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Annual Fraud.org report shows link between COVID-19, recession, and scammers preying on Americans

Watchdog group’s annual report tracking trends out today 

For immediate release: February 1, 2021

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC—An analysis of the scams most frequently reported by consumers in 2020 tells the story of economic downturn, social isolation, pandemic fears, and opportunistic criminals, according to a new report released today by the National Consumers League’s (NCL) Fraud.org campaign. Through the Fraud.org website, NCL collects complaints from consumers about suspected and confirmed fraud incidents, tracks trends, and shares the data with law enforcement. 

The report’s findings note the pandemic’s impact on fraud trends, including increases in “get rich quick” schemes and predatory scams of the heart. The number of complaints received at Fraud.org regarding bogus prizes, sweepstakes, and free gifts nearly doubled year-over-year. Another pandemic scam trend: a notable increase (30 percent) in romance scams, which experts at Fraud.org are linking to the social isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic and Americans turning to online communication for companionship. 

“The COVID recession has fueled a rise in get-rich-quick schemes and romance scams,” said John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications, and Fraud and the new report’s author. “The pandemic created a perfect storm for criminals: millions out of work and struggling with new financial hardship; people forced to isolate and seek companionship online; and incredible uncertainty about the future. Last year was a good year to be a con artist.” 

With many of the conditions from 2020 still in place, the consumer watchdog is cautioning consumers against the most common scams that plagued Americans last year.  

“While the exact pitch differs from scam to scam, there are red flags that consumers should consider,” said Breyault. “A request to send money to someone you’ve never met in person is almost always a scam. Another tried-and-true tactice scammers use is to create a false sense of urgency to get victims to send money before they stop and think. The best advice we can give to consumers is to stop, think, and talk to a friend or loved one before you send money.” 

In 2020, consumers submitted more than 5,700 complaints to Fraud.org. Forty-three percent of complaints reported a monetary loss, with the median loss of $1,628.  

Top Ten Scams of 2020 

  1. Internet: Gen Merchandise 
  2. Phishing/Spoofing 
  3. Fake Check Scams 
  4. Friendship & Sweetheart Swindles 
  5. Prizes/Sweepstakes/Free Gifts 
  6. Advance Fee Loans, Credit Arrangers 
  7. Computers: Equipment/Software 
  8. Internet: Auctions 
  9. Investments: Other (note in comments) 
  10. Internet: Extortion 

Other topline findings from the report include:  

New fraud entered top ten: extortion scams. 

 “As the pandemic and the recession continue to grind on in 2021, we are paying special attention to so-called ‘Internet extortion’ scams, which entered the top ten scams for the first time last year,” said Breyault. Such scams fall in to two broad sub-categories. The first category are “sextortion” scams, where consumers receive a message where the scammer threatens to release embarrassing photos, videos, or other personal information to the victims’ friends and family. The second sub-category involves “psychic” services, where the scammer claims to had discovered that a “curse” or other tragic event is about to befall the victim. Only by paying a significant fee can the victim have the “curse” lifted.  

Younger consumers and seniors are being targeted more frequently.  

The percentage of complaints received from consumers aged 26-65 decreased by an average of 8.76% in 2020.  By comparison, complaints from consumers aged 25 and below and those 65 and older increased by an average of 30.60% and 15.82%, respectively versus 2019. For consumers aged 25 and under, the top three most reported fraud categories were Internet merchandise scams, fake check scams, and romance scams. For those 65 and older, the top complaint categories were prize/sweepstakes scams, phishing/spoofing, and Internet merchandise scams.  

The Web and the telephone remain scammers’ preferred contact methods. 

With email spam filters growing increasingly successful at blocking out scam emails, fraudsters continued to turn to the Web and the telephone to find victims. Those two contact methods were mentioned in more than 81% of the complaints. “This highlights the need for consumers to be wary when responding to messages from unknown senders, particularly those encountered on social media,” said Breyault. “Consumers should also continue to be on guard for unknown callers seeking to offer them prizes or other inducements to send money.”  

Read the full 2020 Top Scams report from NCL.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Protecting Nevadans from COVID-19 Scams: A Virtual Panel Event with NV Attorney General Aaron D. Ford and Fraud Experts

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC – This Thursday, October 22, the National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, will host a virtual fireside chat with Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford and a panel of consumer protection experts on the growing threat of scams linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The consumer watchdog organization aims to raise awareness in Nevada about the risk of COVID-19 related fraud and arm consumers with information they can use to spot and avoid these scams.

Since the pandemic began, NCL, which operates the website Fraud.org, has seen an uptick in complaints about a variety of scams preying on increasingly vulnerable, financially strapped, and fearful consumers. Scammers running phishing schemes, stimulus check fraud, unemployment benefits scams, and immigration scams have all been working overtime to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to defraud consumers. The experts at NCL have watched these scams emerge, forecast they will continue to increase, and are eager to work with AG Ford to get the word out about how Nevadans can protect themselves.

WHAT

Virtual “fireside chat” featuring Nevada AG Aaron D. Ford and NCL, followed by a panel discussion on resources and tips to avoid COVID-19 fraud and scams.

WHEN

Thursday, October 22, 2020
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time

WHO

Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford
John Breyault, Vice President, National Consumers League

State Senator Dallas Harris, Consumer Rights Attorney, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada
Maria Moore, State Director, AARP Nevada
Assemblyman Edgar Flores, Immigration, Family, and Personal Injury, Gonzalez & Flores Law

HOW TO WATCH

YouTube Live link will be provided following registration via Eventbrite.

*** Members of the media are welcome to attend but must RSVP to Carol McKay, National Consumers League, carolm@nclnet.org. If you are unable to attend, a recording of the interview and panel can be provided upon request after the event concludes ***

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Fraud alert: Use caution when talking to ‘old friends’ on Facebook

Facebook is a terrific tool for staying in touch with old friends, former classmates, family, and community members. Unfortunately, like other popular social media platforms, it also attracts scammers looking to abuse the system for their own gain. We’ve recently heard from nearly a dozen consumers who have contacted Fraud.org about scammers using Facebook’s Messenger service to try to defraud them by posing as long lost friends.

The set-up for these scams is remarkably consistent. Consumers who sent us complaints report that these scams begin when they receive a message on Facebook Messenger from someone impersonating a former classmate or an old friend. When the recipient responds, the scammer strikes up a conversation to build trust. Once trust is established, the impersonator urges the consumer to send a text message to a number the scammer controls to get information on a grant, prize, or even government stimulus funds. When the victim texts the number, they are urged to pay an up-front fee and/or supply personal information (Social Security number, bank account/credit card information, etc.) to collect the non-existent money. Victims who do send the money are then urged to send even more money until they catch on. Unfortunately, the money is often sent via wire transfer or gift cards, which are extremely difficult or impossible to stop or reverse.

While this scam is not new, the request to take the conversation off Facebook Messenger and on to text message is a new twist. This is likely due to the scammers trying to evade anti-fraud technology employed by Facebook.

Here are tips to reduce your risk of falling victim to this scam:

Don’t immediately assume your Facebook friend is who they claim to be. Thanks to widespread data breaches, it is not difficult for scammers to get the information they need to compromise a Facebook account. If you receive a message from someone you have not spoken to in a long time, do not assume that the message is legitimate. The safest course of action is to simply ignore the message.

Test them. If you do engage in a conversation and become suspicious, you can try to verify the identity of the person messaging you by asking them a question only they would know (i.e., who was our 9th grade English teacher?).

Beware requests to take conversations off Facebook Messenger. Complaints we have received often describe requests to move conversation from Facebook (where they can be monitored) to text message. This is a big red flag for fraud.

Anyone who asks you to send money to get money is swindling you. If you are asked to pay money to collect a prize, grant, stimulus check, or any other type of reward, it is a scam.

Turn on two-factor authentication and encourage your friends to do the same. One of the reasons this scam occurs is that consumers tend to re-use passwords across multiple websites (your email and Facebook account, for example). That means that if your username and password are compromised at one website, scammers can use that information to try and compromise your account at other websites. An effective way to reduce the risk of this is to turn on two-factor authentication. This will require anyone trying to log in to your Facebook account to supply a special code (typically provided via text message or an authentication app) before they can log in.

If you suspect that you have become a victim, report it immediately. You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can investigate and help put fraudsters behind bars.

Sign up for the #DataInsecurity Digest

Price gouging and usury and fraud, oh my!

Ben Wiseman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection at the Office….

Protecting consumers from COVID-19 Scams: A virtual panel event with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and fraud experts

May 8, 2020

Watch recording here


Contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC –Washington, DC / Harrisburg, PA—Next Monday, May 11, the National Consumers League (NCL), America’s pioneering consumer and worker advocacy organization, will host a virtual fireside chat with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a panel of consumer protection experts on the growing threat of scams linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The consumer watchdog organization aims to raise awareness in Pennsylvania about the risk of COVID-19 related fraud and arm consumers with information they can use to spot and avoid these scams.

Since the pandemic began, NCL, which operates the website Fraud.org, has seen an uptick in complaints about a variety of scams preying on increasingly vulnerable, financially strapped, and fearful consumers. Scammers running phishing schemes, stimulus check fraud, and even pet adoption scams have all been working overtime to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to defraud consumers. The experts at NCL forecast these scams will continue to increase and evolve and are eager to work with AG Shapiro to get the word out about how Pennsylvanians can protect themselves.

WHAT
Virtual “fireside chat” featuring Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro and NCL, followed by a panel discussion on resources and tips to avoid COVID-19 fraud and scams

WHEN
Monday, May 11, 2020
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM EDT

WHO
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
John Breyault, Vice President, National Consumers League

Lorrie Cranor, Professor, Carnegie Mellon University
Mary Bach, Chair, AARP Pennsylvania Consumer Issues Task Force
Andrew Goode, Esq., Vice President, Metro Philadelphia Better Business Bureau

HOW TO WATCH
YouTube Live Link will be provided following registration via Eventbrite

*** Members of the media are welcome to attend but must RSVP to Carol McKay, National Consumers League, carolm@nclnet.org. If you are unable to attend, a recording of the interview and panel can be provided upon request after the event concludes ***

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

NCL urges Administration to take action to combat COVID-themed fraud, patient harms online

April 10, 2020

Contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC – April 10, 2020 – The National Consumers League (NCL), in partnership with 42 patient and provider advocacy, public health, industry, and research groups, has issued joint letters to Vice President Mike Pence, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other state and federal leaders calling for swift action to protect consumers against COVID-19 misinformation, scams, and fraud online.

“NCL commends the White House Coronavirus Task Force and other officials for their dedication in responding to the coronavirus crisis,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “The COVID-19 pandemic makes your work against healthcare and financial fraud more important now than ever. However to further flatten the curve and save lives, we urge the Administration to quickly implement increased evidence-based actions and to help protect consumers from predatory attempts to take advantage of our new economy.”

Since the start of the pandemic, criminals launched thousands of COVID-specific global scams and phishing attacks, using the coronavirus crisis to profit at patients’ expense. “Criminals have exploited the fear and confusion caused by the coronavirus for their own personal profits. More must be done to mitigate the health and financial harms experienced by consumers nationwide,” said Greenberg. In the past few weeks alone, more than 100,000 website domain names have been registered containing terms like “covid,” and “corona,” most of which have been found to be outright dangerous. The Federal Trade Commission indicated receipt of nearly 14,000 coronavirus-related complaints totaling fraudulent losses nearly $10 million.

NCL has long called for increased regulation and enforcement against illegal online acts that result in public health and economic harm. The joint letter encourages the Administration to move swiftly to enact and enforce existing no-cost solutions to better protect consumers. Additionally, it calls on the Administration to  ground their efforts in science, address systemic internet policy problems and prepare for an ongoing wave of COVID-19 related scams during the economic downturn.

Co-signers of the letters include Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, BIO, Coalition for a Safe and Transparent Internet, Consumer Brands Association, Kroll, Lilly, LegitScript, and USP. The full letter can be read here.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.

Kudos to merchants fighting price gouging

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

There I was, searching for hand sanitizer to help keep reducing my risk of infection. I had scoured my local stores for hand sanitizer, to no avail. At last, desperate, I found a tiny bottle of sanitizer on the shelf at my local gas station. A bottle that usually retails for around a dollar was marked up to $3.99. What choice did I have? I paid the money and walked out of the store.

Like moths to the flame, profiteers cannot resist the allure of easy money. In this time of national emergency, it should perhaps come as little surprise that those who wish to make a quick buck off the desperation of consumers are finding few obstacles in their way.

In past natural and man-made disasters, whether in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the 2008-09 financial crisis, there were always crooks who sought to deprive those in need of their last penny. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be little different in this respect.

Price gouging is perhaps the most immediate threat. Most of us are aware of being asked to pay $5.00 for a bottled water in an airport or amusement park. In a time of crisis, however, the consequences of hiking prices outrageously is more than just a matter of a parched throat. For consumers in desperate need, it can come down to a choice between avoiding infection or paying the rent.

At a time when health care workers and first responders are putting their lives on the line to care for coronavirus patients, it is outrageous to see stories of unscrupulous sellers marking up the price on masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant and, yes, even toilet paper.

Price gouging in times of crisis is illegal in most states. For example, Maryland’s anti-gouging statute prohibits raising the price of many consumer goods and services that increase the seller’s profit by more than 10 percent while the COVID-19 emergency declared by Governor Larry Hogan is in effect. California has a similar statute, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Price gouging is also illegal where I live, in the District of Columbia.

While state laws are important, enforcement alone won’t solve this problem. Reputable businesses must also play their part to keep price gouging off their shelves. This is one reason I was especially encouraged to see that that the biggest seller of consumer items on the planet, Amazon.com, stepped out so decisively against price gouging.

Last month, the company issued a policy that clearly states: “Amazon has zero tolerance for price gouging and longstanding policies to prevent this harmful practice.” In practice, this means the company is working overtime to remove price gougers from its marketplace, forwarding reports of price gouging to law enforcement, and making it clear to their sellers that price gouging is not allowed.

