Keep up with the latest trends and warnings in consumer fraud, identity theft and other issues that affect your wallet with this consumer blog. Our bloggers cover fraud, ID theft, credit, cell phones, used cars and other every other topic that affects consumers in today's world. Your comments and questions are welcome.
Article in the Jeff City paper today explains the latest phone scam to hit the city. A recorded message claims to be from Central Bank, one of the major banks in town, asking for account information. T
In a phishing scam, you get an email that looks like it's from your bank, and it asks for personal info (checking account, Social Security #, etc).
Vishing is the phone version of that - you get a call from someone claiming to be your bank or other important group, asking for the info.
With caller ID spoofing, someone makes it appear they're calling from a different number. It's the telemarketing equivalent of wearing a halloween mask of a famous person. In this case, when consumers checked their caller ID, they saw the number for Central Bank.
Technorati Tags: bank account, bank account information, bank account number, called id spoofing, central bank, id theft, identity theft, phishing, phone scam, vishing, moagoconsumer, consumer protection
Little known fact: all going out of business sales in Missouri have to register with the Attorney General's Office. They have 60 days to have the sale, and they have to submit all their inventory with us and agree not to restock after the sale. The idea is, stores can't use a "GOOB" sale as a gimmick to make some quick money. They have to actually be going out of business.
AG Nixon sued an unregistered GOOB sale in Springfield today. It's been going on for 8 months.
Some major national chain restaurants have announced some new technology to prevent your credit card numbers from getting stolen.
- Tabletop swiping of your own card.
- A system that bills your card without your number being stored at the restaurant. Most places now keep either a paper receipt or computer record of your card number in house for billing purposes.
Fraud prevention helps credit card companies as much as consumers, since they write off billions of dollars each year in fraudulent charges. Merchants benefit too, as they end up eating some of those bogus charges. Consumers seldom pay.
One of the nation's largest credit card issuers is going pro-consumer in a couple of its rules. Citi (Citigroup, Citifinancial, Citicorp) is eliminating two common industry practices:
- Universal default - most cardholder agreements say they can raise your interest rate on your card even if you're late on another company's bill (like your phone bill)
- Any time, any reason increases - most agreements allow rate hikes any time for any reason, as the name implies.
Citi says it will only raise rates if you pay them late, bounce a check, exceed your credit limit, or if the prime rate (which they have to pay to their lenders) increases.
Most consumer advocates are happy with the announcement, hope other companies follow, and acknowledge that it's probably being made because the new Congress has credit card companies in its sights.
That's hardly a newsworthy headline, as much consumer fraud comes from our international neighbor to the north. But we saw a scam this week that we haven't seen before: a letter, supposedly from Canada's Department of Justice, tells a Missouri consumer she's been an ID theft victim, she's entitled to lots of money, and she needs to pay court costs of $2000+. Notice some things in the letter:
- The logo at top right is almost exactly accurate - though they're missing an accent mark over the French words. You can compare it to the real Canadian Justice Dept logo.
- LOTS of typos, grammar errors, etc. Scam mailings are notorious for this.
- Signed by someone who is not the current Attorney General of Canada. Signed by someone whose signature apparently looks nothing like his name...
- That crest at the bottom right looks like the authentic arms of Canada (scroll to the bottom of this page).
Goes to show you anyone can make letterhead look official - either in the mail or e-mail.
PS: I called the number and it's disconnected, a recording of a nice Canadian lady informed me.
A Missouri consumer writes:
Would you send me the information for the companies that you mention on your website regarding taking over cell phone agreements to avoid termination fees?
She's referring to the paragraph after the bullet points in his Be a Savvy Consumer column from 2006. There are three companies I know of that allow you to post information online that says you have a wireless contract and you're looking for someone else to take it over. If you can find somebody to do that, you can probably avoid those massive termination fees. I can't vouch for any of these companies - you'll need to check them out for yourself:
Thanks to consumer advocate David Wood of telephonitis.com for the help on this one.
