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4 Nasty Phone and Email Scams: How to Stay Safe

The 'EZ-Pass' email and fake calls for computer repairs, taxes and grants

posted by Caroline Mayer, November 19, 2014 More by this author

Caution key on keyboard

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


Caution key on keyboard
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Given the recent number of annoying telemarketing calls and suspicious emails I’ve received the past two weeks, it’s clear that scammers did not take the summer off.

In fact, they seem to be busier than ever. Odds are you’ve gotten at least one, too.
 
Her Recent Experiences

Three that just came my way:
 
Last week, “Mark” called, saying he was from the U.S. Government — the Family Grants and Treasury Department. “Really?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of such a department.” He responded: “We’re for real. Let me give you our address.” I readied my pen and paper, but suddenly the telephone line went dead. My subsequent search on the Internet confirmed my suspicion that the call was a scam.
 
The same day “Mark” phoned, I received an email from “E-ZPass Service Center,” allegedly the division dealing with customers of the electronic toll-collection system used east of the Mississippi. The email alert said I’d failed to pay a toll. “Please service your debt in the shortest possible time,” it added, providing a link to my invoice. Just one problem: I don’t have an E-ZPass account. (Two days earlier, I had read a government alert about this very scam.)

(MORE: Get Rid of Telemarketers for Good!)
 
A few days earlier, “Johnny” called from a “technical-service center” to say he was very concerned that some spyware may have been sent to me over the Internet. “Computers are crashing day by day,” he warned, but said he could help check my Windows operating system to see if it had been infected. “That’s very interesting,” I replied. “I’m working on a Mac.” Johnny abruptly disconnected.
 
Telemarketing and email frauds like these seem to generate new alerts from law enforcement officials almost daily. Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), says there’s now practically a “scam du jour.”
 
About the only hot scam I haven’t received — yet! — is a call from an alleged Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent demanding payment for an unpaid tax bill. Roughly 1,100 victims have lost an estimated $5 million from this one, according to the IRS, which issued a warning about it in early August.
 
Telemarketing Abuses Are Rampant

But I’m far from appreciative. In fact, I’m angry — especially at the phone calls, since they’re not only an intrusive interruption in my home, but also a violation of the federal Do Not Call List, which bars telemarketers from calling numbers on the list. Mine has been on the Do Not Call List since the first day I could register it in 2003.
 
Telemarketing abuses were the fastest growing consumer complaint in 2013, according to the latest CFA report, done in cooperation with the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI).

(MORE: 4 Scams When Booking Travel Online)
 
That echoed a similar finding by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which said that phone solicitations accounted for 40 percent of all fraud complaints in 2013; emails were 33 percent of them. That’s a big change from 2011, when the percentages were virtually reversed. (A new Harris/Nielsen survey said phone scams cost Americas $8.6 billion a year, victimizing about 17.6 million adults.)
 
The reason for the fraud complaint flip is simple. “Technology makes it so easy and cheap for scammers to be calling you these days that they’re resorting to the phone, where they once migrated to the Internet,” says Grant. What's more, she adds, “The personal connection works. You’re much more likely to react to a person calling you out of the blue than responding to an unsolicited email which we’ve now all been trained to be a little suspicious.”
 
But that hasn’t stopped the E-ZPass scheme and other email phishing scams where fraudsters pretend to be legitimate businesses to gain access to your personal information.

(MORE: Scammers Are Targeting Your Retirement Funds)
 
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Here’s how to avoid becoming a victim of the four scams I’ve described:
    
THE TECH SUPPORT SCAM
 
This was the newest and fastest-growing scam consumer-protection investigators grappled with in 2013 (and are still battling). Although a “technician” posing as someone from your Internet service provider, Apple, Microsoft or a tech-repair service says your computer has been infected with a virus, there is no virus. The “repair” site you’re told to use contains malware, which when downloaded on your computer, will let a scammer steal your passwords, account numbers and other personal information. A federal court temporarily shut down two such massive telemarketing operations in November 2014, at the request of the Federal Trade Commission and the state of Floriday.
 
