Reports started trickling into state agricultural agencies in July: Consumers were worried about strange seed packets they had received in the mail. The unsolicited goods weren’t labeled and appeared to be sent from China. In a year already fraught with anxiety and paranoia, the story quickly made headlines.

Perhaps this was the first you’d heard of a scam known as “brushing,” in which some third-party e-commerce sellers set up fake buyer accounts and ship unordered goods (in this case, seeds) to “customers.” Why would they do this? Read on. 

A growing fraud 

Brushing scammers set up fake accounts with Amazon, eBay and other online platforms so that they can order their own merchandise, ship it to a real address and then post glowing reviews that bolster their ratings. The ultimate objective, of course, is to attract more buyers for their goods.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the seeds people received this summer seem to be part of a brushing scheme. (The USDA is continuing to investigate, but at this time, the seeds don’t appear to be dangerous or capable of producing invasive plants.) However, this isn’t the first time Americans have received unordered merchandise from unknown companies. Over the past couple of years, consumers have been surprised by gifts of everything from flashlights to hand warmers to Bluetooth speakers.

Considering that you aren’t obliged to pay for or send back merchandise you didn’t order, this may not seem like a big deal. However, it suggests that personal information has been disclosed or compromised. So if you receive one of their packages, brushers have — at the very least — your name and home address and may also have your phone number and email address. And, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns, these fraudsters may have set up fake accounts in your name on multiple websites — or even hacked your legitimate accounts.

Nip it in the bud

How can you prevent dishonest businesses from burnishing their own reputations at the possible expense of yours?

  • Report a suspicious package to the online retailer or platform (if you know what it is).
  • Check your accounts for suspicious activity and change your passwords.
  • If it appears accounts have been compromised, review your bank and credit card statements and credit reports. Consider freezing them to prevent fraud perpetrators from opening new accounts in your name.
  • File a report with the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. 

Remember that it’s always possible a seller simply sent you something by mistake. Or a friend may have ordered a gift and forgotten to enclose a message to you. So do a little snooping before jumping to conclusions. But if it still seems your mystery package is part of a brushing scam, don’t just brush it off. Report the “gift” and make sure your accounts are secure.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Scam artists know how anxious business owners are during the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. They know that as you struggle to meet customer demands, pay employees and stay solvent, you’re more likely to drop your guard and fall for a fraud scheme. The last thing your business needs right now is to suffer additional financial losses. So keep an eye out for the following scams:

Fake suppliers. Whether you’re a manufacturer seeking raw materials or a grocer desperate to keep shelves stocked, you may have trouble getting your usual supplies. If a regular supplier is temporarily — or permanently — shut down, be careful about doing business with unknown vendors. Many authentic-looking websites are, in fact, fronts for criminal operations, and if you place an order with them, you may never receive the goods. Also be wary of cold callers promising to source hard-to-get items. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Defective goods. Even if you do receive your supply order, there’s a chance its contents will be defective. In early March, an international team of law-enforcement agents arrested 121 criminals around the world who were selling counterfeit surgical masks, hand sanitizer and other in-demand products. Depending on your business, buying defective goods could be an expensive mistake — or a public health emergency.

Payment fraud. Online payment fraud was already growing aggressively. But COVID-19 is expected to throw fuel on the fire as more people turn to home services apps, such as those for food delivery and online learning. Consumers usually don’t pay when their stolen credit cards are used to make purchases. But businesses generally do. You’re likely to be held responsible for fraudulent transactions, as well as possible chargeback fees. So be vigilant about maintaining IT security. Retailers might consider adding an Address Verification Service, which confirms a cardholder’s billing address with the card company.

Google scam. Fake robocalls claiming to come from Google have circulated for several years. Now there’s a COVID-19 twist. The recorded message tells businesses “affected by the coronavirus” that they need to ensure their Google listing is correct so that customers can locate them during the pandemic. If you speak to someone, he or she may ask for payment to list your business or try to gain confidential information. Know that Google never makes unsolicited sales calls. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, hang up.

Unfortunately, these schemes represent only the tip of the iceberg. For the latest on COVID-19-related fraud, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s “Business Center” at ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center. Or contact us.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

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