Negative option contracts keep you on the hook

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via ‘Negative option’ plans keep you on the hook, clarionledger.com

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This sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? For only $1.03 plus shipping, you could try a new product that promises “visibly whiter teeth.”

Teeth-whitening products have soared in popularity in recent years, and anything that promises to deliver a brighter smile is bound to get attention. But many consumers who signed up for one particular “trial” offer found themselves on the hook for hundreds of dollars per month until they were finally able to cancel their subscriptions.

The Federal Trade Commission last week got a federal court to put the brakes on a wide-ranging scheme involving 78 companies, at least 87 different websites and dozens of bank accounts. The agency accuses the operators of the plans with “using deceptive claims, hidden fine-print disclosures and confusing terms” to lure customers into providing billing information, and began charging them about $100 a month if they didn’t cancel within eight days. In addition, they allegedly used an “order confirmation page” to trick customers into signing up for a second subscription, leading some customers to pay more than $200 a month until cancelling.

Now, any reasonably-intelligent person would know there’s always a catch to an offer that starts out costing so little. Many of us remember the “buy a record for a penny, get 10 more free” plans that became common in the 1980s (and which still exist today). For a ridiculously small, up-front payment, you could get 11 albums for “free.” But if you signed up for this offer, you found yourself getting a shipment every few weeks, for which you had to pay full price, until you cancelled. (Of course, the terms of most of these offers were pretty clearly stated, even if you had to look at the fine print, and even if you had to wait on the phone awhile, you usually could cancel.)

This type of operation (legitimate or scam) relies on what’s known as the “negative option.” If you sign up for the offer, you’re obligated until you cancel. If they don’t hear from you, the assumption is that you are agreeing to continue the service. (If that’s what you want, it’s not a problem.) In reality, most recurring services are provided on a negative-option basis. But what distinguishes a scam from a legitimate offer is that scammers go out of their way to make it difficult for you to cancel, or trick you into more obligations.

Negative-option subscription plans (and their cousins, automatic-renewal contracts) are more common today than ever, and companies find them attractive because they don’t have to go to the expense of trying to get customers to renew. It takes a lot of expense and trouble to lure new customers or to try to persuade existing ones to renew their commitment.

But the problem for consumers is that, even if they try to cancel, it can be difficult. You’ve probably notice that most subscription services (there are some notable exceptions, such as Netflix) don’t readily supply you with an easy way to cancel, and make you call and explain why you’re trying to cancel.

For negative-option or auto-renewing contracts associated with subscription offers, the FTC requires the following information be provided clearly and conspicuously, and these are good questions to ask before you sign up for any subscription service or trial offer:

  • What is the minimum purchase requirement, if any?
  • How and when can I cancel my membership?
  • How many notifications will I have to respond to, and how often will you receive them?
  • How do I reject merchandise, and who pays for returns?
  • How much time do you have to reject merchandise?
  • Is postage and handling included in the product price?

Finally, it’s a good idea to keep copies or information for all transactions and conversations you have with the company or its representatives, and keep track of any dates required to cancel services. While a free trial should give you the chance to try something you might (or might not) end up wanting, it shouldn’t be a ticket to a customer-service nightmare.

For more info on buying plans and negative-option agreements, visit http://bit.ly/2fpP14s.

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Mobile companies responding to call for more scam protections

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T-Mobile’s Scam ID – tmobile.com

via Do scammers have your number?

PDF: Carriers and Phone Scams

Scam calls have become so common many people don’t even bother to answer the phone anymore unless they recognize the number. While Caller ID is overall a great invention that has saved countless people from having to engage in unwanted conversations, spoofing technology now allows scammers to make it look as if the call comes from pretty much any location they want.

In the “old days,” pretty much everybody who had a phone could be found in the phone book. Technology to autodial thousands of numbers at once was still in its infancy, and the risk of being contacted by a scammer was pretty low. Long-distance charges made it expensive to call from outside local areas, and it was hard to make a lot of money this way.

On the other hand, since we had no way of knowing who was calling, most of us picked up the phone and answered. “Screening” consisted of the person who answered the phone asking who was calling, and then deciding whether or not to talk to the individual. (Frequently, the result was a lot of bewildered parents who had to decide how to handle the caller when their teenager was in a spat with their significant other.)