“People are obviously alarmed when get a call telling them there’s a dangerous problem on their computer,” says Grant. “They panic and provide their payment account information without stopping to think about it or checking with anyone first. It’s only after they react that they discover they’ve actually caused themselves a problem, not solved one.”
 
Sometimes, the scammer then demands payment (often $200 or more) to remove the malware. But even then, your computer may remain infected. The only way to now fix your computer is to pay a legitimate repair service, which can easily run into hundreds of dollars. And that’s the easy part. Says the CFA report: “fixing the problems resulting from other sensitive personal information being compromised can be even more difficult.”
 
How to stay safe: First, says Grant, beware of unsolicited tech-support calls. “No one would be legitimately calling you out of the blue to let you know there’s a problem with your computer or operating system,” she says. And never provide your credit card number, financial information or passwords to someone claiming to be from tech support.
 
It’s possible that you may hear from your bank or credit card issuer about suspicious activity on your account or from your email account provider about a security breach. In that case, Grant says, go directly to the company that contacted you — via the phone number or email address you’d normally use, not the one in the solicitation — to see if there has, indeed, been a breach that you need to correct.
 
The best defense against such scams, says Grant, “is to have a good antivirus and antispyware system on your computer,  keep it updated and run it periodically.” For more advice on how to keep your computer secure, visit the the FTC’s Onguard Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance’s Stay Safe Online.
 
THE E-ZPASS SCAM
 
It comes in an email that appears to be legitimate — with the slanted, purple and white E-ZPass logo — and a link to click for your invoice. However, according to the FTC, the link goes to the scammers who might then put malware on your computer or misuse any personal data you give them to pay for the phony invoice you received.
 
How to stay safe: If you get an E-ZPass email and think it may be legit, contact your state's E-ZPass customer service department to confirm it.
 
Remember: email is not a secure way to send personal account information. Instead, go directly to a company’s site (make sure to type the address yourself) and don’t send any personal information unless the URL begins with “https.” The “s” stands for “secure.” 
 
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT GRANT SCAM
 
This doozy has been around for years, but it's still going strong.
 
The "grant" callers are allegedly from the U.S. Government and may come from nonexistent agencies. Whatever name they use, they’re trying to trick you into paying money for a fictional government grant you’ve “won” but will never receive. You might be asked for your checking account number so the caller can “deposit your grant” or you might be told to pay a “processing fee” which will be refunded if you’re not satisfied (so they say). But the FTC says, “you’ll never see the grant they promise; they will disappear with your money.”
   
How to stay safe: If you think the call is on the up and up, see if the agency exists by going to Grants.gov, the official access point for federal grant-making agencies. Then, contact the agency to confirm, using the information on the federal website, not what you were given by the initial contact.
 
And don’t pay a nickel for a “free” government grant. A real government agency doesn’t charge a processing fee for a grant you’ve won.
 
THE IRS PHONE CALL SCAM
 
This is a variation of the government grants scheme; but instead of pretending to offer money, the crooks scare people by claiming they need to pay taxes or face a penalty. The scammers often use fake names and IRS badge numbers and “spoof” the IRS toll-free number on caller ID to make it look like a genuine call. (They may also know the last four digits of your Social Security number.)
 
Worse, these calls are threatening, saying that if you don’t pay immediately, you’ll face jail time or lose your driver’s license. After these threats are made, the scammer may hang up, but another one might then phone pretending to be from the local police or the Department of Motor Vehicles (with the appropriately spoofed Caller ID) to make the first call appear legitimate.
    
How to stay safe: “Taxpayers should remember that their first contact with the IRS will not be a call from out of the blue but through official correspondence sent through the mail, said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in a statement about the scam. “What’s more,” he added, making angry, threatening calls “is not how we operate.” So if you get such a call: hang up. Then, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration: call 800-366-4484.
 
If you truly do think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 and discuss the matter with an actual IRS employee.