Scam of the day – March 6, 2012 – Walmart gift card scam

This is the most recent variation of a familiar scam in which you receive an email or a text message telling you that you are lucky enough to have just won a $1,000 Walmart gift card.  I have received this very scam just yesterday with many other people receiving these over the past couple of days.  You can expect this and similar gift card scams to proliferate.  In the message, you are instructed to go to a link to enter your winning code number to claim your prize.  Never go to a link that you are not absolutely positively sure is legitimate.  In this particular scam, if you click on the link, you will only succeed in downloading a key stroke logging malware program that will read all of the information on your smart phone or computer that can steal from your computer or smart phone all of your personal information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, your Social Security number and more leading to a serious case of identity theft.

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Walmart does not do these type of promotions, so if you receive a text message purporting to be from Walmart regarding this type of promotion or contest, you can be sure it is a phony.  The old adage is true; if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  If you have any thoughts that the contest or promotion might be legitimate, call the company at a number that you know is correct to find out the truth.

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.

ATM Scams

Using an ATM is a very convenient way to access your bank account.  Unfortunately, it is also a very convenient way for scam artists to access your bank account as well, often with your assistance.

The primary way ATM’s are compromised is through the use of a small device called a “skimmer” which fits over the slot where you put your bank card.  The skimmer reads the information embedded in your card, which is half the battle to accessing your account.  Often criminals will install cameras by the ATM to read your PIN as you input it into the ATM.    These cameras may even appear to be the security cameras used your bank.  Other times they may even install a keyboard over the regular keyboard to capture your PIN.

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Always check an ATM before using it to see if it appears to have been tampered with and when you input your PIN, shield the keyboard from any cameras or prying eyes.

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.

Phony Caller ID

Caller ID is a great service that permits you to see who is calling you on your phone so you can determine whether to answer it or just let it go to voice mail.  It also is a great service to scam artists who use it to lure people into providing personal information that can lead to identity theft by appearing to be from your bank or local court or some other trusted institution.  They then trick you into giving them personal information, such as your Social Security number that leads to identity theft.

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Don’t trust caller ID.  Never give out personal information to anyone who calls you unless you are absolutely sure of their identity.  If you have any doubts, call the real institution that they claim to be at a number that you know is accurate and you can confirm whether indeed your original call was 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.

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.

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.

Loan Scams

In desperate times people often let their guard down, which provides a lethal combination for scammers offering loans to people even if they have poor credit.  You may get a solicitation for the loan through an email or you may even see it in legitimate media, but you should always beware.  Just because an advertisement for a loan appears in a legitimate newspaper or other media does not mean that the loan offering has been investigated for legitimacy by the media carrying the advertisement.  In fact, in difficult financial times when advertising dollars are hard to come by, the standards of media for taking advertisement seem to drop.

You may be surprised at how fast your sham loan is approved.  All you have to do is to send in an advance processing fee and you are on your way to financial stability.  Unfortunately, the loan is a scam and you end up more in debt when you pay for a worthless loan.

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Legitimate lenders rarely ask for advance fees.  They usually deduct fees from the loan amount.  Check with your state’s attorney general or the FTC if you have questions about an unfamiliar lender.  And if the loan requires an advance fee, don’t do it.  Chances are it is a scam.  Also, even if you don’t have to pay an advance fee, always be sure the lender is legitimate before you provide any information such as your Social Security number which could be going to an identity thief who is merely using the promise of a loan as a ruse to obtain personal information from you.

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.