Archive for the ‘Federal Agencies’ Category

Job hunters must beware of these new perils

Posted May 09, 2016, at 9:21 a.m.

As anyone who reads this column knows, we don’t like scam artists. But we really don’t like crooks who try to take advantage of people trying to make an honest living.

The latter group includes people who are job hunting. And the scammers include people who pretend they are pre-screening people for large employers.

Say you’re thinking of relocating to the Bay State in hopes of finding a job with state government. An item on Craigslist reveals “State agencies in Massachusetts offering new career opportunities.”

Light on generic advice, the website you reach provides only links to state human resources offices. The site is littered with ads for work-at-home “jobs,” career counseling and high-return annuity investments. These are all for-profit ventures of the advertisers; applicants’ results may vary.

Scam artists have made a bundle by pretending to perform pre-screening of job applicants. They often set up a website claiming that large employers are looking to do lots of hiring. The way to get in is to schedule an interview.

You do that, only to find that the “interview” is just a way for the “pre-screener” to gather information for its real clients. They, in turn, will hit you with a sales pitch. You might be asked to enroll in a college or a career training program.

The process is called lead generation, a legitimate business practice unless the lead generator wasn’t truthful about what it was doing.

The Federal Trade Commission recently settled charges against Gigats.com, which also did business under the names Expand Inc., EducationMatch and SoftRock Inc. {Google Search Results for FTC and Gigats}

Federal investigators determined that the operators of Gigats.com had gathered online job postings by multinationals, government agencies and other employers and summarized them on its website.

Most job listings were not current. Of those that were current, most had not been authorized by the employers. Gigats then allegedly steered applicants toward enrolling in education programs that had paid the defendants for consumer leads.

The FTC says many consumers also were referred to “education advisors” who claimed to be independent but steered people only toward the schools and programs that had agreed to pay the defendants. For leads meeting their education requirements the schools and programs paid $22 to $125 each.

The FTC also says the defendants never sent the information they collected to any employers.

The proposed court order hits Gigats with a $90.2 million penalty. The bulk of the penalty will be waived if Gigats pays $360,000. But the full judgment will be due right away “if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.”

The Maine Department of Labor’s Career Centers throughout the state have resources to help people find jobs and employers find workers at mainecareercenter.com or call 1-888-457-8883 Mon.-Fri. 8-4:30.

Maine state government has a website to help job seekers create a profile and find work in state government or in the private sector at maine.gov/portal/employment/jobs.html.

Both are free.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to detect scammers posing as government agents

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted May 02, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

It has been nearly 10 years since a phishing scam targeted Social Security recipients. That followed announcement of a 3.3 percent cost-of-living increase.

As with many other messages asking consumers to reveal their personal information, this attempt was pegged to a headline. Following details of the increase, copied from a genuine Social Security Administration, or SSA, news release, the crooks inserted their falsehood: “We now need you to update your personal information” or see your checks stop.

Instructions to “confirm your records” by clicking a link only took victims to a bogus website, where many surrendered personal and financial information, including Social Security numbers, bank account and credit card information.

The thieves used that data for their own gain.

SSA officials reacted then as they have recently, with reminders that the agency never asks for personal or financial information by email or over the phone. Such attempts to get your information are always scams.

The agency urges consumers to do the following:

— Never divulge a Social Security number or account number to someone who calls or emails.

— Never wire money using a prepaid debit card, and never pay anyone who calls “out of the blue.”

— Check their status of disability benefits (if you have them) regularly and review your statements to be sure they’re correct.

If you’re called and pressured to provide information, perhaps by someone saying he or she is with law enforcement or other authority figure, hang up and report the call to the Social Security Fraud Hotline (1-800-269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Report suspicious activity to the Social Security fraud unit online at oig.ssa.gov/report and to the Federal Trade Commission at ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1. The FTC can’t resolve individual complaints but can advise what next steps a consumer should take.

Medicare recipients also are frequent targets of scammers. Callers from “Medicare” tell consumers they need to verify information because new cards are being issued.

“Medicare will never call you asking for personal information,” said Betty Balderston, statewide coordinator for the Maine Senior Medicare Patrol at Legal Services for the Elderly.

While Congress has ordered that Social Security numbers no longer be used on Medicare cards, the change won’t be fully implemented for a few years.

