With a convergence of tax season and the uptick in telephone scams that plague the entire year, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has issued multiple scam alerts on its website during the past four months.
The best line of defense in combating telephone scammers? Don’t respond to suspicious calls. Let the calls go to voicemail, or hang up if a call seems questionable in any way, especially if it’s an automated telemarketing call (or “robocall”), which is used commonly in scams.
Other tips to avoid potential phone scams include:
-Don’t always trust caller ID. Even when calls appear to come from an Ohio phone number, the numbers could be spoofed or the calls could be made over the internet, meaning the caller could be located somewhere else entirely.
-Check your phone bill and your credit card statements regularly. If you find suspicious charges, immediately report them to your provider.
The most recently detailed phone scam involves Ohioans who have reported suspicious calls from callers asking “Can you hear me?”
Similar calls have been reported throughout the country as part of an alleged scam to trick consumers into responding “Yes” and using their response to place unauthorized charges on their phone or utility bill.
“Any time people receive a call that’s suspicious, we encourage them to be very careful and not to respond to the call,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said. “When in doubt, just hang up. If you need help or if you suspect a scam, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.”
In reports to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, consumers generally say the calls appeared to come from a local phone number, such as a number showing a 614 (Columbus) or 330 (Akron) area code. Some consumers said the callers claimed the consumer had won a vacation or cruise or claimed to work for an extended warranty company.
Grandparents targeted in ‘horrible’ scam
Another scam that is causing extreme confusion for grandparents has already victimized several individuals in Champaign County, either by loss of money or creation of extreme anxiety.
Ohioans have reported losing thousands of dollars to what’s known as the “family emergency” scam in recent weeks.
In the scam, con artists pose as relatives or friends and claim they need money right away to help with an emergency, such as getting out of jail or paying attorney fees after getting into a car accident. The most common version of the scam is the “grandparent scam,” which targets grandparents, but the scam also can affect parents, aunts, uncles, and family friends, among others.
“This is a horrible scam,” DeWine said. “Con artists prey on people’s worst fears that something bad has happened to a loved one. They try to scare people into sending money right away. Once they get your money, they’re gone and the money’s gone.”
Since November, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has received more than 20 complaints about the scam. The average reported loss was over $6,000.
In a typical variation of the scam, a grandparent receives a call claiming that a grandchild was in a car accident or found with drugs and needs money to cover bail or attorney fees. The grandparent is told to go the store, buy a gift card, and provide the card numbers over the phone, which allows the scammer to drain the card’s funds. In another variation of the scam, parents receive a call claiming their son or daughter has been kidnapped and is being held hostage. They are told to pay ransom to allow their child to return home safely.
Scammers generally tell their targets to pay using wire transfers, money orders, or gift cards. In some cases, after victims buy gift cards and provide the card numbers over the phone, they are told to mail the (drained) cards somewhere else. This makes it harder to report or stop the scam.
Tips to prevent family emergency scams include:
-Communicate with your family members. Talk to your family about scams and discuss how you would communicate during a true emergency.
-Verify a caller’s claims. If you receive a call about a family member in trouble, contact someone else, such as the person’s parents, to determine the person’s location and whether the person truly needs your help. Be wary if the caller asks you not to contact any other family members. This is a tactic used by scammers. When in doubt, ask questions only your real family members would know how to answer, such as the last time you saw each other.
-Limit sharing information online. Don’t post upcoming travel plans or detailed personal information online, and encourage your family members to take similar precautions. Scammers may use information available online to learn more about their targets and to make their ploys seem more believable. Check your account privacy settings on social media and limit who can view your information.
-Be wary of specific payment requests. If someone tells you that you must pay using a gift card, prepaid reloadable card, money transfer, or cash, it may be a scam. These payment methods are difficult to trace and are used regularly in scams. Once the money is sent, it is very difficult to recover.
In December there were holiday scams of all kinds being perpetrated. With the dawning of spring, “storm chaser” home repair scams and tax scams are heating up.
Consumers are reporting tax-related scams with about four weeks remaining until the April 18 filing deadline.
In 2017, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has logged more than 150 tax scams thus far in March, compared to 80 in January, and 175 in February.
