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Don't be fooled into falling for these 8 scams

By Dana Dratch
Published: April 01, 2014

You don't have to be an April fool to get duped by a clever scam.

But, just as with magic tricks, ruses lose their power when you know exactly how they work. 

Want to reduce your chances of being flimflammed? Here's the lowdown on eight  hot scams, cons and swindles that criminals are employing to separate you from your money, along with a few strategies for avoiding them.

Don't be fooled into falling for today's hot scams

No. 1: 'Card security' scam
The scam:
Your get an automated call: Suspicious charges have been detected on your credit or debit card. It's been frozen until you call to reactivate it.

Press "2" for a live attendant, who will reinstate your card after "confirming" personal information, such as your name, Social Security number, account number and date of birth.

Criminals playing the odds may even mention your actual bank by name and that, plus the robo-calling feature, "makes it seem more credible," says Gary K. King, the attorney general of New Mexico.

"They reach out to thousands of people and know that someone will bite," he says.

The tipoff: When banks freeze a card for suspicious activity, the cardholder usually has to initiate the call, King says. Hang up, and dial the number on the back of your card.

Another variation: A text "alert" from your bank or cellphone company that your account's been frozen. This text also offers a live link. But with a scam, that link leads to a look-alike site that thieves use to harvest personal information, says King.

The solution: Skip the link, and just log in to your account as usual, he advises.

And if you do get scammed, "don't be so embarrassed that you don't report it," King says. "Scammers count on that."

Scam No. 2: Sneaky phone charges
The scam:
Phone bill creeping upward? You could be a victim of "cramming."

Many phone companies allow you to pay for third-party services by having charges added to your phone bill. It's convenient for things you've authorized. But sometimes scammers attempt to have phantom fees added to those bills, says Duane Pozza, an attorney in the financial practices division of the Federal Trade Commission.

The scam gets its name from the fact that third-party operations are "cramming" their bogus charges onto real phone bills.

The tipoff: On the bills, unauthorized "fees" can show up as everything from horoscope alerts to ring tones, he says. The charges are often small, anywhere from $1 to $9.99. But small charges are big business. One third-party billing operation had to refund more than $1 million to consumers, as part of a settlement with the FTC, says Pozza. Another settled for a $10.9 million judgment, he says.

The solution: Read your bill. If you don't recognize a charge, call your phone company for an explanation, Pozza says, and request a refund for anything you didn't authorize. Some phone companies also allow you to block third-party billing. 

Also, complain to the FTC. When it finds a pattern of "cramming," it can take action, says Pozza.

Scam No. 3: Ransomware and Cryptolocker
The scam: Your computer screen freezes displaying an FBI warning banner: Illegal content has been detected, and the computer will remain locked until you pay the fine.

The scam is known as Ransomware, and the notifications "look very official," says Nickolas Savage, assistant special agent in charge of the cybercrime branch of the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office

Depending on the variation, you may see a warning banner from a "government agency" or "software maker." In a different type of attack, known as Cryptolocker, you might simply get a pop-up message demanding ransom in exchange for the encryption key to restore the machine, he says.

The "fine" -- aka ransom -- ranges from about $100 to $300, says Savage.

It works because you downloaded something secretly salted with malware, which the criminal used to hijack your computer and encrypt your data or operating system, says Savage.

The tipoff: Government agencies and private software companies don't lock up computers and assess fines. Also, criminals favor payment via wire transfer or anonymous online payer networks, he says.

The solution: The best defense is preventive, says Savage. Regularly back up data, download software patches and update anti-virus and anti-malware programs, he says. Avoid illegal downloads, sketchy sites, and live links in email. 

If you are (or have already been) hit by this scam, contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaints Center. "You very well could have the one piece of information" that could help catch the criminals, says Savage.

Scam No. 4: Late utility bill
The scam: Your utility company calls: You're behind on the bill. Pony up your credit, debit or prepaid card number now, or it gets disconnected.

This is a scam, says Rose Chan, a consumer advice counselor for Consumer Action. 

The tipoff: Utility companies send warnings, or use automated calls as reminders. But you won't get a call from a utility worker demanding that you make an immediate payment to them, says Chan.