“In the meantime, Medicare consumers should continue to protect their Medicare numbers, just as they protect their credit card and bank account information,” Balderston said.

In the past, we’ve advised consumers to take Medicare cards during an initial visit to a health care facility; from then on, take a photocopy with your Social Security number blacked out; that avoids the need to carry your card which might get lost or stolen.

Another recent hoax email urged recipients to “get protected” and touted ways to help monitor your credit report and warn you of unauthorized use of your Social Security number. Both are lies, designed to prompt your click on links that might download computer malware or divulge your data.

You may spot a scam attempt by hovering your cursor over the address link of the fake email. That likely will show an address ending “.com,” instead of “.gov,” which it should.

If you found the message in your spam folder, ask yourself if your email program didn’t catch the fraud attempt and divert the message appropriately.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com

Risk usually outweighs reward with payday loans

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 28, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Just two weeks ago in this column we wrote about some debt collectors who bend rules or break laws. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission warned that some collectors are trying to capitalize on bogus payday loans.

A payday loan is a cash advance given to a consumer. The consumer hands over a check or agrees to have a deposit account debited. Either transaction takes place at a future date when, the theory goes, the consumer can repay the loan plus interest.

Those short-term loans tend to carry high interest rates. In Maine, a supervised lender license is required, and lenders cannot charge more than $25 on a loan of $250 or more. If a consumer can’t pay back the loan — often due in two weeks — it might be renewed, incurring another $25 fee. If the loan were renewed every two weeks for a year, the consumer would pay $650 in fees on that $250 loan.

Unscrupulous lenders don’t bother with licenses or with obeying the state and federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Acts. The FTC last week alerted state regulators nationwide that several companies either are trying to collect nonexistent loans or that they’re trying to collect on loans that were never turned over to any third-party collector.

The FTC alert stated that some suspicious portfolios of alleged payday loan debts have surfaced in the debt collection marketplace. Third-party collectors buy portfolios and try to collect, often at pennies on the dollar. Buyers of phony debt are violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Federal Trade Commission Act or both.

The FTC said it has learned third-party collectors are trying to collect loans allegedly made by USFastCash, 500FastCash, OneClickCash, Ameriloan, United Cash Loans, AdvantageCashServices, and StarCashProcessing.

The servicer of debts owed those firms, AMG Services, has told the FTC that none of the above companies’ loans were placed with or sold to any third parties for collection.

Last week’s alert was directed at people in the debt collection industry.But consumers who get threatening calls about money they supposedly owe to one of the above online lenders — or about any debt — should verify what they’re told.

Consumers have the right to dispute a debt and request verification within 30 days of getting written notice of the debt. Until the collection agency sends proof that you owe the debt, it has to stop trying to collect.

People at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection can answer specific questions. Call them at 1-800-DEBT-LAW (1-800-332-8529) or visit online at Credit.Maine.gov. At the website, you can find the Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection or request a copy by calling the Bureau.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Tax season brings out worst phone scammers

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted March 21, 2016, at 9:35 a.m.

“Hi, I’m calling from the Internal Revenue Service to verify some information on your income tax filing. Just to be sure I have it right, could you tell me…”

The caller may give you a phony name and badge number and may have spoofed the phone number to make it appear you really were getting a call from an IRS office. But it was just one of the nearly 900,000 phone scam attempts reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration since October 2013. The agency says it knows of more than 5,000 victims who have been tricked out of more than $26.5 million in such scams.

The tricksters are successful because they play on our fears. We might fear being sent to prison, being deported or having our credit score lowered. Scammers have no power or legal authority to do any of those things, but the threats still concern us.

They concern seniors and students, especially. Seniors are frequent targets because they’re generally home, they answer the phone and they tend to be a bit more trusting than younger people.

Crooks target students with phony IRS threats and with offers to help “fix” their student loan situations. Don’t pay an upfront fee for something you can probably do for free.

Once the offer or threat is made, the punch line amounts to “pay up or else.” Do so by wire transfer or prepaid debit card — untraceable and not recoverable. Several scammers might call to make you think their story is real. Once you send the money away, it’s gone, straight into the pockets of the crooks.