But that was then. Today, a scammer sitting in a Third World slum or well-equipped “boiler room” operation in a big city can place a call to you from the other side of the globe at little cost. Once they’ve got you on the phone, they’ll spin a yarn about how you’re about to be arrested by the IRS or claim to be your grandchild who’s been arrested in the Virgin Islands as he was helping a friend renew his wedding vows. If they’re successful in getting past your defenses, they’ll get you to wire money you’ll never see again.

It’s a big problem, since most of us use our cellphones and a lot of us have ditched our old-fashioned landlines. Crooks know this, and cellphones are now taking the brunt of the scam traffic. The Federal Communications Commission, in calling on cell providers to do something about the problem, noted that Americans received 29 billion robocalls last year. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai convened a “robocall strike force” last year, consisting of 33 telecom and tech companies.

And the industry appears to be responding. AT&T rolled out its free Call Protect app in December, which it claims has blocked a billion robocalls already, and Verizon and Sprint have announced fee-based services to provide some protection. T-Mobile announced July 24 that customers of its MetroPCS prepaid service now have access to Scam ID and Scam Block, which flag calls from numbers reported to be scams. The services were originally rolled out for T-Mobile customers in April, and in a news release, the company claimed to have flagged 243 million calls as potential scams and saved its customers from potential $130 million in scam losses. (The company says it got those numbers by figuring the average phone-scam victim loses $274, with about 0.2 percent of all calls being successful scams.)

With Scam ID, customers who get a call from a likely problem number will see a “likely scam” alert beside the number, and you can choose to accept or deny the call. With Scam Block, numbers from known scammers will be automatically blocked before they ever reach you.

T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert noted studies of the data since the April rollout have revealed scammers usually work a standard 8-to-5 workday, with far less activity at night and on weekends. You’re most likely to get a call in the late afternoon, and most scam numbers are used only once.

For consumers, these services could potentially cut down on the number of scammers who actually reach their targets, but that’s only part of the problem. Until everybody learns that scammers are really good at using the phone as a way to steal and they stop talking to unknown people on the phone, the scourge of phone scams is likely going to be harder to eradicate than kudzu on a Mississippi farm.

Churches, charities hit in office supply scam

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via Churches, charities hit in office-supply scam, clarionledger.com

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If you run a small business or nonprofit organization, you already know it’s tough out there. Besides working in a tough economic environment, charities and small businesses find themselves having to look for ways to save a buck every way they can. Unfortunately, that can make them targets of scammers, promising amazing deals that never pan out or even trying to collect money for orders that were never made.

This week, federal regulators announced they’d put a stop to an office-supply scam that allegedly swindled child care centers, educational institutions, churches, hospitals and other nonprofits by calling them and tricking them into paying for overpriced supplies they never ordered.

The Federal Trade Commission got federal courts to freeze the assets of several companies based in Maryland and California that are accused of using a variety of tactics to get companies on the hook for unordered merchandise. The agency announced the action in a news release this week.

“The defendants lied to small businesses, charities and churches to get them to pay for overpriced supplies they didn’t order,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “That’s not only shameful, it’s also illegal.”

In the California case, Beverly Hills-based Telestar Consulting Inc. (also doing business as Kleritec and United Business Supply, and Karl Wesley Angel) allegedly used a variety of tactics to persuade consumers to pay for unordered merchandise. For example, the FTC alleges the defendants called the consumers to offer supposed deals on, or free samples of, items like art supplies and cleaning products.

They also asked consumers to accept an additional shipment by falsely calling it a ‘backorder’ that was supposedly part of an order the consumer had already paid for, and then billed them for the so-called ‘backorder,’” noted the FTC. In other instances, the defendants claimed consumers had agreed to multiple shipments, when at most they had agreed to only one shipment. In addition, in instances in which consumers agreed to make a purchase, the defendants allegedly failed to disclose the total cost and quantity of goods, and the terms of the sale.

If the invoices were ignored or not paid promptly, the companies allegedly threatened to send the organizations to collections agencies. “Consumers who paid under a mistaken belief that they had to do so — some paid thousands of dollars more than what they were legally obligated to pay — often received more unordered merchandise and bills for payment,” the release noted.

In the Maryland case, the FTC charged six companies and three individuals around a scheme involving light bulbs and cleaning supplies. The scheme allegedly hired telemarketers who “falsely indicated that they had done business with the consumers earlier and that they were offering a free sample or catalog, without properly disclosing that they were making a sales call.”

