 203-269-2700.