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Top ten scams of 2020

Bogus Internet merchandise sales continue to bedevil consumers, top complaint list.

In 2020, for the fifth consecutive year, the National Consumers League’s Fraud.org received more complaints about Internet merchandise scams than any other type of fraud, making up nearly one-third (29.39%) of complaints received.

Internet merchandise scams come in many forms—often involving bogus sales of high-dollar goods such as electronics, designer clothing, and even pets. Many victims first encounter these scams via online ads promising deep discounts on popular merchandise. When they click on the ads, they are directed to a website to enter payment information or are instructed to contact a scammer directly. Unfortunately, once the money is paid, the merchandise never arrives. In many cases, buyers report being contacted again and instructed to send more money to cover fake “shipping” or “insurance” charges.

Examples of Internet merchandise sales scams:

  • Anna, California. Paid $3,500 for a used Honda. The seller spoofed a third-party payment site and requested the funds in the form of iTunes gift cards. The car never showed up.
  • John, Indiana. Paid $600 for a Rottweiler puppy named Roscoe. Roscoe never arrived.
  • Dan, a farmer from Germany. Lost more than $22,000 being defrauded by a company posing as suppliers of animal feed. Goods were never shipped.
  • Jennifer, Texas. Bought nearly $400 worth of non-existent airline tickets through a fake site.
  • Irene, Chicago. Ordered NFL jerseys through a website claiming to be an official NFL gear vendor. What arrived were clearly low quality knock-offs.

“The convenience of online shopping is simply unbeatable for many consumers,” said John Breyault, who directs Fraud.org. “Obviously there are plenty of legitimate companies online, but there are also fraudulent sellers out to cheat consumers—and they are very good at what they do.”

Breyault offered the following advice for practicing safe online buying habits. (Even more tips available here.)

  • Do a price-check for similar merchandise before trusting an unknown online retailer, especially one advertising on Craigslist. If the price listed is far below traditional online retailers (think Amazon, Best Buy, Zappos) for a piece of popular merchandise (such as wireless phones, game consoles, sneakers, or designer clothing), the “deal” could easily be a scam.
  • Know who you’re dealing with. If the seller is unfamiliar, check with your state or local consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau. Some Web sites have feedback forums, which can provide useful information about other people’s experiences with particular sellers. Get the physical address and phone number in case there is a problem later.
  • Look for information about how complaints are handled. It can be difficult to resolve complaints, especially if the seller is located in another country. Look on the Web site for information about programs the company participates in that require it to meet standards for reliability and help to handle disputes.
  • Pay the safest way: Credit card. If a fraudulent transaction is disputed promptly, chances are the consumer won’t be on the hook for the fraud thanks to banks’ zero liability guarantees and federal consumer protections.

Other 2020 trends: Fake check scams making a comeback

In 2020, the top scams reported to NCL’s Fraud.org campaign remained Internet merchandise scams, fake check scams, bogus prize/sweepstakes scams, and refund/recovery scams. Interestingly, while complaints about refund/recovery scams remained a top category, their prevalence dropped precipitously in 2020. In 2020, these scams made up 15.77 percent of complaints received versus only 8.56 percent in 2020, an 84 percent decrease year-over-year.

While this may seem like good news for consumers, other trends are not so encouraging: fake check scams increased 12.55 percent, and phishing/spoofing scams increased by 27.28 percent year-over-year, respectively. The growth of fake check scam complaints is particularly worrisome, given that the 12.55 percent increase in 2020 followed a 15.16 percent increase in 2020.

Phishing/spoofing scam increase raises worries of breach-fueled fraud

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With each major data breach—think Yahoo!, Equifax, Uber, and others— fears increase among cybersecurity experts that the information criminals glean from such breaches will help them craft more convincing phishing and spoofing campaigns. While it may be too soon to make a definitive link, complaints involving phishing and spoofing scams appear to on the rise. In complaints where the consumer was first contacted online, we received a 55.81 percent year-over-year increase in complaints. This follows a 17.22 percent increase in such complaints in 2020.

Phone as method of first contact continues to decrease

The phone’s days as the top gateway for fraudsters to their victims may be numbered. While the telephone remained the method of first contact for scammers in more than a third (34.29 percent) of complaints, web-based initial contact is gaining: 34.11 percent of complainants said their first brush with scammers in 2020 was on the Web. Another 15.18 percent said they first heard from a scammer via email. Both methods of contact were on the rise in 2020 (6.07 percent and 22.9 percent year-over-year increases, respectively, versus 28.94 percent year-over-year decrease for phone).

Older adults may be at increased risk

Complaints from adults ages 46+ made up an increased percentage of complaints to Fraud.org in 2020, while complaints from younger adults (ages 45 and below) decreased year-over-year. While it’s difficult to generalize about fraud trends affecting older consumers, this is a trend we’ll be keeping an eye on in 2020.

Meet the scams: The rest of the worst of 2020

Fake Check Scams
Consumers paid with phony checks for work or for items they’re trying to sell, instructed to wire money back to buyer

Prizes/Sweepstakes/Free Gifts
Requests for payment to claim fictitious prizes, lottery winnings, or gifts

Recovery/Refund Companies
Scammers contact victims and claim the consumer owes money on a fictitious debt or to help recover money lost in a previous scam

Advance Fee Loans, Credit Arrangers
False promises of business or personal loans, even if credit is bad, for a fee upfront

Phishing/Spoofing
Emails pretending to be from a well-known source ask consumers to enter or confirm personal information

Computers: Equipment and Software
Scammers claim to offer “technical support” for computer problems and charge a fee to fix a nonexistent problem

Scholarships/Grants
For a fee, a “search company” offers to conduct customized search for scholarships or grants for students. Scammers take money and run or provide a worthless list

Friendship & Sweetheart Swindles
Con artist nurtures an online relationship, builds trust, and convinces victim to send money

Charitable Solicitations
Scammers contact victims claiming to represent non-existent charities (or real charities they don’t actually work for) and ask for donations.