The scheme allegedly relied on the fact the person ordering merchandise and the person processing invoices didn’t know what the other was doing. If invoices were paid, the company received future shipments of unordered merchandise.

This type of scheme is successful for several reasons. For one, many people believe unordered merchandise must be paid for (the law says that, in most cases, you don’t have to pay for anything you didn’t order). Secondly, scams use smooth-talking telemarketers, who trick people (on a recorded call) into answering “yes” to an unrelated question, doctoring the recording and using it as evidence the order was made. And finally, there is often a lack of good communication between those making purchases and those paying the invoices.

To read the complaint in its entirety, visit http://bit.ly/2utdLhC.

Wary widow thwarts grandparent scam

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US News Money

via ‘Grandparent’ scammer fails to hook Miss. victim, clarionledger.com

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A wary Mississippi widow has thwarted efforts by a crook whom she believes got information from an obituary, then attempted to use it to rip her off with the “grandparent” scam.

This story proves that scammers are not above taking advantage of people going through some of life’s greatest trials, but also how quick thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism can help you avoid becoming a victim.

You may recall that I recently wrote about this pernicious scam, in which the scammer calls an elderly person pretending to be a grandchild or other relative who’s in trouble and needs money fast. But they met their match when they called this 81-year-old Flowood widow one morning a couple of weeks ago. She didn’t want to share her name but wanted to tell her story to help others who may be at risk. “If I could save just one person from being taken in, it would be worth the trouble,” she told me.

Our potential victim, who lost her husband of 63 years in March, believes the crook used information gleaned from an online obituary for her husband. When she got a call recently purportedly from her grandson Brad in Omaha, Nebraska, she immediately sensed that something wasn’t right.

“It’s bad when they start using the obituaries,” she told me. “I can see where people in a bereaved state could be taken in by this scam.”

Her internal alarm bells began to ring immediately as she got the call, allegedly from Brad (but in a different voice than usual) who said simply, “This is Brad. The reason I’m talking like this, my nose is broken.” But that set off an immediate red flag, since Brad would never just start talking to her without addressing her as “Mom-maw.” But she went with it anyway, to see where the story would lead.

“Brad” went on to tell the potential victim that he had been in a “bad, bad wreck,” describing a situation in which a friend named “Sam” had asked for transportation to the doctor’s office. On the way, they had been in a car accident. “Sam,” the story went, was taken away in an ambulance, and “Brad” was charged with reckless driving. “Sam’s lawyer says if I can get the bail money he can get me out of jail,” he continued. “So, I thought maybe you could send me some money.”

But the wary widow wasn’t having any of it, and told the caller that all her money was tied up. “Why haven’t you called your dad?” she asked, then the caller hung up abruptly. She knew that, if Brad had really been in an accident, his first call would be to his dad, who lives nearby. “Brad would have called his dad before he even got out of the wrecked car,” she noted.

This is a textbook version of the grandparent scam, in which the caller lays out a potentially believable story, then asks for money — throwing in a few details along the way to make the story sound legit. Since obituaries contain a lot of details about the deceased person’s family, locations and interests, they can be a potential treasure trove of information for would-be scammers.

And, if our suspicious senior had not been skeptical about the call she got that day, she might have been taken in. But it’s the details that gave the scammer away: subtle differences in the words he used, departures from normal behavior and facts that just don’t add up. Unfortunately, many people each year fall victim to scammers using these tactics, sending millions via Western Union or GreenDot, never to be seen again. These crooks know their devious craft and do their homework.

This lady’s story illustrates the fact there is danger from these scams, and how having presence of mind can help you detect when a story is not all it’s being claimed to be. If you get a call like this one, exercising a bit of skepticism can keep you from making a costly mistake if you fall for it.

“Grandparent scam” on the rise again

Aged woman talk on phone

via ‘Grandparent Scam’ on the rise again, clarionledger.com

PDF: Grandparent Scam on rise again

During the past few years, scammers have gotten better at figuring out ways around potential victims’ natural skepticism. Using a variety of lies and trickery, they steal millions each year from unwary marks.

In this column, I’ve written numerous times about a particularly odious form of thievery known as the grandparent scam. Unfortunately, seniors in the Magnolia State are increasingly getting calls like this — often in the dead of night.

Purveyors of this lie will call seniors pretending to be a grandchild in trouble, another family member or friend. Tactics vary, but a typical ruse is to pretend to be in jail, to claim they’ve had all their money stolen while traveling or say they’re been hospitalized in a foreign country. But it eventually gets around to a request for cash to be wired. Often, they’ll put someone else on the line to lend credibility to the call, pretending to be a police officer, lawyer or doctor. If you respond, your money will vanish without a trace. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a warning this week about this activity.

“Wiring money is identical to mailing cash,” Hood noted in a news release. “There are no protections for the sender and no way to reverse the transaction, trace the money, or recover payment from the telephone con artists. These scammers will try to convince their victims to send any amount — from several hundred to several thousand dollars — and they may even call back hours or days later asking for more money if they were successful the first time.”

Hood said his office has seen a recent uptick in reports about the scam, with Harrison and Hinds counties seeing the most activity. This variant of the scam requests the victim wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram, or in some cases, to provide bank account and bank routing numbers.

Nationally, the grandparent scam is a growing concern for law enforcement. In 2015, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging reported more than 10,500 complaint calls came in about people impersonating family members or friends in attempts to convince victims to send money. Many took the bait, resulting in millions being wired to scammers.

Hood offered this advice if your phone rings:

Don’t wire money unless you have properly assessed the situation or in some way verified with others close to your loved one that they are really in trouble.

Be suspicious if your loved one requests or demands that you keep the phone call a secret by claiming to be embarrassed and/or scared.

Avoid panic. If you receive communication from a “loved one” (scammer) who claims to be traveling and is in some sort of distress or financial bind asking you to urgently wire them money, be calm and think. Does the story sound plausible?

Call before doing anything. Immediately after receiving the call or message, try calling your “loved one” back, but at the telephone number through which you normally reach that person to see if he or she reached out or attempted to reach out to you using an odd or long-distance number. It’s also a good idea to check with others to check out the story. For example, if the person claims to be your grandchild, call their parents or siblings and ask them to verify the details of the story.

“Our goal is to help educate and make our senior citizens and loved ones aware of these kinds of unfortunate and disheartening scams,” Hood said. “I strongly urge you to never give out any personal identifying information or account numbers to anyone unless you are certain the individual is who they claim to be and will use the information for the reason they have requested it.”

If you’ve been victimized or been approached with a scam like this, immediately report it to local law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection Division at 601-359-4230 or 800-281-4418. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission at 877-FTC-HELP.

The attorney general’s office also has a publication called the Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding the Grandparent Scam. You can download it at http://bit.ly/2tBkOnP or call the Consumer Protection Division for a copy.

Correction to previous storyIn my column last week about the group Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) and their attempt to place an initiative on the ballot in Colorado, I misstated the number of signatures the group is seeking to collect. Many news outlets have reported the number as 300,000, but Dr. Tim Farnum, president of the group, emailed me to state that number was in error and the number is actually just shy of 100,000. We strive to verify everything, but occasionally we get it wrong. Our apologies for the error.

Feds, Fla. authorities shut down robocall ring that targeted seniors

via Feds, Fla. authorities shut down robocall ring that targeted seniors, clarionledger.com

PDF: Robocall Ring Seniors 1Robocall Ring Seniors 2

With millions of Americans deeply in debt, many are looking for a lifeline to help them deal with it. Statistics released around the end of 2016 showed that Americans’ personal debt had exploded by $460 billion, the biggest increase in nearly a decade and bringing total indebtedness dangerously close to the record-setting 2008 levels of $12.7 trillion.

Such debt makes some Americans vulnerable to promises of relief from their crushing load, and millions are getting robocalls and marketing pitches from both established companies and fly-by-night scam artists. Many of these schemes target seniors, many on fixed incomes who are already carrying heavy debt loads. But this week, the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida attorney general shuttered one tangled operation that pitched “worthless” credit card rate reduction programs to millions.

Orlando-based “Card Member Services,” doing business as Payless Solutions, allegedly set up robocalls that promised that consumers could pay off their debt faster and cheaper in exchange for up-front fees ranging from $300 to nearly $5,000. But, according to authorities, it was all too good to be true.

A federal district court judge last week signed eight orders against the operation, the agencies announced last week, stemming from a joint complaint against the operation, which ran from 2011 until the 2015 complaint.