Amazon has removed more than half a million products and suspended more than 3,900 seller accounts in the United States.

The overwhelming majority of sellers on sites like Amazon, eBay, and other online marketplaces are honest. But these e-commerce marketplaces are where millions of consumers are going to find much-needed products. Particularly for consumers who are at high risk, these online services can be a lifeline, enabling them to stay home, avoid going out into public, and decreasing their chances of contracting the virus.

We should be very happy that there are state laws prohibiting price gouging and very grateful that Amazon has taken such a strong stance in protecting consumers by monitoring and prohibiting its sellers from gouging consumers and others during this terrible pandemic.

Watchdog org predicting ‘tsunami’ of coronavirus-related scams to come

April 1, 2020

Media contact: National Consumers League – Carol McKay, carolm@nclnet.org, (412) 945-3242 or Taun Sterling, tauns@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832 

Washington, DC–The National Consumers League (NCL) is warning consumers about an expected rise in attempts at fraud as the economy continues to tank and criminals pivot their pitches to take advantage of fearful consumers.

“When news captures the public’s attention – think major hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and economic slowdowns – scammers come out of the woodwork to take advantage of legitimate fears and concerns,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “With coronavirus dominating the news globally, there is an unprecedented opportunity for criminals to use the public’s fears about the virus and the resulting economic downturn to defraud consumers.”

NCL is working to educate consumers about two of the most pernicious types scams that are increasing due to coronavirus: robocalls and stimulus check scams.

Coronavirus-related robocalls

Robocalls are, at the very least, a major annoyance for most consumers. However, as the coronavirus has upended daily life, robocall operators have quickly shifted to blasting out spam phone calls offering all manner of coronavirus-related products and services. YouMail, a cloud-based telecommunications provider that tracks robocall volumes, estimates that at least one million robocalls per day are inundating Americans’ cell phones. Fraudulent robocallers are offering air duct sanitation services, work-from-home opportunities, cut-rate health insurance, and immune-system boosting nutritional supplements. Other robocalls have reportedly offered free insulin kits to diabetics, along with free coronavirus testing kits.

“At best, consumers who respond to these calls are setting themselves up to lose money for a non-existent product or service,” said John Breyault, director of NCL’s Fraud.org campaign. “At worst, delaying needed emergency treatments on the belief that a fake coronavirus treatment will save your life could be deadly to you and those you come into contact with.”

NCL’s advice to consumers is simple:

  1. If you receive a call from a number you don’t recognize, the safest course of action is simply to ignore the call.
  2. If you answer a call and suspect it’s a robocall, simply hang up. Don’t press any of the numbers the message tells you to.
  3. Never give any personal information, such as financial account number, Social Security number, full name, or mailing address to someone who contacts you via an unsolicited phone call or text message.
  4. Do not click on any links sent to you via text message from someone you don’t know. They could lead you to malware or phishing websites.
  5. If you’re being inundated by robocalls, your cellular provider may offer services that will increase the likelihood that the calls will be blocked.

Stimulus check scams

Last week, President Trump signed the biggest stimulus bill in U.S. history into law. Most American adults will receive a stimulus of $1,200 or more in the coming weeks thanks to the legislation. Crooks are already using these promised payments as a way to defraud consumers. Scams that have been reported involve crooks promising to expedite payment in exchange for a fee, impersonating a government official, and requesting sensitive personal information in order to process a check. Inaccurate social media posts have also circulated suggesting that consumers need to fill out the 2020 Census before they can receive a stimulus check.

“Stimulus checks will help millions of American households weather the coming economic downturn,” said Breyault. “Unfortunately, the phrase ‘free money from the government’ is magic to scammers’ ears. Consumers should be on the lookout for fraudsters who will try to use the coming stimulus checks to steal their money.”

Consumers can protect themselves from these scams by learning to spot these red flags:

  • The stimulus checks will be deposited automatically by direct deposit into consumers’ bank accounts for the vast majority of citizens who filed their taxes last year. Consumers without a bank account on record with the IRS will receive a paper check, but it may take several weeks longer to arrive than those who have bank accounts.
  • Anyone who emails, texts, messages, or calls you claiming to be able to expedite your stimulus check is a scammer.
  • Anyone who contacts you requesting sensitive information like PayPal account details, bank account information, or credit card numbers is trying to scam you.
  • Your answers to the Census, and whether you’ve completed it, have no impact on your eligibility for a stimulus check.

NCL asks consumers to share their stories by filing a complaint at Fraud.org via its secure online complaint form. Complaints are shared with NCL’s network of nearly 200 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can and do put fraudsters behind bars.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneering consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.