The IRS estimates that phishing schemes have gone up 400 percent just this year. The agency — indeed, all legitimate businesses and government entities — do not do business by calling first. If they call at all, a real business or agency will leave a message, giving you a chance to verify the correct phone number to call.

That last point is important, of course, because of scammers’ ability to spoof phone numbers, fooling caller ID systems that may display a genuine business or government number. The crooks are really calling from disposable cellphones, but only they know that’s the case.

Impostors use our emotions in other ways, too. Concern for family or friends kicks in when we get a call that someone has been in an accident or was jailed while in a foreign country. A call to someone close to the supposed victim can determine the truth. Wiring money based on a single phone call usually ends up benefitting only a scam artist.

One last major group of impostors pretends to be from “Microsoft technical services” and says your computer needs fixing. They’re not, and it doesn’t.

They’re looking to have you press the combination of keys that turns control of your computer over to them, so they can download viruses or other malware and hold your computer for ransom. When they call, just hang up.

Today’s scammers might also use old-fashioned trickery. Some impersonate municipal workers, “checking water lines” or using other ruses to get inside your home. If you did not call for the service being offered, don’t open the door. If the scammer refuses to leave or pressures you, call 911.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Naughty debt collectors draw consumers’ ire

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted March 14, 2016, at 12:17 p.m.

Roll two of America’s top consumer complaints into one, and the result might wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I am a phony debt collector.”
The Federal Trade Commission just released its annual list of consumer complaints. Debt collection topped the list, and imposter scams came in third. Together, the two categories accounted for roughly 1.2 million complaints, 40 percent of all complaints the FTC received in 2015.

Nationally, the FTC last year increased its effort to protect consumers from illegal debt collection practices. The agency coordinated a federal-state-local effort called Operation Collection Protection; through that program, more than 130 legal actions were brought. The FTC brought 12 actions against 52 defendants, and permanently barred 30 companies and individuals from the debt collection industry. The agency said in a recent statement that it obtained almost $94 million in judgments against debt collectors.

Among the bad practices that have drawn fire from regulators in recent years are these:

— One big bank robo-called a couple 700 times over four years and followed up with letters threatening foreclosure; a judge ordered the bank to pay the couple $1 million.

— A Georgia firm collected $4 million for nonexistent offenses, claiming it had been hired by the federal government; federal officials say these phony collectors have operated in all 50 states.

— A collector threatened a central Maine consumer, who recorded the phone conversation. A transcript of the conversation persuaded the company — which was licensed to do business in Maine — that it should let the employee find work elsewhere.

2015 Debt Collection Booklet.pub

Click image to read online.

David Leach, Principal Examiner at Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, said more than 1,000 debt collection companies are licensed in Maine and that the majority of them abide by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. However, Leach said the number of complaints about scammers or unlicensed collectors is “enormous and growing.” Call the bureau at 800-DEBT-LAW with your questions about debt collection or to receive a copy of “Downeaster Common Sense Guide: Debt Collection” or read the guide online .

The Maine Bar Association reminds consumers that Maine’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act forbids bad language, calling people at work, telling others about someone’s debt and other harassment. It also prohibits using phony letterheads to imitate law enforcement and threats of legal action they can’t take. For general information (not legal advice), visit the Bar Association’s website, mainebar.org/lawyer-referral/legal-information/maine-fair-debt-collection-practices.aspx.

While we’ve written about debt collection before (see Consumer Forum, 12/7/2015 on our blog), some points bear repeating. If a collector calls about an old debt, don’t send money without question. Make sure the debt is really yours by having the collector detail the amount owed and to whom it is owed. Have the collector mail the details to you, and get a physical location of the collector’s place of business. If you do pay, send a check rather than sending funds by wire.

The FTC has published a list of companies that it has banned from further debt collection activities. You can see that list at ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/banned-debt-collectors.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some imposter scams.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

How to get help if your identity is stolen

CONSUMER FORUM

Posted Feb. 01, 2016, at 9:07 a.m.

Having your identity stolen means starting a recovery process that can take months, even years.

The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, last week announced an upgrade of its efforts to help the millions of consumers who are victimized every year.

Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, told participants on a conference call that complaints about identity theft to her agency rose by nearly 50 percent last year. Ramirez said, while that’s shocking enough, the true scope of the crime is not known because it is “vastly underreported.”