The operation is accused of claiming that consumers could save at least $2,500 in a short period of time if they paid the fees, but many consumers reported they got no action in return for their money. Some consumers received a “package of financial education information,” and in some cases, found that the defendants had used their personal information to apply for new credit cards without their knowledge or consent. In addition, many of the numbers called were on the national Do-Not-Call Registry, and violated other telemarketing statutes.

Under the action announced last week, charges have been settled against 18 defendants, in some cases imposing financial penalties. Monetary judgments of $4.8 million were requested, but were suspended because the defendants said they couldn’t pay. The FTC’s news release noted the defendants were ordered to stop their illegal activities, but didn’t say whether any of them are going to jail or if any of the scam’s victims are going to be compensated.

If you get a call from someone claiming to be able to reduce your interest rate, or enroll you in a special program that requires up-front fees, it’s probably a scam. Giving your personal information to someone who calls you with such promises can result in identity theft, so be skeptical if anyone calls. If it’s a robocall, let it go to voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. That also gives you the option to check it out before returning any calls.

Phone scammers using new tactics

IRS-phone-scam-prevent-fraudFrom Phone scammers using new tactics, clarionledger.com

PDF:Phone scammers using new tactics

It’s hard to imagine a world without caller ID. But it really wasn’t but a couple of decades ago that most people had no idea who might be on the other end of the call when their phones rang. Since so many calls even then turned out to be from telemarketers or scammers, many people just relied on their answering machines if they wanted to screen their calls.

Having been invented almost as soon as the telephone itself, the answering machine helped record business calls for many decades before finally becoming affordable enough for everyday consumers in the 1980s. When they finally had access to answering machines, people began to “screen” their calls, introducing the notion of being able to put off answering a phone call (or ignore it completely). So when the first Caller ID units were introduced in the 1980s, they became instantly popular. For the first time, you could actually see who was calling while the call was in progress — and decide whether to answer.

Of course, telemarketers and scammers found ways to get their calls through, with some unscrupulous companies even beginning to “spoof” phone numbers to fool the Caller ID by hiding the real number from which the call originated. Since then, phone scammers and potential victims have been engaged in a sort of virtual arms race, with each side aided by technology designed to defeat the other’s strategies.

Recently, Inc. magazine ran a story by Joseph Steinberg alerting consumers to three ways phone scammers can steal your money. The first involves a scammer calling your phone using an autodialer (a machine programmed to call thousands of numbers), then hanging up before anybody can answer. They do this repeatedly, in a bid to pique your curiosity so you’ll call the number. A second variant involves the scammer calling your number, waiting for an answer, then introducing the sound of crying or screaming. At this point, the scammer hangs up, hoping you’ll call back to see if you can help.

And in the third tactic, the criminal texts you with an alarming message that someone is in danger of being hurt or killed, with a request that you call back. By placing a call to one of these numbers, you can incur huge charges on your phone bill, and they often aren’t included on phone plans.

These scams are known as “473,” “Ring-and-Run” or “One Ring” scams, and the scammers only want to get you to call specific numbers so they can bill you for huge charges. The number 473 is the area code for some island nations, but a lot of other numbers and countries are used as well. (Criminals, noted Steinberg, adjusted their tactics after consumers learned to avoid making calls to numbers starting with 809.)

This latest advice comes on the heels of what’s become known as the “yes” call scam, in which a criminal gets someone on the phone and asks you a seemingly innocuous question such as “Can you hear me?” only to find that the crook has recorded your “yes” answer and used it as evidence you ordered a product you never agreed to order.

To help you avoid these scams, Steinberg has this advice: “If you miss a call, whomever called can send you a text message (or leave a voicemail),” he advises. “If they did neither, and you don’t know who called, don’t worry about it. Also, remember that it’s unlikely that someone you do not know who is in distress at a location with which you are not familiar would dial a random number in another country and ask you to help them — they would call the police.”

To see Steinberg’s excellent article (including a list of area codes of concern), visit http://on.inc.com/2na78JY.

Robocallers disguise true purpose

From Robocallers disguise true purpose, clarionledger.com

Federal and state law enforcement agencies recently announced they had closed the investigation into an illegal telemarketing operation that allegedly placed billions of “robocalls” promising consumers a free cruise to the Bahamas in exchange for taking a phone survey. After the survey was over, the recipients got a sales pitch for cruises and various vacation packages instead of their promised free cruise.

