The Better Business Bureau (BBB) investigates thousands of scams every year, from the latest gimmicks to schemes as old as the hills. Recently, the BBB came out with the Top 10 Scams of 2011. They divided scams into nine major categories and picked the top scam in each. Then, they named the "Scam of the Year."
1. Top job scam. BBB sees lots of secret shopper schemes, work-from-home scams, and other phony job offers that are created to steal your identity. In the worst kind, emails, websites and online applications look professional and candidates are even interviewed for the job (usually over the phone) and then receive an offer. In order to start the job, however, the candidate has to fill out a "credit report" or provide bank information for direct deposit of their "paychecks." The online forms are nothing more than a way to capture sensitive personal data that can easily be used to steal your identity. And, of course, there is also no job.
2. Top sweepstakes and lottery scam. Sweepstakes and lottery scams come in all shapes and sizes, but the bottom line is almost always this: You've won a whole lot of money, and in order to claim it you have to send in a smaller amount of money. This year's top sweepstakes scam was undoubtedly the email claiming to be from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announcing that the recipient was the winner of $1 million from the popular social networking site. These kinds of scams often use celebrities or other famous names to make their offer seem more genuine. If you aren't sure, don't click on the link.
3. Top social media/online dating scam. On the Internet, it's easy to pretend to be someone you are not. Plus, with so much information about you online, a scammer can sound like they know you. There are lots of ways to use social media for scams, but the one that stands out appeals to our natural curiosity -- and it sounds like it's coming from a friend. Viral videos claiming to show everything from grisly footage of Osama bin Laden's death to the latest celebrity hijinks have shown up on social media sites, often looking as if they have been shared by a friend. When you click on the link, you are prompted to "upgrade your Flash player," but the file you end up downloading contains a worm that logs into your social media account, sends similar messages to your friends, and searches for your personal data. The next time you see a sensational headline for the latest viral video, resist the urge to peek.
4. Top home improvement scam. Always near the top of BBB complaint data are home improvement contractors who often leave your home worse than they found it. They usually knock on your door with a story or a deal -- the roofer who can spot some missing shingles on your roof, the paver with some leftover asphalt who can give you a great deal on driveway resealing. The worst are those who move in after a natural disaster, taking advantage of desperate homeowners who need immediate help and may not be as suspicious as they would be under normal circumstances. A large percentage of BBB's Accredited Businesses are home contractors who want to make sure you know they are legitimate, trustworthy and dependable. Find one at www.bbb.org/search.
5. Top check cashing scam. Two legitimate companies -- Craig's List and Western Union -- are used for an inordinate amount of scamming these days, and especially check cashing scams. Here's how it works: Someone contacts you via a Craig's List posting, maybe for a legitimate reason like buying your old couch or perhaps through a scam like hiring you as a secret shopper. Either way, they send you a check for more than the amount they owe you, and they ask you to deposit it into your bank account and then send them the difference via Western Union. A deposited check takes a couple of days to clear, whereas wired money is gone instantly. When the original check bounces, you are out whatever money you wired -- and you're still stuck with the old couch.
6. Top phishing scam. "Phishing" is when you receive a suspicious phone call asking for personal information or an email that puts a virus on your computer to hunt for your data. It's almost impossible to avoid them if you have a telephone or an email account. But the most standout phishing scam this year disguised itself as official communication from the National Automated Clearing House Association (NACHA), which facilitates the secure transfer of billions of electronic transactions every year. The email claims one of your transactions did not go through, and it hopes you react quickly and click on the link before thinking it through. It may take you to a fake banking site to "verify" your account information, or it may download malware to infiltrate your computer.
7. Top identity theft scam. There are a million ways to steal someone's identity. One scam has gotten so prevalent that many hotels are posting warnings in their lobby. Here's how it works: You get a call in your hotel room in the middle of the night. It's the front desk clerk, very apologetic, saying their computer has crashed and they need to get your credit card number again, or they must have gotten the number wrong because the transaction won't go through, and could you please read the number back so they can fix the problem? Scammers are counting on you being too sleepy to catch on that the call isn't from the hotel at all, but from someone outside who knows the direct-dial numbers for the guest rooms. By the time morning rolls around and you are clear-headed, your credit card has been used on a major shopping spree.
8. Top financial scam. In challenging economic times, many people are looking for help to get out of debt or make their mortgage payments. Unfortunately, many scammers try to take advantage of desperate situations. Because the federal government announced or expanded several mortgage relief programs this year, all kinds of sound-alike websites have popped up to try to fool consumers into parting with their money. Some sound like a government agency or even part of BBB or other nonprofit consumer organizations. Most ask for an upfront fee to help you deal with your mortgage company or the government (services you could easily do yourself for free), and almost all leave you in more debt than when you started.
9. Top sales scam. Sales scams are as old as humanity, but the Internet has introduced a whole new way to rip people off. Penny auctions are popular because it seems like you can get something useful -- cameras, computers, etc. -- for way below retail. But you pay a small fee for each bid (usually $.50 to $1.00) and if you aren't the winner, you lose that bid money. Winners often are not even the top bidder, just the last bidder when time runs out. Although not all penny auction sites are scams, some are being investigated as online gambling. BBB recommends you treat them the same way you would legal gambling in a casino -- know exactly how the bidding works, set a limit for yourself and be prepared to walk away before you go over that limit.
10. Scam of the year. The 2011 scam of the year is the BBB phishing scam. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people have gotten emails that very much look like an official notice from BBB. The subject line says something like "Complaint Against Your Business," and the instructions tell the recipient to either click on a link or open an attachment to get the details. If the recipient does either, a malicious virus is launched on their computer -- a virus that can steal banking information, passwords and other critical pieces of information needed for cyber-theft. BBB is working with security consultants and federal law enforcement to track down the source of these emails and has already shut down dozens of hijacked websites. Anyone who has opened an attachment or clicked on a link should run a complete system scan using reputable anti-virus software. If your computer is networked with others, all machines on the network should be scanned, as well.
BBB's new Scam Source (www.bbb.org/scam) is a comprehensive resource on scam investigations from BBBs around the country, with tips from BBB, law enforcement and others. You can sign up to receive our Scam Alerts by email, and you can also be a scam detective yourself by reporting scams you've discovered.
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