Skimmers

Skimmers are small devices that can read a credit or debit card and capture the information on the card for scam artists.  They may be installed on an ATM or a gas pump or any other device into which you directly swipe your credit card or debit card.  They may also be used as a portable device by a criminal clerk or waiter who takes your card and not only runs it for the legitimate charge for whatever you are purchasing, but also runs it through the skimmer to capture the information to steal access to your credit card or debit card.

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As much as possible, when giving your credit or debit card to a clerk or waiter, watch the card to make sure that it is not swiped through a skimmer as well as through the legitimate credit card processing machine.  Many restaurants now bring the card processing apparatus to you at your table to avoid this type of criminal activity.

And while you are at it, you should consider using your debit card less because unlike a credit card, the laws that protect you in the event of fraudulent use of the card are greatly limited.  While your liability for fraudulent use of your credit card is limited by law to no more than fifty dollars, your potential liability for fraudulent use of your debit card that you do not catch in a timely fashion could be the emptying of the checking account to which your debit card is attached.

Social Security Scams

Social Security like all complex federal programs is ripe for scammers taking advantage of people’s confusion.  Whether it is someone contacting you by telephone purporting to be from the Social Security Administration to confirm your Social Security number and your bank account number for direct deposit of your Social Security check to someone telling you that they can get back all of your contributions to Social Security on your behalf in one check to someone telling you that you need to provide information to them to be eligible for Cost of Living Adjustments, the end result is the same, you get scammed, lose money and become the victim of identity theft.

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Never give your personal information to someone whom you have not called and are not sure who they are.  If you think a call may be legitimate (and it won’t be if they are looking to confirm your direct deposit information), just call Social Security at a number you know is accurate.  As for getting all of your contributions in one lump sum, it is a total scam.  The law does not provide for such a payment.  And you never have to apply or provide any information to anyone to get your Cost of Living Adjustment.  The increase is automatic.

Tax Scams

Tax scams are rampant although they do spring up more in the Spring as we get ready to pay our income taxes.  Most of the scams prey on two conflicting motivations.  The first is our fear of the IRS and doing something wrong in filling out our taxes and the second is the desire to avoid paying taxes.  Either way, you are a potential victim of the tax scammer.

First and foremost, don’t believe the scammer who tells you that the income tax is illegal and that he or she can show you why you don’t need to pay taxes.  The income tax is legal.  That is all there is to it.  People with contrary opinions have gone to prison for tax evasion.

Some people may receive forms from the IRS on line, often asking personal information such as your Social Security number or even your credit card number.  The IRS does not communicate with taxpayers on line so don’t fall for this scam.

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Consider the source for any tax advice you get.  Don’t rely on people telling you that you don’t have to pay taxes because that is what you want to hear.  Always check out the qualifications of any tax adviser.  And if you are contacted by someone purporting to be the IRS asking for information, if you have any concerns that the contact may be legitimate, contact the IRS at a number that you know is legitimate.

Area Code 809

Have you ever heard of area code 809?  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t because it probably is not an area code with which you would be familiar unless you make a lot of calls to the Caribbean.   Similar to the 900 scam, you may receive a call in your voice mail telling you that you have won a contest or even that someone you know has gotten into difficulties and needs your help.  In any event, you are prompted to call a number beginning with the area code 809 which at charges of $25 per minute can run up your phone bill to outrageous levels quite quickly.

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Always be skeptical of any call instructing you to call the area code 809 unless you truly do know who is calling and that they are in the Caribbean.

Cramming

Cramming is the term for unauthorized charges appearing on your telephone bill.   These charges may be one-time affairs or they may be regular monthly charges.  Today’s telephone bills are pretty confusing and scammers who use cramming bank on the fact that many people just don’t pay enough attention to the details of their bills.  So how do these charges get on our bills?  The sad truth is that we authorize them, often by signing up for sweepstakes of other contests.  Booths offering free trips or free merchandise are found frequently at sporting events and other public gatherings.  Read the fine print on the card that you use to sign up for the drawing and you may see that you have also signed up for a telephone service.

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Always read the fine print.   Rarely is their ever anything fine to be found in fine print.  Always be skeptical of free contests.  Make sure they indeed come without obligation and be careful of what personal information you give out to enter a contest.  It also is smart to check out your phone bill each month.  To determine if you have been crammed, look for terms such as “Miscellaneous charges and credits,” “member fee” or other charges that you don’t recognize.

Phony Diplomas

A College degree can help you land a good job, but a phony diploma from an organization granting worthless college degrees that require you to do little, if any academic work, but gives you large credit for your “life experience” is just a diploma mill that can, in fact, hurt your chances of getting a job.  There also are easy to recognize scams that just lure people into being a part of the scam by selling you counterfeit diplomas of legitimate colleges.  Either way, you should avoid these education scams.  Some states, such as Oregon have even made it a crime to use a diploma from one of these phony colleges.

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“What’s in a name?”  If you studied Shakespeare in college, you would know that quote comes from “Romeo and Juliet.”  Always check the name of phony colleges because the names may be quite similar to legitimate colleges.  Columbia State University is a diploma mill.  Columbia University is an Ivy League college.  Check out the school at the U.S. Department of Education’s website at www.ope.edu.gov/accreditation to see if the particular institution of higher learning is an accredited college.

Weight Loss Scams

Many of us would like to lose a few pounds and many more of us would like to lose more than a few pounds.  Eating a healthy diet and regular exercise are the keys to weight loss, but that is not quick enough or easy enough for people looking for shortcuts.  Phony weight loss products and programs are rampant and as fast as the FTC goes after one scheme (as they did in 2007 when they went after four companies who agreed to pay 25 million dollars in fines) another one pops up.

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Be wary of any weight loss product sold exclusively through mail order or exclusively over the Internet.  Remember that weight loss programs that promise quick results without diet or exercise are impossible.  Check with the FTC if you have doubts about a weight loss company.

Exercise Equipment Scam

Exercise is good for us.  We all know that.  We also would like to find exercise equipment that makes exercising easier, quicker and more efficient.  Scam artists take advantage of our desire to find that perfect exercise equipment that will all but do the work for us and provide tremendous results in little time.  The problem is that such equipment probably does not exist.  Beware of inflated claims and again don’t trust the advertisement merely because it appears in media that you trust.  The media may not have done their homework to investigate the product before accepting the advertisement.  The FTC is always looking for exercise scams, but they have a hard time keeping up with the scammers.

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Read the fine print carefully. There rarely is anything fine in fine print.  Find out how much this is going to cost you.  How many “easy” monthly payments are you locking yourself into?  And beware of guarantees from companies that you don’t know.  The guarantees are only as good as the company that gives them.  Check with the FTC about any exercise equipment you may consider if it appears too good to be true.

Lotteries and Contest Scams

Year in and year out, lottery and contest scams are some of the most lucrative scams for conmen.  You may be told that you have won a large lottery or contest.  To further gain your confidence, you may even be told that the contest or lottery has been approved by the FBI or that the contest is sponsored by a big company with which you may be familiar, such as Clorox, a legitimate company whose name was used by scammers to steal money from unsuspecting victims.  Most of these lottery scams involve you having to pay various processing fees or even income taxes to the lottery sponsor.

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It is hard enough to win a contest you enter, so you should be particularly wary when told that you have won a contest that you never even entered.  Legitimate contests and lotteries do not have processing fees that you have to pay and they do not collect income taxes from you.  The sponsor either would pay the taxes on your behalf or provide you with an IRS Form 1099 informing you of how much money was paid on your behalf to the IRS or you would be responsible to pay the IRS directly.  You would not pay the income taxes on the prize to the contest sponsor.

And beware of your winnings coming to you in the form of a certified bank check.  Unsuspecting victims have deposited these checks and waited for the check to clear before sending processing fees only to find that the check was a forgery and their own bank had only given them provisional credit for the check so that once it bounced, the victim not only lost the “winnings” but also the processing fees.

Unclaimed Property Scam

You may receive an email or letter informing you that there are billions of dollars of unclaimed or abandoned money being held by the states and federal government and that some of that money is yours.  For a fee, the person or company contacting you will assist you in locating that property claiming it for you.

The truth is that indeed various state and federal agencies are holding more than 24 billion dollars of unclaimed money that is waiting to be retrieved by the rightful owners.  State laws require financial institutions, such as banks, to turn over money from inactive accounts.   Among the assets held by these agencies are savings and checking accounts, stocks, uncashed dividend checks, certificates of deposit and utility security deposits.

Where the scam comes in is when you are asked to call a company’s 809 telephone number for more information.  Unfortunately, this call will run up a steep charge on your telephone bill and the only information you will get is general useless information as to how you can claim the money yourself or pay them a steep fee for doing it for you.

Some “legitimate” companies may also contact you to assist you in getting back your missing money, but it is important to remember that they cannot have any specific information as to what you are owed because of privacy regulations that prohibit them from obtaining that information.

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The best place to find a helping hand to assist you in locating and getting back your abandoned property is at the end of your own arm.  Go to the website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators at www.unclaimed.org where you can link on to the website for your own state’s agency that deals with abandoned property and take the steps necessary to claim your abandoned property at no cost to you.  Other useful websites for locating money that you may be owed include www.irs.gov, the website for the IRS where you can find tax refund money you may be owed and www.pbgc.gov, the website of the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that holds unclaimed pension funds.