This case has been brewing for several years. In 2011 and 2012, a company called Caribbean Cruise Lines and its partners made phones ring across the continent, raking in millions of dollars. During the scheme, a reported 12 million to 15 million robocalls a day were made, often under the guise that the calls were being used to conduct political research. This is just the latest in a string of investigations and settlements that began in 2015, but the recent announcement (the fifth and final consent judgment) closes the books on this far-reaching operation.

The latest action prohibits owner Fred Accuardi and his companies from assisting or participating in operations that violate the Telemarketing Sales Rule and other applicable laws. In previous judgments, fines of $1.35 million had been levied, but all but $2,500 of those fines were suspended after the defendants said they couldn’t pay.

Mississippi’s Public Service Commission and attorney general’s office were among the 10 state regulators (along with federal authorities) recognized for their role in shutting down the operation. “I commend the FTC, my fellow attorneys general and the Mississippi Public Service Commission for their hard work and dedication in the fight to protect consumers from this type of illegal business practices,” noted Attorney General Jim Hood last week.

The original complaint charged Accuardi and his companies with “assisting and facilitating the illegal calls by providing robocallers with hundreds of telephone numbers, making it possible for them to choose and change the names that would appear on consumers’ caller ID devices, funding a part of the robocalling campaigns, and hiding the robocallers’ identities from authorities,” the FTC noted in a news release.

While you’re unlikely to be getting more robocalls from this particular operation, most phone users get these calls every day. The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for enforcing a number of rules and regulations of the growing robocalling industry. Here are a few points of the law regarding robocalling, courtesy of the FCC:

  • Most calls made without your consent are illegal. A company may call your landline or cellphone only if you have previously given your consent to call them. You can give permission on paper, by filling out an online form, or by pressing buttons on your phone in response to specific requests. According to the FCC, “telemarketers are no longer able to make telemarketing robocalls to your landline home telephone based solely on an ‘established business relationship’ that you may have established when purchasing something from a business or contacting the business to ask questions.”
  • There are exceptions. Certain robocalls are permissible, such as those made to announce school closings, airline flight cancellations and for a number of other reasons. Robocalls made to landlines (not cellphones) are permissible if they are for “market research or polling,” as well as calls made on behalf of nonprofit groups. In such cases, the caller is required to tell you at the beginning of the message who’s calling and list a contact number for you to call for further information.
  • You can opt out. The FCC requires telemarketers to give you the opportunity to opt out of receiving future calls immediately during a prerecorded telemarketing call through an automated menu. “The opt-out mechanism must be announced at the outset of the message and must be available throughout the duration of the call,” notes the FCC. You should also place your numbers on the National Do-Not-Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov).. You can register for Mississippi’s Do-Not-Call registry at  https://www.psc.state.ms.us/nocall/subscriber.aspx or by calling 1-86NOCALLMS (1-866-622-5567).
  • File a complaint. You can report robocalls to the FCC by visiting http://bit.ly/1Muo1aL by phone at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); or by mail to: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, 445 12th St., S.W., Washington, DC 20554.

Beware of invitations appealing to ego

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From Beware of ‘invitations’ appealing to ego, clarionledger.com

PDF: Beware of invitations appealing to ego

Everyone likes to be told they’re unique, special and deserving of recognition. Marketers have long known that appealing to the ego can help break down barriers and make sales much easier.

When I was in college, I got a letter from an organization informing me my name had been selected for inclusion on a list of outstanding young people, to be published in a high-quality publication. Accompanying the glowing letter was a flyer with information on how I could order a copy of the book and a nice granite paperweight. There was no charge to be on the list, I was assured, although these items would be a lasting reminder of the great honor I’d received.

Since I was young and impressionable, I paid the exorbitant fee for the book and paperweight, which arrived a few weeks later in the mail. But when I told people about it, several of my friends said they’d gotten the same letter, with only the name changed. It turned out that a whole lot of people around me had been similarly “honored” with inclusion in the list, and it dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t the adulation I’d thought it was. (I still have that paperweight, keeping it as a reminder to look before I leap.)

The marketplace is replete with organizations that purport to be honoring someone but are really just a way to get people to pay big bucks for a recognition that might or might not be valuable. Of course, there are a great many legitimate recognition programs out there, recognizing a vast array of achievements, leadership qualities and service. But many people are getting solicitations that turn out to be not all they claim and are really just clever sales pitches.

