Top 10 scams of 2015 and how to protect yourself from them

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According to the Better Business Bureau, here are the top 10 scams of 2015:

  • Tax Scams (IRS and CRA)
  • Debt Collections
  • Sweepstakes/Prizes/Gifts
  • Tech Support
  • Government Grant
  • Advanced Fee Loan
  • Credit Cards
  • Work from Home
  • Fake Check/Money Order
  • Lottery

Regarding the year’s biggest scams, Mary E. Power, CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, says: “Three of the top four scams reported to us are those that scare people with threats of arrest, law suits or other frightening actions. Scammers are pretending to be government agents, lawyers, debt collectors, police officers. They engage directly with you, so your best bet to avoid being scammed is to stop engaging. Hang up the phone, delete the email, shut the door.”

Scammers make themselves look legitimate so you will trust them — and they prey on people’s emotions in order to get you to make fast decisions, before you have time to think it through.

Here are some tips from the BBB to help you avoid these popular scams:

  • Don’t be pressured into making fast decisions.
  • Take time to research the organization.
  • Check them out on bbb.org, search online, etc.
  • Never provide your personal information (address, date-of-birth, banking information, ID numbers) to people you do not know.
  • Don’t click on links from unsolicited email or text messages.
  • If you are unsure about a call or email that claims to be from your bank, utility company, etc., call the business directly using the number on your bill or credit card.
  • Never send money by wire transfer or prepaid debit card to someone you don’t know or haven’t met in person.
  • Never send money for an emergency situation unless you can verify the emergency. 

Bottom line: Scammers are everywhere, all the time. So to help you better protect your family — and your wallet — we’ve rounded up some more in-depth details about various ways thieves are stealing peoples information and money — and tips to help you avoid them.

How to spot and avoid popular scams

1. IRS tax scam

The Internal Revenue Service reports sophisticated IRS impostors are calling people and demanding immediate payment. In some cases they’re also impersonating local law enforcement and threatening you with immediate arrest unless you send untraceable money amounting in the thousands of dollars for back taxes that you supposedly owe.

The scammers use phone spoofing to make their number come up as ‘IRS,’ and they already have the last 4 digits of your Social Security number — both of which lends them an air of legitimacy.

Here are some of their other tactics to watch out for:

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  • They use common names and fake IRS badge numbers.
  • They send bogus IRS e-mails to support their scam.
  • They call a second time claiming to be the police or department of motor vehicles, and the caller ID again supports their claim.

You’re told to submit payment either by wire or by prepaid debit card. So far, 1,000 people have been swindled out of $5 million, according to IRS officials.

Know this: The IRS will *not* contact you by phone asking for money. They only contact you by snail mail if they want to get in touch with you. So if you get one of these calls, hang up the phone!

2. Microsoft update email scam

Here’s what you need to know: Microsoft does not send Windows 10 upgrades by email. The company is only upgrading Windows 7 and 8 customers via notifications sent directly to those user’s desktops. So if you get an email telling you to click a link to get your update, know that it is a fake. 

Here’s how to protect yourself from these types of scams:

  • For basic protection, use anti-virus and anti-malware software and keep it up to date. See Clark’s Virus, Spyware and Malware Protection Guide for links to free options. 
     
  • Keep your browsers, applications and plug-ins up-to-date with the latest security patches and updates. Be sure to do this at home on your own secure connection.
     
  • Back up everything you have so you can abandon a computer if it’s infected. There are two ways you can do this. Either use a freemium back-up cloud service for data or use a back-up external drive. The latter is really cheap starting around $30.

3. Vacation rental scam

When booking vacation rentals on sites like VRBO, you need to be careful when providing the homeowner with your personal information.

The way these sites work, as a traveler, you usually contact the seller if you see a place you want to rent. There’s a form you have to fill out to send as an inquiry. The owner gets back to you and tells you the terms and the price. It’s common they’ll also offer a discount off the published rate when they contact you. When you get an email from the owner asking for your information, this is when you need to be very careful.

