Consumer Watch: How to avoid being scammed

Consumer Watch: How to avoid being scammed

March 24th, 2019 by Ellen Phillips in Business Around the Region

I'm very concerned about my elderly parents. Bless their hearts, they are both too trusting for their own sakes (and wallets). Dad has already been scammed twice in the past year. While we all prefer my folks stay in their own home with access to their financials, there must be a way to protect themselves and stay relatively independent as they grow older. – Carla Concerned

Dear Ms. Concerned: Crooks use clever schemes to defraud millions of people every year, including identity theft to steal their (literally) lives. In order to stay a step or two ahead of these creeps, keep a copy of the following in a conspicuous spot and urge Mom and Dad to refer to it at least once daily.

Ellen Phillips

Ellen Phillips

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Spot imposters. "Nana, I've been in an accident and need to get to the hospital. Something is terribly wrong with my back!" Scammers often pretend to be someone you trust, such as a family member, a charity, or a company you do business with. Use that consumer radar we all possess and never send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request, regardless if the appeal comes as a text, a phone call, or an email. Just. Hang. Up.

Do online searches. With this being tax season and the tax scammers crawling out of the woodwork, it's always a great idea to investigate if you're tempted to believe their spiel. Use online research to review a company and/or determine complaints,

Don't believe your caller ID. One of my biggest hang-ups surround fraudsters' use of my area code – or even my own phone number! 423 or 706 may appear to be a valid area code and caller who simply isn't listed in our contacts. And, frankly, if we see our own identical number staring back up at us, surely most people would scratch their heads in confusion but, also, answer the call just to find out what's going on. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information, so the name and number you see aren't always real. If someone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. In fact, if the familiar name doesn't pop up, don't answer the call; if the caller is legitimate, that person will leave a message for you to return the call.

Never pay upfront if you're promised a prize or something significant like debt relief. Someone might ask you to pay in advance or pay taxes or fees. Believe me, if you fork over the "deposit," that sum will be long gone before you blink twice. Along these same lines, don't deposit a check and wire money back to the crooked company; otherwise, you're responsible for reimbursing the bank.

Watch how you pay. Credit cards have significant fraud protection built in, but some other payment methods don't. Wiring money through services like Western Union or MoneyGram becomes nearly impossible to get your money back as is the case for reloadable cards (like MoneyPak or Reloadit) and gift cards (like iTunes or Google Play). Government offices and honest companies won't require you to use these payment methods.

Talk to someone first. Before you give up your money or personal information, talk to someone you trust. Con artists want you to make decisions in a hurry. They might even threaten you. (A current biggie is the ostensible IRS agent telling you they've paid your refund twice and you must immediately reimburse Uncle Sam for one.) So to protect yourself, please slow down, check out the story, consult an expert online or in person or, if all else fails, tell a friend of your concerns.

Hang up on robocalls. If answering the phone, you hear a recorded sales pitch, instantly hang up and report it to the FTC. These calls are illegal. Don't press 1 (or any other number) to speak to a "person" or to be taken off the list. This lets the scammer know a real person lives at this number and Charlie Crook will besiege you with many more calls.

Watch out for free trial offers. Hey, we're only human and want something for nothing. Some companies sign us up for "free" products and bill us every month until you cancel (sometimes within a certain tiny-print deadline). Never agree to a free trial until you've thoroughly researched the company and read the cancellation policy. As always, eyeball monthly credit card statements to ensure charges you didn't make don't appear.

And, finally, sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams. The Federal Trade Commission will in turn send to your inbox the latest tips and advice about scams and protective measures. The FTC is also the agency for which to report scams at ftc.gov/complaint.

Tax Tip: For self-employed taxpayers, keep track of business expenses, even if you work from home. Examples include office supplies, client dinners, travel, rentals, licenses, and any other expenditure that serves a purpose for your business.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.