Scams have long been a problem, but thanks to a recent change in government rules, it may now be even harder to spot them.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in November began allowing debt collection agencies to contact you through social media. They won’t be able to publicly post on Facebook walls or in Instagram comments, but they can now slide into your direct messages to contact you.
Many experts say this change makes it easier for scammers to target people through social media, posing as debt collectors.
The News & Observer talked to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein about how consumers can protect themselves from scammers posing as debt collection agencies, and as fraudulent organizations and fake charities.
We also pulled information from other organizations that offer tips on spotting scams.
Stein shared this advice to avoid getting scammed.
1. Be wary when shopping online: The DOJ is seeing a number of complaints about fraudulent items for sale, Stein said. “People thought they were purchasing something, only to find out that the scammer had put up a simple photo of a product that they never had. Then they sold it at a very desirable price because they never intended to fulfill the order.”
2. Beware of “porch poachers”: Criminals will come to front doors and steal delivered packages off of porches, Stein said. This picks up toward the end of the year when lots of holiday shopping takes place online. Tip: Track your packages diligently, and make arrangements to pick up your package as soon as it’s delivered.
3. Double check delivery emails: Scammers will send fake emails or texts that look like they’re coming from UPS, FedEx or Amazon, Stein said. They do this in an attempt to phish for people’s personal information. These messages will sometimes ask customers to submit their personal information — like home address or financial information — by saying that they need the information to fulfill the online order.
4. Stay alert on social media: “We get bombarded by so many different means — whether it’s email, social media, telephone, text, mail or even the front door,” Stein said. “And because there are so many ways for people to reach us, it’s easy to get confused — particularly when you’re distracted, as we so frequently are.” Tip: If a loan provider seems to be contacting you through social media, contact the organization separately to confirm that the group really needs your attention.
5. Look out for fraudulent charities: Many people do lots of charitable giving at the end of the year, and scammers will use social media to promote fake charities, Stein said. Make sure that you know the organization is legitimate and puts the money to good use when donating your dollars. Tip: You can use a site such as Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) or Guidestar (guidestar.org) to check out a charity.
6. Don’t click links or call numbers: If someone contacts you pretending to be from a major organization (such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration), and if the message includes a phone number or a web link, do not click the link or call the number. Instead, contact the organization independently: call the publicly advertised phone number or use the web link publicly available, Stein said. The phone numbers and web links typically sent over text messages, emails or direct messages usually connect to scammers, not to the legitimate organization.
7. Pay with a credit card: If you pay with a debit card or a gift card, you won’t be able to cancel a transaction or potentially get your money back in the event that your purchase is not sent to you, Stein said.
8. Use DOJ’s telephone resource: If you want to learn more about any of this or see if a message you got is potentially fraudulent, call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or 1-919-716-6000 for assistance. This is a toll-free number. (You can also visit the website at ncdoj.gov.)
Popular scams to look out for
Here are popular types of scams to look out for, per Scamwatch:
• COVID-19 scams: Scammers are using the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) to take advantage of people across the world. Example: Scammers posing as loan service providers calling with fake messages of loan forgiveness. These scammers might ask for social security numbers or bank information.
• Attempts to get your personal information: Scammers use all kinds of sneaky approaches to steal your personal details. Example: A fraudulent FedEx or UPS email will ask you to confirm your name, home address and/or phone number. Once obtained, they can use your identity to commit fraudulent activities such as using your credit card or opening a bank account.
• Buying or selling: Scammers prey on consumers and businesses that are buying or selling products and services. Not every transaction is legitimate. Example: An online seller might post a photo of an item that they do not actually have. You’ll send money for an item that will never arrive.
• Dating and romance: Scammers take advantage of people looking for romantic partners, often via dating websites, apps or social media by pretending to be prospective companions. They play on emotional triggers to get you to provide money, gifts or personal details.
• Fake charities: Scammers impersonate genuine charities and ask for donations, or contact people claiming to collect money after natural disasters or major events.
• Investments: Scammers have invented all sorts of fake money-making opportunities to prey on people looking for ways to make money. Example: A scammer claiming to be a stock broker or portfolio manager calls, emails or contacts you on social media and offers financial or investment advice. They may even claim to be from an investment firm or company you have heard of, as scammers sometimes impersonate these businesses to seem legitimate.