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Clark received an email from someone claiming to be the property owner of a place he was interested in renting, and the form he received asked him to make his payment via bank transfer through ING Bank to a branch in Czestochowa, Poland. This is a big warning sign that it’s a scam. The biggest tip-off of all is a wire transfer going overseas.

If you have any concerns, contact VRBO about the specific property. Also, only pay by credit card when doing these vacation rentals online in order to ensure your money is protected. Get more tips on avoiding these scams here.

4. Lottery scam

Here’s how it works: You get a call from someone saying you’ve won a lottery, but you need to either pay money or divulge sensitive account information to claim the winnings.

With the lottery scams, the victims’ savings are not eroded all at once. Once they take the bait and send some money in, they’re put on the sucker list. That marks them to receive future calls or solicitations about other alleged lottery winnings. It’s known as a ‘reload scam,’ and it can play out in areas other than just fake lottery winnings.

These types of scams prey on seniors in particular, so it’s important to carefully monitor older family members’ money if you think it’s necessary or that they could become a victim of a scam like this. Here are seven senior scams to watch out for and Clark’s tips to avoid them.

5. Public Wi-Fi scams

Scammers can easily steal your information when you’re using an unsecured network. If you use a public computer, make sure to always completely log out of every website and the computer itself. When it comes to using free Wi-Fi networks, never sign in to any of your accounts that contain sensitive personal information, such as your bank account or any account that contains your bank, debit or credit card information.

Here are more tips to help you avoid scammers on public Wi-Fi.

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Read more: 13 ways you may be exposing yourself to fraud

6. Facebook scams

There are five big Facebook scams and hoaxes going around that you should know about:

  • Privacy hoax: If you see a status update about Facebook coming for your photos or other personal information, it’s probably a hoax, and possibly a scam!
     
  • Subscription hoax: Claims users can pay a fee to have their information made private. This is a hoax. Check Facebook’s privacy policy and privacy settings to find out more details about making your information private.
     
  • Photo notification scam: If you get an email telling you that you’ve been tagged in a photo on Facebook, don’t click on that link in the email to see the picture! It could download a virus to your computer.
     
  • “Dislike” button scam: If you get any requests or offers to download a ‘dislike’ button, don’t do it! These are scams.
     
  • “Clickjacking” scams: Ever see those Facebook posts with racy videos and photos, or ads promising deals that seem too good to be true? Well, they usually are. According to Facebook, ‘clickjacking is when scammers load fake buttons and icons to trick people into making unwanted actions.’

7. Hotel booking scams

A recent survey for the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 6% of travelers who booked a hotel room online later discovered they had used a fake site. The group estimates 15 million hotel bookings have been made on rogue websites — scamming $1.3 billion from consumers per year.

Click here for more on how these scams work and tips for avoiding them.

8. Hotel ‘front desk’ scam

The Better Business Bureau is warning travelers to be aware of this growing scam. This is how it works: a hotel guest receives a phone call on the hotel room phone from a caller claiming to be a hotel employee. The caller claims that for some reason, the hotel couldn’t process your credit card and you need to verify the information again. The caller may say the card couldn’t be processed or that the computer system was down.

If you receive a call like this while staying at a hotel, do not give your credit card or other personal information over the phone. Go to the front desk to verify any sensitive information.

9. Fake email, text & phone scams

Scammers are everywhere, so it’s crucial to always be cautious when: clicking on an email from an address you don’t know or recognize, responding to a text from a number you don’t recognize, and calling back a phone number you don’t know or recognize.

Here’s how to avoid these scams:

  • If you receive an email claiming to be from your bank or other company that has your personal information, don’t click on any of the links. It could be a scam. Instead, log in to your account separately to check for any new notices. You can also call the company about the information sent via email.
     
  • Responding to a text from a number you don’t recognize could also make any information stored in your phone vulnerable to hackers. Do some research to find out who and where the text came from. 
     
  • If you get a missed call on your cell phone from a number you don’t recognize, don’t call it back. Here’s what you need to know about this phone scam.

10. Fake package tracking notification

There’s an ugly email virus scam going around disguised as a FedEx shipping confirmation.