Technorati Tags: cancel contracts, cell phone, cell phone billing errors, cell phone complaints, cell phone purchases, complaints, mobile phone, mobile phone billing errors, mobile phone complaints, mobile phone contracts, mobile phone purchases, wireless phone, wireless phone billing errors, wireless phone complaints, wireless phone contracts, wireless phone purchases, moagoconsumer, consumer protection
Credit cards are in the news big time this week. The new Congress is taking aim at the credit card industry for confusing contracts, high fees, arbitrary interest rate hikes and many other practices that infuriate consumers. Some of these may be familiar to you. A Senate committee Wednesday called at least one frustrated consumer, as well as three credit card executives to testify. USA Today's story on the hearing includes a nice breakdown (on the left) of some typical fees and billing tactics that can turn a modest amount of debt into a monster.
Our post earlier this week mentioned two CC companies that are voluntarily relaxing some billing rules. More companies have announced similar changes in the last 48 hours.
Consumer tip #1: the CC industry is extremely competitive. If you don't like your card's way of doing things or your interest rate, shop around. There are lots of companies out there that would love to sign you up with a 0% balance transfer, a low introductory APR, etc. Just watch out - those low APRs often jump up after six months or so.
Consumer tip #2: Did you know you can opt out of those pre-approved credit card offers you get in the mail?
There was a raid by federal immigration at some state government buildings this week against janitorial workers, and the workers may have used stolen identities to get hired. This would not be unique: other immigration busts across the U.S. in the last year have involved talk of illegal workers using stolen identities of American citizens.
Whether that's true or not, it points out that ID theft is not always aimed at stealing money from the victim. It can be done to get a job, get medical treatment or even to get out of a traffic ticket. We have complaints to our office from consumers who say someone impersonated them during a traffic stop - so the offense shows up on the victim's driving record.
With the weather getting warmer, every consumer advocate in every state will start sounding the warning bells about home repair scams. This is something I don't remember hearing much about before coming to work at this office, but the evidence is overwhelming that this is a real problem. It's the topic of AG Nixon's Be a Savvy Consumer column this month.
We also offer a consumer publication on home repair fraud. And a new feature we offer: a guideline sheet (PDF) for drawing up a written agreement with a contractor. Some companies may not know what to do if you ask for a written contract - they prefer to do business on a "handshake agreement." If that's the case, you can draw up your own contract, and our document will help.
You no doubt heard a lot about gift cards this past holiday season. They were a ragingly popular gift item, but consumer advocates, including this office, warned that there may be fees and limitations in the fine print.
Well, sure enough, in the Federal Trade Commission's first legal action in a gift card case, fees and limitations were the issue. The FTC set its sights on Kmart, which has agreed to give refunds and change its advertising to better disclose that there are some strings attached with its gift cards.
We found that for the most part, individual retailers (say Wal-Mart or Barnes and Noble or Lowe's) have the fewest limitations on their gift cards. The cards with strings attached tend to be "use anywhere" cards, such as gift cards from Visa and Mastercard, or gift cards to malls and shopping centers.
We have written about tax refund anticipation loans in the past, which:
- Have sky-high interest rates - right up there with payday loans - we're talking 300% plus
- Are most commonly used by low-income folks
Now a story in the national media says some of the most common users of RALs are Native Americans. Consider these numbers: About 10% of all taxpayers owed a refund take out an RAL. But among Native Americans in one area, that number is almost six times as high: 57%.
If you're looking at an RAL, the big question is, can you wait two weeks? Instead, consider e-filing with the IRS, which normally gets your return back in 10-14 days. With this route, you avoid the massive interest and fees.
A Missouri consumer writes:
Does the government really give away grants? I am a small business owner, in very much need of a grant for investing in my store. I have been contacted and they said I qualify for 150,000 in grant money. They also said that it was $497 for processing fees. I believe this is a scam, but I want to know if the government does give grants and where I go to apply for one, if there is such a thing.