What is known is that thieves are illegally opening new accounts, getting access to existing accounts fraudulently and filing phony tax returns, all while using other people’s names and personal information.

The FTC says victims can ease the task of getting their financial lives back in order by visiting the agency’s secure recovery website at identitytheft.gov.

Visitors can browse the range of recovery tips or jump right in by entering as much relevant data as possible that led to their identities being stolen. The FTC thinks the upgraded site will give consumers a one-stop means of filing a complaint about identity theft and beginning the process of recovery.

Victims are asked to first enter basic information about the type of identity theft to which they were subjected. Then the site walks the victims through a checklist geared toward that type of crime.

The site will generate affidavits and automatically fill a lot of information in letters and forms to be sent to police, businesses, credit bureaus, debt collectors and the IRS. If a recovery effort hits a snag, the site will suggest other ways to proceed.

To minimize further risks, the site will not ask victims for sensitive information, including dates of birth and Social Security numbers. There will be follow-up emails from the site, and consumers can go back to their plans later — through two-factor authentication — as their recovery continues.

The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 17.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2014. Ramirez said the crime is one that will be with us for quite a while.

“We’re all doing more online. We’re all using mobile technology,” she said. “It’s going to expose people’s information to breaches,” if we’re not increasingly vigilant.

Ramirez made the announcement on Data Privacy Day, designated in 2008 by the National Cyber Security Alliance. Read tips from that nonprofit about keeping your data to yourself at staysafeonline.org.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Protect yourself against scams before filing taxes

CONSUMER FORUM

 

Posted Jan. 25, 2016, at 11:18 a.m.
Federal officials have termed them the biggest scams ever. Together, they cost consumers billions of dollars every year. And they use people’s fear of the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon.

The first starts with an unexpected phone call. You’re told that you owe taxes and must pay immediately or you’ll be jailed. What do you do?

An IRS official says, just hang up … it’s a scam.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have received multiple calls from different people, all posing as either IRS officials or law enforcement agents. All the callers claim that legal action is certain, unless they receive money via wire right away. A demand for immediate payment is the second tipoff that it’s a hoax.

The first was the threat of imprisonment.

The IRS does not typically call a taxpayer; the agency begins by sending a letter. It also does not seek payment by way of prepaid cards, and it does not have agents standing by with arrest warrants in case the taxpayer hesitates.

The criminals who use these techniques can be abusive, even threatening to hurt their victims. These hoax calls may originate halfway around the world — although a spoofed phone number may make them appear nearby — and any threatened action rarely happens.

The second major hoax involves the filing of a phony tax return. If a thief steals your name, birthdate and Social Security number, he or she can file a bogus return in your name. If the IRS doesn’t catch it, the agency might send a refund to the crook; it may not be until you file your legitimate return that the fraud is discovered.

The IRS has trained thousands of employees to help possible victims. It has also put in place a number of preventive measures, most of which it won’t discuss in order not to assist the scammers. In a public message last week, the IRS said it has teamed up with the states and tax preparers to “stop fraudulent returns at the door.”

One new piece of information from tax software providers will be the amount of time it took to prepare a return. That could be a tipoff when computer-generated returns are fraudulent and have been filed by the hundreds or thousands.

You can read about the new measures at IRS.gov/uac/IRS,-States-and-Tax-Industry-Deploy-New-Safeguards-for-2016.

Tax season brings with it a rash of scam artists trying new ideas. Crooks might point to last year’s hack of IRS computers, which compromised some information of about 200,000 taxpayers. They might pose as “IRS counselors” or “credit advisers” while their real goal is to steal more personal data.

IRS officials suggest that tax preparers do a “deep scan” of all their computer drives and devices to find malware and viruses that may hide in places that a “quick scan” can’t find. Firewalls and antivirus software also should be up to date; if you use a tax preparer, don’t be shy about asking if security systems are robust.

If you store your tax filings on your computer, make sure there’s a backup in case your hard drive crashes. If you store paper copies, keep them under lock and key (ideally in a fireproof container). Find more security and identity protection tips at IRS.gov.

If you get a phone call you suspect is a hoax attempt, call 800-366-4484 to find out if the caller is a real IRS employee with a legitimate reason to reach you. If a piece of mail seems suspicious, call 800-829-1040 to see if it’s legitimate.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers

%d bloggers like this: