Major police alert as scammers target seniors for rescue cash, and use banking crisis for phishing
Confusion is a scammer's best friend. They prey on seniors and other vulnerable people who may not be fully switched on to what's happening around them.
For evidence, in this week's roundup of the scam headlines we take the lid off the global scale of so-called grandparent scams, and we show how crooks are also using the current banking crisis as a lever for crime.
We also have reports of a phony Microsoft security update, a new prize-winning trick linked to "miracle cure" pills and a bogus credit con using doctored gift cards.
And then there's the bogus book-seller who tried to scam a police chief's wife.
1. 58,000 cops mobilized to beat grandparent call scammers
The scam: A huge wave of the well-known grandparents scam seems to be sweeping many parts of the world this week, with incidents reported in Japan, New Zealand, the UK and many US states.
The technique is pretty much the same in each case, though the scammer doesn't always pretend to be a grandchild but maybe a long-lost relative. The victim, usually elderly, takes a call from someone who opens with a vague statement like "It's your grandson" or even just "It's me."
Every so often, the victim links the voice to someone they know, replying with something like "Is that you, John?" If so, the scammer has them hooked and goes on to claim they're in some kind of trouble and urgently need to have money wired to them.
In the US, during the past couple of weeks alone, bogus calls are reported in Ocala, FL; Wallingford, CT; various cities in Arizona; Sauk County, WI; St Louis County, MN; and Eldon, MO.
But it's in Japan where the scale of the crime, known as "ore-ore, sagi" (it's me, it's me"), reaches epidemic level, claiming an estimated $320 million so far this year.
Authorities are so alarmed, they order 58,000 police officers to ATMs around the country on pensions payment day to warn seniors as they withdraw their money. And they recruit an army of 10,000 volunteers to warn others.
The solution: As we've said before, it's important not just to be alert to this widespread scam but to warn as many others, especially older folks, as possible.
If you do receive such a call, never fill in the blank by suggesting the name of the caller - ask them to tell you who they are. And always, always, check the story out independently before sending money.
More on the grandparents scam here.
2. It may be Patch Tuesday but this isn't Microsoft
The scam: If you run a PC with the Microsoft Windows operating system, you'll be used to getting messages telling you security updates are available for download and installation. They do it so often that the day it happens has become known as Patch Tuesday.
Microsoft also sends out emails to subscribers detailing security and other updates. But a recent spate of genuine-looking emails carries a deadly payload as an attachment, a piece of spyware called Trojan.Backdoor.Haxdoor.
It's made more convincing by declaring the patch has come from or has been authorized by a named senior Microsoft security engineer. But clicking on the attachment - usually with an official-looking Microsoft Knowledge Base name like KB199250.exe - installs the Trojan, which then opens up the victim PC for hackers to upload more files or steal information.
The solution: Microsoft does not supply updates as attachments. It uses Windows' proprietary automatic update function. Never click on attachments, even from genuine looking messages, unless you are 100 percent sure of the sender.
Read more about attachment dangers here.
3. Banking crisis spurs takeover tricksters
The scam: As you'd expect, the global banking crisis has been seized on by scammers who see an opportunity to make more money out of public misery.
In the latest trick, victims get emails announcing their bank or mortgage has been acquired by another financial institution, and asking them to provide personal information. Of course, it's really a phishing attempt.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Identity Theft Assistance Center (ITAC) say they also expect an increase in refinancing and credit-related scams.
In confirmation, in the Tampa Bay area, FL, five supposed "debt relief" companies, one claiming it can eliminate debts and improve credit scores using a secret process, receive warnings from the state's Attorney General and agree to repay victims.
And in Oregon, a phony banking network organization turns out to be a phony set up, seeking advance fees for arranging non-existent loans. Its postal address is an empty building.
The solution: "Whether it's a natural disaster or a man-made one, criminals prey on the confusion and anxiety that follows to steal your personal information and your money," says ITAC President Anne Wallace. "Our members are working with law enforcement to warn customers to be cautious about mail, email and phone calls they receive during merger negotiations."
On refinancing and equity loan schemes, she advises: "Get the information upfront in writing, and read the fine print. And never give out credit card, bank account or Social Security numbers to someone who contacts you by telephone or Internet."
4. Buy a pill and win a prize
The scam: In an interesting but hardly convincing twist on the lottery or prize-winner scam, victims receive a letter saying they've won a guaranteed prize if they buy a product from the promoter.
Usually, the scammers are peddling vitamins or some kind of "miracle" cure that they sell at grossly inflated prices. But the letter says something like: "The check for £10,000 has already been signed and is waiting to be sent to you."
You might get the pills but you won't get the check.
Despite the obvious nature of the con, plenty of people, mainly in Europe where these particular scammers operate, place orders. Often, there's a "get-out" for the prize money in the small print, and these companies continue to operate on the borderlines of the law.
The solution: Junk mail telling you "you may already be a winner" is not unusual but messages saying you've actually won are almost always a dead giveaway for a scam. And in most countries, it's illegal to insist you buy something before you can collect winnings.
And if miracle cures existed, you'd be probably able to get them through your pharmacy.
We wrote about prize scams in Scambusters issue #10, here.
5. Phony credit cards fool stores and restaurants
The scam: In Vancouver, Canada, fraudsters doctor Visa and MasterCards with an adhesive strip embossed with a stolen credit card number. They tell restaurant cashiers and store clerks that the magnetic strip on the card is not working, so they should just use the (stolen) number off the front.
The solution: Businesses that accept the cards may be liable for the payments they accept from these cards. Cashiers should always ask for proof of ID when a credit card is presented by an unknown customer.
Pick up some useful tips on avoiding credit card fraud here.
6. A quick way to get rid of front door scammers
The scam: Cindy Hayse tries the evasive approach when a scammer calls at her house selling books "to raise money for autism". She tells the caller, who claims to be a neighbor, her husband took the check book with him to work.
The scammer becomes aggressive, insisting the lady must have a box of check books somewhere and, if she has any concern for victims of autism, she should go and get it and hand over the money.
Cindy holds firm and refuses. But maybe she'd have got rid of the caller faster if she'd mentioned she's the wife of Minooka, IL, police chief Doug Hayse.
The solution: Well, if you can't say you're married to the police chief, ask for verifiable proof that vendors are who they say they are. In most places, including Minooka, solicitors must have a license to sell.
Read what we had to say about "neighborly" charity frauds in this article.
Well, that last story shows that no one is immune from would-be scammers. Indeed, in another story we checked out, even the President of the Philippines reported getting scam prize-winning text messages on her cell-phone!