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If you click on the link in the email, the virus is promptly loaded on to your computer or smartphone. And then… nothing happens. You forget all about it while the virus sits there lurking and capturing your every keystroke to get your username and password for sensitive financial accounts.

The takeaway: Do not click on any link in any email you were not expecting. If there’s a question and you think there’s a legitimate message or notification intended for you, go directly to the official website of whatever business it is and check for any notifications there. Or, call the company directly.

If you’re looking for mobile security, try a freemium service called MyLookout.com that offers protection for smart phones running Android, Blackberry, or Windows. 

Meanwhile, watch out for these email subject lines that are being used in popular scams:

  • ‘You have a New encrypted message from your bank’
  • ‘USPS is notifying you that your package is available for pickup’
  • ‘You have received your payroll invoice’
  • ‘Your FED TAX payment was rejected’
  • ‘Advisors Online Documents Activated’
  • ‘Transaction notification from your bank’
  • ‘Docusign To all Employees – Confidential Message’
  • ‘INCOMING FAX REPORT’

11. Student loan repayment scams

The U.S. Department of Education has issued a scam alert about some companies that promise to help lower monthly payments for students who are buried in huge amounts of college debt.

For anyone with student loan debt, an offer from a company that ‘guarantees’ it can help you — for a small fee — can sound enticing. But don’t do it! One of the most common scams is when a company offers to consolidate your loans for a fee. Whatever the fee is called, if there is any charge, don’t do it.

The reason they’re labeled as ‘scams’ is because these companies typically don’t make it clear to consumers that the Department of Education offers this same service FOR FREE. This is a process you can do entirely on your own.

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If you have a federal student loan, there are no fees for debt consolidation. Here are more tips on consolidating student loan debt and options for refinancing.

12. Medical office identity theft

The Identity Theft Resource Center reports almost half of all identity theft now is happening at medical providers like the ones just mentioned.

There are many reasons why medical identity theft is running rampant. High turnover in the back offices and too much paperwork floating around are chief among them. The scary reality is that one employee can steal the identities of hundreds if not thousands of people. Without question, this is the fastest growing area of identity theft.

The takeaway: Don’t fill in your Social Security number on any medical paperwork when you first go to a doctor. The only reason they want your Social Security is that so if you don’t pay, it’s easier to turn you over to a collection agency.

Here are some additional tips to keep you out of harm’s way:

  • Use a shredder for papers that contain financial info before recycling. 
     
  • Use OptOutPreScreen.com to remove your name from the mailing list of the credit card companies. That way you won’t get the credit card apps that are so central for identity thieves. You will have to disclose your Social Security number because that’s how the credit bureaus build a dossier on you.
     
  • Finally, freeze your credit if you’re really concerned about limiting any damage from possible identity theft.

13. Gas station pump scams

Card skimmers at pay-at-the-pump machines have been a popular way for scammers to steal people’s information for a long time, and they continue to pop up everywhere. This is why you should never use a debit card at a gas station pump — only use a credit card, in order to make sure your money is protected.

Plus, skimmers aren’t the only danger to your wallet. The gas station can also put a big hold on your account, typically for four days, and that could cause your checks to bounce. If you must pay with debit at a gas station, go inside and pay at the cashier.

Read more: 9 places to never use a debit card

14. Chip-enabled credit card scams

October 1 was the deadline for retailers and credit card issuers to switch over to using the new EMV credit cards, which contain a chip that’s meant to fight fraud by generating and encrypting a new code each time the card is used.

Now scammers are contacting people by email — posing as their credit card company — and informing them that in order to get their new card, they need to update their account or confirm some personal information — by clicking on a link to do so.

Do not click the link and do not respond with personal information. Contact your bank directly.

15. Grocery coupon scams

The grocery coupon scams are heating up on Facebook again! A few of the most popular ones claim to be for Aldi, Publix and Kroger.

How the scam works: People are being asked to share and comment on a bogus coupon to receive $200 off a grocery purchase of $220. (Yeah, right!)

Most likely, all that you’ll receive is offers to sign up for credit cards and other subscriptions.

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