Regardless of the type of scam, many instances of fraud can be avoided by remembering the old rule of thumb: If something seems too good to be true—it probably is.

Top 5 social media scams


Written by a NortonLifeLock employee

We’re wired to be social creatures, and sites like Twitter and Facebook have capitalized on this to great success. According to its COO Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook draws 175 million logins every day.

5 tips for social media security and privacy

Your own accounts might seem too small to tempt scammers, but even with just a few followers your information is a valuable commodity. Read on for tips to stay safe on social networks.

But with this tremendous popularity comes a dark side as well. Virus writers and other cybercriminals go where the numbers are — and that includes popular social media sites. To help you avoid a con or viral infection, we’ve put together this list of the top five social media scams.

5. Chain Letters

You’ve likely seen this one before — the dreaded chain letter has returned. It may appear in the form of, “Retweet this and Bill Gates will donate $5 million to charity!” But hold on, let’s think about this. Bill Gates already does a lot for charity. Why would he wait for something like this to take action? Answer: He wouldn’t. Both the cause and claim are fake.

So why would someone post this? Good question. It could be some prankster looking for a laugh, or a spammer needing “friends” to hit up later. Many well-meaning people pass these fake claims onto others. Break the chain and inform them of the likely ruse.

4. Cash Grabs

By their very nature, social media sites make it easy for us to stay in touch with friends, while reaching out to meet new ones. But how well do you really know these new acquaintances? That person with the attractive profile picture who just friended you — and suddenly needs money — is probably some cybercriminal looking for easy cash. Think twice before acting. In fact, the same advice applies even if you know the person.

Picture this: You just received an urgent request from one of your real friends who “lost his wallet on vacation and needs some cash to get home.” So, being the helpful person you are, you send some money right away, per his instructions. But there’s a problem: Your friend never sent this request. In fact, he isn’t even aware of it. His malware-infected computer grabbed all of his contacts and forwarded the bogus email to everyone, waiting to see who would bite.

Again, think before acting. Call your friend. Inform him of the request and see if it’s true. Next, make sure your computer isn’t infected as well.

3. Hidden Charges

“What type of STAR WARS character are you? Find out with our quiz! All of your friends have taken it!” Hmm, this sounds interesting, so you enter your info and cell number, as instructed. After a few minutes, a text turns up. It turns out you’re more Yoda than Darth Vader. Well, that’s interesting … but not as much as your next month’s cell bill will be.

You’ve also just unwittingly subscribed to some dubious service that charges $9.95 every month.

As it turns out, that “free, fun service” is neither. Be wary of these bait-and-switch games. They tend to thrive on social sites.

2. Phishing Requests

“Somebody just put up these pictures of you drunk at this wild party! Check ’em out here!” Huh? Let me see that! Immediately, you click on the enclosed link, which takes you to your Twitter or Facebook login page. There, you enter your account info — and a cybercriminal now has your password, along with total control of your account.

How did this happen? Both the email and landing page were fake. That link you clicked took you to a page that only looked like your intended social site. It’s called phishing, and you’ve just been had. To prevent this, make sure your Internet security includes antiphishing defenses. Many freeware programs don’t include this essential protection.

1. Hidden URLs

Beware of blindly clicking on shortened URLs. You’ll see them everywhere on Twitter, but you never know where you’re going to go since the URL (“Uniform Resource Locator,” the Web address) hides the full location. Clicking on such a link could direct you to your intended site, or one that installs all sorts of malware on your computer.

URL shorteners can be quite useful. Just be aware of their potential pitfalls and make sure you have real-time protection against spyware and viruses.

Bottom line: Sites that attract a significant number of visitors are going to lure in a criminal element, too. If you take security precautions ahead of time, such as using antivirus and anti-spyware protection, you can defend yourself against these dangers and surf with confidence.

Online Shopping Scams

AARP | Comments: 0

En español | The internet continues to reshape the way we shop, with retail apps and social media stores adding to consumers’ online options. Cybercriminals are keeping pace. Online purchasing was the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in 2020, representing nearly 1 in 4 complaints, and the one that most often led to a financial loss, according to the BBB’s annual “Scam Tracker Risk Report.”

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline: 877-908-3360
  • Report it on AARP’s Scam-Tracking Map

Sign up for Watchdog Alerts for more tips on avoiding scams.

The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website or, increasingly, mobile app. Some faux e-stores are invented from whole cloth, but many mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing. They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks like free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.

Some of these copycats do deliver merchandise — shoddy knockoffs worth less than even the “discount” price you mistook for a once-in-a-lifetime deal on, say, Tiffany watches or Timberland boots. More often, you’ll wait in vain for your purchase to arrive. And your losses might not stop there: Scammers may seed phony sites, apps or links in pop-up ads and email coupons with malware that infects your device and harvests personal information for use in identity theft.

Clothing and jewelry, furniture and home decor, electronics, cosmetics, health and nutrition, and pets are among the most common categories of products in shopping scams, according to the BBB. Not surprisingly, these frauds flourish during the holiday season. You need not forgo the ease and endless selection of online shopping, but these precautions can help you make sure you get what you pay for.

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