You’re careful with personal information, never open suspicious e-mail attachments and shred those credit card statements. You’re confident in your ability to spot a scam, but criminals know it’s only a matter of finding the right bait to make you their catch of the day. Cons, like the ones outlined below, are designed to hook you and your wallet.
- Born to Shop
- The tax “expert”
- “Helpful web sites
- Stuck with a time share
- A model career
- Insider information
- Sharing the wealth
- Home inspectors home calling
- Clean checks
1. Born to shop
The ads for mystery shoppers tout enticing perquisites: Eat free gourmet meals, buy high-end clothes and make up to $60 an hour. You can launch yourself in this fabulous — and fictitious — career for a mere $25 to $60.
Mark Michelson of Michelson & Associates Inc., an Atlanta-based company, warns that the hype is phony. “Shops don’t pay by the hour,” Michelson says.
Mystery shoppers are compensated by the assignment, usually around $15 — and that includes the time it takes to complete lengthy reports. But, hey, that’s not shabby if you consider the pricey merchandise you get to keep, right? Michelson punches a hole in that theory, too. “The merchandise usually has to be returned unless it’s a very small item,” he says.
His advice: If you want to be a mystery shopper, either deal with a marketing company affiliated with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which is a professional alliance, or contact the company you want to work for directly. You can be put on a list mystery shoppers that employers use for free. You should never pay a third party for that information.
2. The tax ‘expert’
Think your tax guy knows what he’s doing? Better be sure. The Internal Revenue Service warns that tax preparers who intentionally cut corners, or are downright incompetent, can land clients in hot water, as well as cost them a bundle. How do you separate qualified preparers from scammers? The IRS has lots of information on its Web site, and Bankrate’s article, ” Checking out your tax preparer,” can help, too.
And, while you’re at it, watch out for computer-based scams like bogus IRS e-mails asking for personal information. Don’t click on those links — the IRS doesn’t operate this way. Instead, agents say you should contact the IRS by telephone when you receive a message.
The latest twist is an IRS mirror site, or a phony Web site that looks exactly like the agency’s home page, but is actually operated by identity thieves. C.J. Fearnley, chief technology officer of LinuxForce and computer security expert, says to be skeptical of everything on the Web.
“Try to get independent corroboration of the site: Use two search engines or multiple known directories,” Fearnley says. He says it’s less likely for a scammer to be listed in multiple locations. For example, a site that shows up on Google but not Yahoo! should send up red flags. A real IRS site would appear on both.
3. ‘Helpful’ Web sites
Enterprising crooks often construct phony, but official-looking, Web sites, particularly in the investment arena. The North American Securities Administration Association offers an example of a bogus regulatory agency that purports to handle fraud complaints. Although such a site looks real, its true purpose is much more sinister — to harvest personal information from gullible consumers. Fearnley says this is another time when doing a comprehensive Web search is imperative.
4. Stuck with a time share
If you a bought a time share and lived to regret it, be forewarned — the outlook for resale isn’t pretty. That market’s slower than a slug on ice, and when the units do sell, it’s usually for a fraction of what the original owner paid.
There’s another whopping negative in the time share resale market, too. Hucksters find desperate owners are easy targets. In fact, many who offer to resell time shares not only don’t sell them, they take owners for a ride by charging nonrefundable upfront fees.
Debra G. Speyer, an attorney with a national practice that specializes in elder law and securities fraud, says, “You shouldn’t be paying upfront money to anybody to sell anything.”
Speyer cautions potential resellers not to sign away their rights until sale proceeds have cleared.
5. A model career
While shopping, you’re approached by someone who says you — or your child — have the look sought by top modeling agencies. While it’s not outside the realm of possibility to be discovered a la Lana Turner, face it — you’d have better odds making the Olympic ice-skating team.
Modeling scams prey on the hopes of innocent victims and their parents. Jon Sorensen, spokesman for New York State’s Consumer Protection Board, says these con artists rely on their victims’ desire for fame and fortune.
“Everyone gets weak in the knees. They think it’s the best thing that ever happened to them.”
The perpetrators make their money by selling expensive photo packages. Another common ploy: holding auditions for talent scouts from multiple agencies. Only thing is, there’s rarely anyone from big-named agencies at these affairs. And naturally, it costs to participate.
