Despite the National Do Not Call registry and features such as caller ID, phone fraud is thriving in the mobile phone era. Using spoofed numbers — which appear to be connected to legitimate government offices and businesses or that resemble your own number — fraud perpetrators say anything and everything to try to steal your money.

Recently, scammers have posed as Social Security officials to steal from unsuspecting consumers. Since January 2018, the Federal Trade Commission has received more than 63,000 reports about this scam. Only 3% of reporting call recipients lost money, but the losses total $16.6 million.

Anatomy of a crime

Here’s how the Social Security scheme works: Criminals call from spoofed phone numbers and tell consumers that their Social Security number has been linked to a crime and has been “suspended.” The callers claim that the consumer’s bank accounts will be seized by the government unless they withdraw money and transfer the amount to gift cards. While the thief remains on the line, the consumer purchases the gift cards. Then the caller asks for the gift card numbers and PINs, supposedly for “safekeeping.” With that information, the fraudster uses the cards or sells them on the black market.

The same callers also usually ask consumers for their Social Security number for confirmation purposes. With this critical piece of personal information, crooks can steal someone’s identity.

Truth of the matter

The truth is that the Social Security Administration doesn’t suspend Social Security numbers, nor does it ask people for their numbers over the phone. And no government entity would ask for payment in gift cards. Criminals hope that you aren’t aware of these facts. They also use fear — of arrest, loss of savings and, in some cases, deportation — and a sense of urgency to get what they want.

Fortunately, you can avoid becoming snared in a Social Security phone scam by following some simple guidelines:

  • If you don’t recognize the number appearing on your caller ID, don’t answer the phone.
  • Install a spam call blocker (available in mobile app stores) and use it for any calls that seem suspicious.
  • If you inadvertently answer a spam call, hang up immediately.
  • Never provide personal information, including bank account or Social Security numbers, to anyone over the phone.
  • Report suspicious calls to ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

Businesses beware, too

Note that it’s not just consumers who might fall victim to phone fraud schemes. Fraudsters also target businesses to secure sensitive information such as bank account numbers, routing numbers and passwords. If you’re a business owner, educate employees about phone scams and implement fraud controls. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Concert, sporting and other event tickets can go for astronomical prices — when they’re even available. Hoping to find reasonably priced tickets (or to find tickets at all), many consumers turn to the online resale market. But while most resale transactions are legitimate, some involve ticket scammers. Buy from one of these sellers and you may end up with stolen or counterfeit tickets.

Playing defense

Ticket scams generally succeed because they exploit a common desire to bag a bargain or gain access to something that isn’t easily obtainable. But you can avoid getting tricked. Here’s how:

Buy direct. Whenever possible, buy first-release or secondary market tickets from the event’s official ticketing agent. The ticket may cost more, but buying from a reputable agent comes with peace of mind.

Look out for crooks. Ticket scammers often use spam email and fake websites to impersonate legitimate ticketing agents. Don’t click on links contained in unsolicited emails and don’t buy tickets from sites until you’ve researched their authenticity. Plug the ticket agent’s name into search engines and look at the agent’s social media accounts. Pay close attention to how the agent interacts with customers and handles disputes.

Ask questions. When buying from individuals, ask them to disclose how they received the tickets and why they want to sell them. If their story sounds suspicious, look elsewhere.

Verifying and reporting

It’s only when they’re turned away on game or concert day that many ticket scam victims learn they’ve been conned. So if you have any doubts about your tickets’ legitimacy, call or present them at the venue’s box office for confirmation as early as possible.

And if you’ve indeed been sold stolen or counterfeit tickets, notify law enforcement and report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission. You may not get your money back, but you’ll help prevent criminals from fleecing other unsuspecting ticket buyers. You can protect yourself from losing money on ticket scams by buying tickets only from agents that accept credit cards. In the event of fraud, most credit card issuers will refund the cost of your tickets and pursue collection with the seller. Contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Deregulation of the energy industry was intended to give consumers a choice of electricity and natural gas providers — and an opportunity to save money. But many homeowners in deregulated states are receiving higher energy bills thanks to deceptive, and even fraudulent, door-to-door sales practices.

Deception and fraud

Not all states have deregulated. If yours has, you probably know it because you’ve received mailings, phone calls and sales rep visits from companies asking you to switch from your current provider. In most cases, traditional utilities continue to transmit the energy; the new providers, offering discounts and other incentives, deliver it to customers.

Many such offers are legitimate and can potentially save you money. But others are deceptive, designed to get you to agree to switching without a full understanding of the terms. For example, a company may offer an attractive introductory rate that becomes outrageously high after the introductory period ends. These companies usually ask you to sign a long-term contract, and getting out of one is likely to involve cancellation fees and a lot of hassle.

Then there are the cases of outright fraud. In the most common scam, slamming, a salesperson claims to represent your current utility company and tells you that there’s a problem with your account. The rep asks to see a current bill to “straighten out” the issue. Instead, the crooked rep copies down your account number and uses it to change your provider, claiming that you requested the switch. You may not even notice you’ve been conned until your bills suddenly skyrocket.

Prevention starts with knowledge

As with all consumer choices, a little knowledge can go a long way. First, find out what company currently delivers and provides energy to your home. Then learn which providers operate in your city by visiting the American Coalition of Competitive Energy Suppliers site at http://competitiveenergy.org or by contacting your state’s utility regulatory commission.

If someone comes to your door purporting to represent one of these companies, ask to see a business card and personal ID. Before inviting the rep into your home, call his or her office to confirm the individual’s identity.

Even if an offer seems above-board, never provide a door-to-door rep with:

  • A utility bill containing your account number,
  • Payment information such as credit card numbers, or
  • Personal information such as your Social Security number.

A legitimate alternative energy salesperson should be willing to leave materials so you can review them at your leisure and research your options. Be particularly suspicious of any high-pressure tactics such as special rates if you “sign today.” And, of course, if a rep makes threats or simply makes you uncomfortable, shut the door and call the police. Call us for more at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Gift cards offer businesses a convenient way to reward employees and thank customers. However, as the FBI recently warned, gift card scams specifically targeting companies are on the rise. Since January 2017, losses from such fraud schemes have surpassed $1 million. Here’s what you need to know to avoid being cheated.

Anatomy of a scam

Fraudsters use classic “spoofing” strategies to execute what law enforcement terms Business Internet Compromise (BIC) scams. They email or text an employee, claiming to be someone who can authorize gift card expenditures, such as the company’s CEO or HR director.

Messages typically instruct the employee to purchase gift cards for the executive to give as gifts or to use for office expenses, such as holiday party supplies. The employee is told to send the gift card information, including card numbers and PINs, back to the “executive” (in reality, the scammer) who then cashes out the cards’ value. By the time the business catches on, it’s already too late to recover the stolen funds.

All companies are vulnerable to this type of fraud. But certain sectors seem to be at increased risk, including real estate, legal, medical, and distribution and supply businesses, as well as nonprofit organizations.

Simple steps

Prevention starts with education. Inform employees about the scam and ask them to be on the lookout for emails or texts that ask them to buy multiple gift cards on someone else’s behalf. They should be particularly suspicious if the email urges them to act quickly or to reply with the gift card numbers and PINs.

To be on the safe side, require employees to follow up on any electronically delivered purchasing request with a phone call to the requesting party. And to reduce the chance that employees will receive spoofed emails, ensure that your network security is robust and up to date.

Report and control

The FBI asks businesses to report BIC gift card incidents to its Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. Also, contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you implement strong internal controls to prevent fraudsters from taking advantage of unsuspecting employees.

© 2018 Covenant CPA