Examples are many, but here’s one. In the past few months, women around the country have gotten emails from an organization called the International Women’s Leadership Association, which praised their accomplishments, said their qualifications had been reviewed and congratulated them for being selected for induction into an exclusive women’s networking group. To join, all you had to do was pay $99 for a six-month membership or $989 for a “lifetime” membership, both of which included a “personal file” on the organization’s website, a feature on its social media platform (and “related endorsements”), as well as attendance at various networking events, webinars and tele-seminars.

But the solicitations caught the eye of New York’s attorney general, who says the organization actually had sent out millions of solicitations and hadn’t done the vetting it had claimed.

In a news release, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the IWLA had agreed to pay $200,000 to settle charges of making false representations, along with agreeing to change its marketing practices. Schneiderman’s release noted that more than 100,000 women responded to this solicitation in the last three years, out of more than 7 million “invitations” sent, and “did not actually consider the person’s contribution to ‘family, career, and community’ or any other qualifications.”

“Mass email solicitations cannot be used as a proxy for deceptive marketing practices,” Schneiderman said. “Honesty and transparency are the hallmarks of consumer protection, and those same principles must be upheld online.”

If you get this or a similar solicitation, it’s important to remember that most legitimate recognitions and invitations are going to come from an organization or individual you know. There are a great many local and national networking organizations, so it’s advisable to thoroughly check out any organization in which you’re interested in joining. Friends and colleagues are often the best source of knowledge about networking opportunities and don’t overlook local and regional chambers of commerce and business social networking sites.

Most importantly, be aware of solicitations that appeal to your ego. Have a trusted friend, family member or colleague to review the solicitation objectively. When our self-esteem is involved, most of us are just not good at discerning when we’re being led down the primrose path.

AG Jim Hood, IRS warn about W-2 scam

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From AG Jim Hood, IRS warn about W-2 scam, clarionledger.com

PDF: tax-scam

Like clockwork, scammers are attempting to get at Mississippians’ tax refunds again. Each year, more and more people find themselves victimized by a variety of scams designed to steal their identities for the purpose of filing fraudulent tax returns.

Many taxpayers have tried to file their taxes online, only to find out someone had already filed in their name, grabbing their refunds. While not a new phenomenon, the amount of tax-related cybercrime has increased this year in both numbers and sophistication.

Recently, Attorney General Jim Hood warned that Mississippi residents could be targeted by scammers trying to collect data from W-2 forms, in a new twist on a couple of old scams. Hood cited reports from the Internal Revenue Service warning business owners to be careful in providing information about employees.

The scheme works like this: A scammer sends an email to an employee in Human Resources at the business, carefully crafted to look as if it comes from the CEO or another known corporate executive. The message asks for copies of W-2 forms of all employees, and sometimes is followed by a second email requesting money be wired to a specific bank account.

Hood urged Mississippi residents to be suspicious of any such unsolicited emails and to always verify by phone that the request is legitimate.

“We have received calls and reports to our office this week from entities whose employees have fallen for this type of scam,” Hood said. “Employees who would have W-2 information, such as accounting or human resources personnel, are particularly susceptible to this scam. All types of organizations are possible targets, including schools, health care organizations, nonprofits and private businesses.”

Hood noted the scam, which first appeared a year ago, is circulating earlier in the tax season. Some businesses which got the emails last year are being targeted again.

“This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen noted in a news release. “It can result in the large-scale theft of sensitive data that criminals can use to commit various crimes, including filing fraudulent tax returns. We need everyone’s help to turn the tide against this scheme.”

If businesses get such an email, forward it to phishing@irs.gov and place “W2 Scam” in the subject line, and file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), operated by the FBI. In addition, contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi attorney general’s office at 1-800-281-4418.

Employees whose W-2s have been stolen should visit the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft resources at http://www.identitytheft.gov,or the IRS’ site at http://www.irs.gov/identitytheft, to learn how to report the theft and get advice on what to do next. They should also file IRS Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, if the employee’s own tax return rejects because of a duplicate Social Security number or if instructed to do so by the IRS.

And, the IRS notes, just because someone isn’t required to file a return or isn’t expecting a refund doesn’t mean they can’t be a victim. In all cases, the best way to avoid becoming a victim of tax refund fraud is to file taxes as soon as possible, before scammers can file and steal your identity and refund.