• Jobs and employment: Jobs and employment scams trick you into handing over your money by offering you a “guaranteed’ way to make fast money or a high-paying job for little effort.
• Threats and extortion: Scammers will use any means possible to steal your identity or your money — including threatening your life or “hijacking” your computer.
• Unexpected money: Scammers invent convincing and seemingly legitimate reasons to give you false hope about offers of money. There are no get-rich-quick schemes, so always think twice before handing over your details or dollars.
• Unexpected winnings: Don’t be lured by a surprise win. These scams try to trick you into giving money or your personal information upfront in order to receive a prize from a lottery or competition that you never entered.
NC Dept. of Justice: 10 tips to avoid frauds and scams
1. Say no, walk away: Say no to high-pressure sales pitches. If the offer is only good today, walk away.
2. Don’t sign before reading: Always read contracts carefully before you sign them, and make sure all written documents match what you’ve been promised. Never sign a document that you don’t understand or that has blanks to be filled in later.
3. Be cautious: Especially when responding to telemarketers, door-to-door sellers, and email or text pitches. Instead of responding to unsolicited offers, decide when and where you want to go shopping.
4. Don’t pay for a prize: You never have to make a purchase or pay taxes, fees or other expenses in advance to win a prize. Anyone who demands an upfront fee for a prize is trying to scam you.
5. Don’t give out personal info: Never give out your Social Security Number, credit card or bank account number or other personal information to anyone you don’t know who contacts you.
6. Be skeptical of upfront fees: If an advance payment is required for other kinds of transactions, use a credit card when possible. This gives you some protection if your order doesn’t arrive or the work isn’t completed.
7. Know who you’re dealing with: Do business with companies you know or that come recommended by those you trust. Check out companies with your state’s Attorney General’s Office or your local Better Business Bureau before making major purchases.
8. Join the “Do Not Call” registry: You’ll cut down on unwanted telemarketing calls. To sign up, call 1-888-382-1222 from the number you wish to register or visit donotcall.gov. Once you’re on the list, report Do No Call violators to the Attorney General’s Office.
9. Check your credit report regularly: You’re entitled to one free credit report per year from each nationwide credit bureau. To access your free credit reports, visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
10. If it’s too good to be true …: If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
How to spot that you’re getting scammed
The FTC has four signs that you might be getting scammed:
1. Scammers pretend to be from an organization you know: Scammers often pretend to be contacting you on behalf of the government. They might use a real name, like the Social Security Administration, the IRS, or Medicare, or make up a name that sounds official. Some pretend to be from a business you know, like a utility company, a tech company, or even a charity asking for donations.
2. Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize: They might say you’re in trouble with the government. Or you owe money. Or someone in your family had an emergency. Or that there’s a virus on your computer. Some scammers say there’s a problem with one of your accounts and that you need to verify some information. Others will lie and say you won money in a lottery or sweepstakes but have to pay a fee to get it.
3. Scammers pressure you to act immediately: Scammers want you to act before you have time to think. If you’re on the phone, they might tell you not to hang up so you can’t check out their story. They might threaten to arrest you, sue you, take away your driver’s or business license, or deport you. They might say your computer is about to be corrupted.
4. Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way: They often insist that you pay by sending money through a money transfer company or by putting money on a gift card and then giving them the number on the back. Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), tell you to deposit it, and then send them money.
What to do if you were scammed
Here’s what the FTC says to do if you were the victim of a scam:
• If you paid by debit or credit card: If you paid a tech support scammer with a credit or debit card, you may be able to stop the transaction. Contact your credit card company or bank right away. Tell them what happened and ask if they can reverse the charges.
• If you paid with a gift card: If you paid a tech support scammer with a gift card, contact the company that issued the card right away. Tell them you paid a scammer with the gift card and ask if they can refund your money.
• If you gave computer access: If you gave a scammer remote access to your computer, update your computer’s security software. Then run a scan and delete anything it identifies as a problem.
• If you gave login credentials: If you gave your user name and password to a tech support scammer, change your password right away. If you use the same password for other accounts or sites, change it there, too. Create a new password that is strong.
Be wary when shopping online — the Department of Justice is seeing a number of complaints about fraudulent items for sale, says North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.