Sorensen says the tactics are strictly high-pressure. The defense is simple: “Take a breath and see what’s being promised,” Sorensen says, especially when they try to sell you picture packages. “The portfolio in the real modeling world is a collection of photos from various jobs. What they’re offering is multiple studio shots.”
Beginners only need a head shot — something Sorensen says the average person can take at home. For more information, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s warning on modeling scams.
6. Insider information
If you believe in the tooth fairy, you’ll love that “misdirected” e-mail or instant message with unsolicited insider information on a company that’s about to take off.
“The only sure policy is to assume that anything that comes via postal mail or e-mail is a scam and to seek independent verification,” Fearnley says. These messages have two things in common: There was no accident involved in sending them and their intent is to get you to buy the company’s stock.
Hit the delete key.
7. Sharing the wealth
From penny-ante soliciting — think those cans at the cash register — to boiler-room operations that rake in millions, raising money for charity can be extremely profitable. At least for those doing the fundraising.
For example, have you ever been pressured to buy a photo package from your local volunteer-rescue or -fire department? Chances are, there’s a professional fundraiser behind it. The ploy: A fundraiser sells a one-time portrait door to door. The portrait is usually very reasonably priced and the selling tactics are pretty high-pressure. When you show up to pick up your photo, you are pressured into buying a big, expensive package. While it’s perfectly legal, you might be dismayed to know how little the charity receives. Unless you really want the photos, ask what percentage the organization gets. In many cases, it’s pennies on the dollar.
Some charities exist only as fronts for fundraisers, spending next to nothing on charitable works. Speyer says you should check on the charity’s cut by asking to see it in writing.
Experts say you should never do business over the telephone with someone you don’t know unless it’s a call you originated. If there’s a pitch you can’t resist, tell the caller to send you the information in the mail. Otherwise, says Speyer, “hang up the phone.”
And those donation cans sprinkled around town? Although some may be legitimate, many are not. Ask the proprietor what he or she knows about the charity before dropping in your spare change.
The best policy is to cut out the middle man and give money directly to charities you believe in, particularly local ones. For national charities, check the Better Business Bureau’s charitable alliance at www.give.org.
8. Home inspectors come calling
It’s a scam the elderly often fall for: A “home inspector” is passing by and sees that your roof is leaking. He and his helper offer to take a quick look, and one of several possible scenarios unfolds — while you’re occupied with one, the other relieves you of your valuables, or a quick spray with a concealed water bottle makes for instant “water damage.” In the second case, the hustler offers to fix your roof, nails on a few shingles, cashes your check and is gone before you realize you’ve been had.
Says Rob Paterkiewicz, executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, or ASHI, “Any individual who is going door to door professing to be a home inspector is not someone you should let in your house.”
In fact, experts warn that you should never do business with a stranger who knocks on your door. And, although states differ in their regulations and standards, reputable home inspectors don’t solicit business this way. You can check out home inspectors through their professional organizations. The ASHI Web site at www.ashi.org is a good place to start.
9. Clean checks
If you pay your bills using paper checks, don’t stick them in your personal mailbox and raise the proverbial “red flag” for pickup from a postal worker. It’s far more likely to attract the wrong person.
Instead, mail your bills at the post office. Even better — pay bills electronically or by bank draft.
Check washers, who often work in gangs, target the homes of people who leave mail in their boxes. In the past, they’ve stolen envelopes containing checks, removed the ink from the “payee” and “amount” portions, upped the amount and cashed the forged checks. Since they preserve the original signature, the check looks valid to the bank.
Lynne Variano, a board-certified forensic document examiner and expert, says there’s a new twist to this con. Instead of reusing the washed check, criminals obtain the account and routing numbers from the victim’s checking account and print phony checks, using print stock that can be purchased at any office supply store.
Variano says that in addition to paying bills online, there are ways to help keep your account secure. “Know who you are giving your checks to,” she says, “and treat checks like you do credit cards.”
Many victims don’t realize they’ve been ripped off until they receive either a bank statement or a past-due notice.
It only takes one bad decision to leave your wallet flatter than a flounder. Before you click on a link, sign a contract or accept any offers, be suspicious, ask for references and never agree to anything without thinking it over. Make it a nonnegotiable rule to discuss pending financial moves with someone you trust — your lawyer, banker or even a savvy friend or relative.
Develop a protective layer of skepticism to make yourself a tougher target for cons.