CONSUMERS

Can you spot a scam? Ask these 5 questions to protect yourself

Russ Wiles
Arizona Republic
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A new year is a good time to learn sound financial habits, such as improving your defenses against scams and identity-theft risks. Financial fraud dangers not only persist but seem to have gotten worse, with scammers dreaming up new ways to reach potential victims and separate them from their money.

In the electronic age, remaining vigilant is a constant challenge, but your best response often just involves exercising skepticism and common sense. The following five questions can help ward off criminals.

1. Is there a romantic link?

People don’t seem to lose much money over scams tied to plumbing supplies or gardening equipment. But romance, with the potential emotional entanglements, is another story.

Romance scams, often known as “catfishing,” are flourishing, with a record $547 million in losses reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2021. These scams involve crooks creating fake online profiles to trick victims into thinking they are entering into a relationship. Scammers often use stolen photos of attractive, successful people, warns ID-verification website Social Catfish. These posts sometimes show up on legitimate dating sites. Targets are usually hit up for money and often are asked to disclose a lot of personal information.

Social Catfish surveyed more than 700 influencers and found that 86% had had their online images stolen to create fake profiles within the past year. The website has compiled a list of some of these purloined photos. The person whose photo was taken might be unaware of what's going on, as happened to a Tucson woman.

Social Catfish lists key factors that can point to a romance scam. They include photos of highly attractive people, profiles that point to an exciting lifestyle, vague or blurry photos that are hard to identify, profiles filled with spelling or grammar mistakes (as many crooks are foreigners) and contacts who profess their love prior to meeting in person.

2. Are puppies involved?

Romance scams aren’t the only ones with a strong emotional tug. Fake online sales related to puppy purchases are on the rise, said the Better Business Bureau, with victims reporting losses of about $850 on average.

Scammers lure potential victims with fake websites that portray cute purebred puppies, then ask for money for pet purchases, shipping and special crates. Victims report being swept up in the emotions of the moment, according to a BBB report.

Nearly one-third of such scams are focused around three breeds: Yorkies, Dachshunds and French Bulldogs, according to BBB, which noted that many of the websites touting young dogs are registered outside of North America, making prosecution difficult.

Tips offered by BBB to consumers include insisting on seeing the animal in person, or at least setting up a video call to view it, before paying anything. Also, if possible, conduct a reverse image search on any photos provided and research average prices for each breed.

Even better, adopt a homeless pet through any of the various animal-rescue nonprofit groups or local animal shelters.

3. Is the other party legitimate?

Telling a crook from a legitimate, but unfamiliar, business can be difficult. But scammers often act in telltale ways, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In particular, they often pressure you to take quick action, demand that you pay in specific ways (such as using wire transfers or gift cards) and ask for bank account number, credit card number, Social Security number or other personal information.

Before responding, it's a good idea to do a little sleuthing. Try searching online for the company or product name along with terms such as “review,” “complaint” or “scam,” the FTC suggests. At a minimum, try to ascertain the correct website, phone number and physical address of a business, and recognize that web addresses that start with "https" are more secure than those with "http," with the "s" standing for "secure."

The FTC provides more tips on various scams and encourages consumers to report fraud at its website, ftc.gov. The information provided is shared with law enforcement agencies to help them spot and combat criminal activity.

4. Who initiated contact?

If you get an unsolicited call, text or email message, you could have a scammer on the other end.

Keep in mind that a phone number might look legitimate because caller IDs can be faked. “So even if it looks like the call comes from a government agency like the Social Security Administration, IRS or Medicare, or looks like it comes from a local number, it could be a scammer calling from anywhere in the world,” the FTC warned.

Some scams claim to represent large merchants such as Amazon and tell recipients that their accounts have problems such as signs of suspicious purchases or unfulfillable orders. Or they claim to offer prizes, low-cost credit cards or other incentives. Others give fake warnings of computer viruses.

If you think an account or order might have a problem, don’t respond to an unsolicited call or message, the FTC warns. Rather, contact the merchant or agency using a phone number or website that you know is authentic. Steps you can take to protect yourself range from call blocking to signing up for the National Do Not Call Registry to occasionally accessing your credit reports. These and other actions are discussed on ftc.gov.

5. Is it really the IRS?

With the start of the tax-return filing season on Jan. 23, it’s time to put up your guard again against fake scams involving Internal Revenue Service impersonators.

The IRS generally doesn’t call taxpayers. Instead, it initiates most contacts with taxpayers through regular mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. In some situations, the agency will call or visit a home or business, as when a taxpayer has an overdue bill, but even then it will first send several letters or “notices.”

The IRS continues to warn of all sorts of scams tied to pandemic relief, natural-disaster assistance, charity donations and other themes, along with promoters promising to settle tax debts for pennies on the dollar. Also, taxpayers should try to make sure the person preparing their tax return is legitimate — one red flag is a preparer’s unwillingness to sign a completed tax return.

An obvious way tax fraud can hurt you is if someone files for your refund using your stolen Social Security number or other personal information. That's one reason to file early, to beat a crook to the punch. A less obvious way someone can victimize you is by getting a job using your identification and reporting taxable income under your name.

The IRS offers more scam warnings and tips in the tax scams/consumer alerts section at irs.gov.

Reach the writer at [email protected]

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