“As we get further into tax season, we’re seeing more of these scams,” DeWine said. “What we want people to remember is that if callers are threatening you, saying you have to pay immediately, or saying they’re going to put you in jail, it’s not the IRS.”
The most common tax scam reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office is the “IRS” imposter phone scam. The ploy generally begins with a call claiming the recipient is in trouble with the IRS and must call a certain phone number to avoid arrest or legal action. Eventually, the person is asked to pay to resolve the supposed problem.
Con artists commonly lie to people claiming they owe back taxes, they have unfiled returns, they have an arrest warrant in their name, they’re receiving a “final notice” from the IRS, they will be prosecuted for tax fraud, or their assets, wages, or bank account will be frozen if they don’t pay.
The scam artists often ask people to pay using iTunes (or other) gift cards, instructing people to read the card numbers over the phone. With this information, con artists can drain the card’s funds. Once the money is gone, it is nearly impossible to recover.
To avoid phone-based tax scams:
-Don’t trust threatening callers. If you receive an unexpected phone call from someone who threatens to arrest you for not paying taxes, be very skeptical, especially if you never received any written notice.
-Avoid making payments over the phone. Don’t trust someone who demands that you pay immediately over the phone using a gift card or prepaid card, or who demands that you send a wire transfer. These are preferred payment methods for scam artists. The real IRS won’t demand that you pay using one of these specific methods.
-Don’t respond to illegal robocalls. Don’t interact with the caller, and don’t dial the number left on your phone. Responding to a scam call can result in even more calls.
-Don’t rely on caller ID. Scam artists can make it appear that their calls are coming from a local number or from a 202 (Washington D.C.) area code number, even when they are located in another country.
-Check into call-blocking options. Check with your phone carrier and third-party services to determine whether call-blocking services could help you stop unwanted calls.
During tax season, individuals also should beware of tax-related identity theft, which generally occurs when an imposter files a fraudulent tax return using someone else’s Social Security number in order to obtain that person’s tax refund. To reduce the risk of tax identity theft, individuals should file their tax returns as soon as possible and make sure they trust their tax preparer.
In addition to tax scams targeting individuals, employers (such as businesses, schools, and nonprofits) should beware of phishing scams aimed at getting their employees’ personal information. Con artists may send a spoofed email to an HR or payroll employee, requesting a list of all employees and their W-2 forms. The email may appear to come from the head of the organization, when it actually is from a scam artist. Employers should beware of these scams and report any W-2 thefts immediately to the IRS.
Severe storms bring risks other than direct property damage. Home repair scams followed the severe weather that hit Ohio this week.
“If you have downed trees, a damaged roof, or other storm damage, be wary of people who unexpectedly show up at your door offering services,” DeWine said. “Some con artists travel to storm-damaged areas to rip off homeowners. They promise to do the work immediately and ask for payment up front, but they leave without finishing the job. We encourage people to be careful and to research contractors before making payments.”
DeWine said to research the businesses, get multiple estimates, don’t make large payments in advance, get a detailed written contract and consider paying with a credit card.
Can’t even trust a ‘puppy’
In the past year, consumers have reported losing hundreds of dollars trying to buy a puppy online.
“Some ‘sellers’ who advertise online are con artists,” DeWine said. “They post a picture of a cute puppy and tell you to wire money for a crate or insurance. Then they take your money without delivering anything in return. People expect to receive a cute puppy, and instead they get nothing.”
In a typical puppy scam, a consumer finds an ad for a puppy online. The consumer communicates with the seller, agrees to buy the puppy, and wires a few hundred dollars to have the puppy delivered. After the consumer pays, the seller demands more money for seemingly legitimate costs, such as for a crate, shots, shipping insurance, or other transportation fees. Generally, consumers who pay receive nothing in return. In some cases, consumers receive a puppy but say the puppy was sick or did not come with the American Kennel Club registration the seller promised.
In addition to advertising puppies, con artists also may pretend to offer kittens, parrots, or other pets. Generally they communicate with the consumer via email, phone, or text, send pictures of the animal, and ask the consumer to pay using wire transfer or money order.
Consumers who suspect a scam or who want help resolving a consumer problem should contact the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at www.OhioProtects.org or 800-282-0515.
Advisory information for this story was derived from the Ohio Attorney General’s website.
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