You are correct, this is scam, in this case asking for $497 in cash up front. There will be no grant.
In other scams we've warned about, the scammer may ask for your bank account or Social Security number. The government does offer grants, but not unsolicited, which is what happened in your case. In this scam, people who never applied for grants are contacted and told they have qualified and there are no strings attached.
The government has a procedure for applying for grants. But you have to go out and find them, apply for them, qualify, and meet lots of obligations.
In a recent phone scam that hit mid-Missouri, crooks were calling people claiming to be from their bank. And they arranged for the phone number of that bank to display on Caller ID. This is fairly easy to do. Now Congress is looking to outlaw it in most cases.
If you're on the No Call list and you're still hearing from telemarketers, those calls may violate state law. More than 100 Missouri consumers complained to us about calls from TracFone, the prepaid wireless company. We just announced a good settlement with them which, among other things, requires they honor the No Call list in Missouri.
There are some exemptions under No Call - charities and companies you're currently doing business with are the big ones. But even those you can tell not to contact you again. If they do, they're in violation and we'd like you to file a No Call complaint.
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An interesting new report is out on computer crime and ID theft. 2 things to point out:
- Of all the financial email spam out there, one third of it was the "pump and dump" scam. Today's Kansas City Star article explains that term. The lesson is that you need to assume any unsolicited hot stock tip is garbage.
- Your info can be sold to an ID thief for a song. Data hackers who steal personal information generally sell it for anywhere from $15 down to one lousy buck.
Reminds me of the old movie Trading Places, where the Wall Street billionaires intentionally destroy a man's life, then bet one dollar on whether he can pull himself out of it. All that devastation, and just one dollar on the line.
As a consumer, ID theft has to be one of the most overwheling topics there is. Daily we are bombarded with news of new threats, products available for protection and horror stories from victims. Well, let me add to that list of threats - but then offer some perspective.
The latest worry comes from photocopiers, most of which made in the last five years have hard drives that store the images copied. And think of all the sensitive documents you've copied over the years -- tax forms, job applications, medical records, etc. etc. And this is a tough one to combat, since usually you're using someone else's copier.
Now here's the perspective: yes, this is a disturbing idea. But your personal information was already greatly at risk, through no fault of your own. There are so many companies and government agencies that hold your info, there's no way you can guarantee they'll protect it.
So this story is just a reminder of the four things you should already be doing to prevent and detect ID theft:
- Following basic ID theft prevention steps
- Checking your bank statements for unauthorized withdrawals
- Checking your credit card statements for unauthorized charges
- Checking your credit report, which you can do for free three times a year. This way, you'll detect any new accounts opened in your name by a thief.
An announcement from AG Nixon today brings up a familiar scenario in ID theft.
Felony charges are filed against a man for stealing and using the identity of his brother. This is not uncommon.
In a little over half of ID theft cases, the victim doesn't even know how his ID was stolen.
In the other cases, you would be surprised how often the thief is someone the victim knows and trusts: family members, roommates, friends, in-home staff like cleaning services and home health workers. In other words, people who have access to your stuff - your files, your computer, etc.
Thus be careful of where and how you store your personal info - you don't need to go overboard, but a small safe or locking box is not a bad idea (and has the added benefit of being fire and water proof). And of course, keep sensitive info protected on your computer with a password. And maybe that password should be in the safe.
Issues in the news recently bring attention to the misfortune that can come to those who are in dire financial straits. The money and debt problems are bad enough, but these consumers often turn to "solutions" that make the problem much worse:
- Payday loans - we've written quite a bit about these
- Tax refund anticipation loans (RALs) - see our blog items
- Advance fee credit cards - federal charges in East St. Louis recently filed against an operator of one of these bogus operations. And AG Nixon shut one down in the 1990s.