The "cable reward" scam is a slight variation that uses the carrot instead of the stick. 

In this one, the "cable company" (or some other utility), wants to give you a great price  on a service upgrade or new equipment (such as a DVR or deluxe entertainment package). But you have to pay for it now with a debit, credit or prepaid card.

An actual utility would just put any charges on your next bill. 

The solution: Dial the customer service number on your last bill, she says. That way, you know you're talking to someone from the utility company, and you can verify what you owe and when.

Scam No. 5:  Gift card 'prize'
The scam:
An email announces you've won a high-dollar gift card from a popular retailer.

It could be a scam, says Jason Schall, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.

Click on the link and you'll often be asked to "register" for your prize. That's when you really go down the rabbit hole, he says.

Dangling the promise of a prize, you're required to supply personal information and, often, to buy things, too, he says.

In one instance, consumers were told they couldn't receive their "prize" until they purchased at least 13 items and referred three other people who would do the same, he says.

The tipoff: If you haven't entered a contest, it's unlikely someone will be contacting you about a prize, he says. And, with a real prize, you usually don't have to register, supply financial information or buy anything, he adds.

The solution: Be alert to any demand for personal information, or that you buy something to get a prize. Scammers will try to keep you on the hook to harvest as much cash and information as they can. 

Scam No. 6: Payday lending add-on scam
The scam:
Applying for a payday loan online? "Make sure you're not being signed up for other products," says Schall.

One site charged applicants $55 for a debit card with a $0 balance, "something they didn't want and never signed up for," he says.

In other instances, consumers had to click through a series of screens with hard-to-see boxes pre-checked to indicate the applicant approved extra goods or services, plus the add-on charges that came with them, he says.

The tipoff: If you're applying for a loan, be wary if the lender is trying to sell you other products, Schall says.

The solution: If you are determined to take out a payday loan, research the company ahead of time. This is a company that will likely be asking for your name and Social Security number, so you want to be sure it's legitimate and has a good track record, Schall says.

They'll say something like, 'Oh, I see that your computer has a lot of viruses. But if you give me remote access, I can clean it out.'

-- Rose Chan 
  Consumer Action 

Sources of information include your state's attorney general's office or consumer protection office, friends or family who used the lender. Do a Web search with the name of the lender and the word "complaints."

Scam No. 7: Scareware
The scam: You suspect your computer's been infected. Luckily, you get a call from tech support at a company whose name you recognize.  

"They try to make themselves sound like they're from a legitimate company, like Microsoft," says Chan. "They'll say something like, 'Oh, I see that your computer has a lot of viruses. But if you give me remote access, I can clean it out,'" she says. And you can pay using a credit card, debit card or just your bank account number.

Con artists might be cold calling until they get a nibble, she says. Or they might have gotten your information from an online request you filled out while searching for information on cleaning malware from your computer. And thanks to "spoofing" (the ability to make caller ID reflect any return number or company name), you never know who's really on the other end of that phone.

The tipoff: If you want computer help, you have to make the call. No one is hovering in the ether "just happening to notice" when you have a computer problem.

The solution: This scam works best with people who aren't especially computer savvy, Chan says. Know your limitations, but don't let your befuddlement about computers lead you to surrender information you wouldn't dream of handing over in person. 

Scam No. 8: 'Government grant'
The scam:
A government agent calls to announce you've got a nice little windfall coming your way. And it can be loaded directly to your debit or prepaid card.

This one's been around for the last four to five years, she says. The details change -- the promised money could be a refund, a government grant or a reward for being a good citizen.

Sometimes the scammer will weave in familiar details or mention an issue in the headlines to make it sound realistic, Chan says.

The tip-off: "The government will never call you directly," she says. It will "notify you by mail."

A second clue: It's never smart to share card or account information with someone who calls you, no matter who the person claims to be, she says. And a real government employee would never call out of the blue to ask for it, she adds.

The solution: There really is an official government grant registry: Grants.gov. If you're on it, you can contact the granting agency directly and bypass any scammers trying to steal your money.

See related: Q&A with the FTC's scam-spotter, Infographic: Credit card numbers still top thieves' wish lists