- Subprime loans - these have been all over the financial news recently, although you may have missed it because the press tends to put this stuff in business sections and on financial TV programs. A lot of consumers will never go there. Here is the quick story on subprime lenders: They give loans to people with poor credit. These loans tend to be high-fee, high-interest rate and sometimes adjustable. That means the interest rate could skyrocket after a period of time, like 2 years. And now that housing prices are down, people with subprime mortgages are in real trouble, because they may owe more than their house is worth.
- Credit repair scams - if you have bad credit, nobody but you can repair it - by paying your bills and establishing good credit, starting now. We have a consumer publication on this.
Instead, a good first place to turn is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling . This organization can hook you up with a legitimate credit counselor (there are lots of sharks out there). If debt is your problem, some of these counselors will even work for free, negotiating a fee arrangement with your creditors in return for helping get your bills paid.
See pp. 22-23 of our Know Your Rights publication (PDF) for more on all this.
We mentioned the pump and dump scam last week. Then I got a pump and dump spam email over the weekend - here it is. Notice the random sports gobbledygook at the bottom - this is intended to fool the spam filters into thinking it's legitimate email.
>>>> "GSeth Nina" firstname.lastname@example.org 12/31/1999 5:21 PM >>>
Our Last pick Doubled in 48 hours Get in on Energy Bottom Critical C A R E New Sym-CCTI 20 Cents is a STEAL Watch it like a hawk This is a Real Business not a fly by night Get in Monday, Don't Regret later!! him ,000, according to his contract, which was obtained last week by the AP . For once, it was the opposition that did both.
Notes: Iverson's season-high have started to put it together lately, and this was the night it finally all games and eight of their next nine. ''This does a lot for our confidence,''
Consumer in Columbia writes:
I get tons of e-mails that don't make any sense whatsoever. They just babble and literally don't make any sense. Any idea what this is?
There could be one of two things happening. Sometimes spammers will include gibberish consisting of everyday words to try to fool spam filters into thinking it's legitimate e-mail. For example, you might see spam selling a prescription drug, then in paragraph number two it says "Toothpaste exciting calculator enjoy never sedan necktie sauerkraut perspicacity." That part is trying to fool the filter.
The other possibility: what you think is nonsense actually has HTML code in it that talks back to the spammer, telling him he has penetrated the spam filter, reached a real person, and that person has read the email or opened the attachment.
If you want to know way more about this than I can understand, here's an article.
Thanks to new technology, the next time you write a check at a store, it will probably hit your bank account the next day.
The retail and banking industries, as of last week, are going with electronic check clearing. That means when a store accepts your check, it sends it back to your bank electronically, rather than mailing it. You may have noticed retailers using this already - Wal-Mart a while back started scanning paper checks and returning the original to the consumer. The debit is thus made electronically.
Moral of the story: if you have counted on that "float" when writing checks, don't count on it anymore. And as you might guess, there is no similar requirement that banks deposit money sooner into your account. All of this is possible because of a 2-year-old federal law known as Check 21, which drops the requirement that banks keep copies of consumers' original paper checks. One cool feature of the new law - from now on when you get your bank statement, you should see the payee's name listed for each check you wrote.
Some new numbers are out on online and telephone banking.
A couple of surprising things:
First, a third of people who bank online also use automated telephone banking. Many had predicted online banking would be the death of phone banking. Perhaps not.
Second, and more importantly, because of that prediction, many of the security precautions put in place for online banking have not been done for the phone systems. You can see some examples in the above linked article.
If you bank by phone, check to see if your bank's system takes those precautions. We often get the question from consumers, "is online banking safe?" While every system has risks, the short answer is yes, and it's probably safer than the old-fashioned way.
Online banking has a lot of advantages. The more paper you can remove from your life, the better for ID theft prevention. So if you're checking your account status online, you don't need paper monthly statements anymore. Also, your bank is probably going to eat any unauthorized withdrawals from your account. So they have an incentive to keep their system secure. And finally, with online bill pay, the bank usually pays faster, pays electronically (thus less paper), takes responsibility for ensuring your bills are paid and keeps proof of payment. That's far better than most of us can do for ourselves.