Gift card scams are nothing new, but there is a new avenue for thieves to go after your money. While criminals have long relied on prepaid debit cards or iTunes gift cards for everything from IRS scams to fake online buying and selling, the latest “currency” is Google Play cards. As a result, Google Play gift card scams are on the rise and may already be targeting you or your loved ones.

You may have already learned about avoiding scams involving iTunes gift cards. These cards, which are only intended to be used for Apple Store purchases became a favorite tool for scammers who demanded untraceable payment in this card currency. Now with more criminals aware of the opportunity, the go-to choice for scammers is quickly becoming Google Play gift card scams. Here are some of the ways scammers target consumer finances by demanding payment through Google Play gift cards.

Impersonation Scams

Every malicious thing you have heard about iTunes gift cards, prepaid debit cards and even wire transfers is also true about Google Play gift cards. Callers pretending to be with the IRS, with law enforcement, with medical offices, bogus charities and other plausible outlets, may call and demand payment via gift cards. Remember, no credible agency or company will ask for an untraceable payment via gift card.

Reselling Gift Cards

There are multiple online platforms where users can sell unwanted, unused gift card balances. Criminals have taken advantage of this opportunity and steal the balances from unsuspecting sellers. One commonly reported Google Play gift card scam is the three-way call. The purpose of the call is to have you dial the number on the back of your card and verify the balance while the potential buyer listens. That makes a lot of sense when you think about it. However, as you are entering the card number on your phone’s keypad, the listener is recording the tones. After you end the call and before the scammer buys your card, they simply use the recorded tones to transfer all the money off your card and onto one they own. Avoid Google Play gift card scams by only using reputable sites and verifying buyer reputation when possible.

Balance Inquiry Scams

Checking the balance on your gift cards is a good idea. It helps you know how much to spend and how much you have left on a reloadable card. However, hackers have invented a tool that allows them to wipe gift cards clean by attacking the computer network that keeps up with the balances. In order to avoid that kind of theft, it is a good idea to use your gift cards shortly after receiving them. Also, remember that some types of cards can start to lose value each month if you do not spend them. You can avoid this with a Google Play card by installing the card in your mobile wallet on your Android device.

Protect Card Numbers

Google Play gift cards, just like other gift cards, are only as safe as the information on the magnetic stripe or in the assigned number on the back. If you lose your card or someone gets the number, they have access to your money. Never share your card information with someone who contacts you, and never verify your gift card number for someone.

Providing Emergency Help

One common Google Play gift card scam is for a person to claim they need a Google Play card for some reason, such as to download an app they must have for work or to buy a movie or book they need for school. The only catch is supposedly they are living in a location where they cannot buy the cards. They reach out to you on social media and offer to pay you to buy them a card, giving you the price of the card and a little something extra for your time. Once you read them the information from the back of the card, they will drain the funds off it and you will not be reimbursed. Remember, there is no valid reason why someone should need you to buy them a card, and you will be violating terms of service for gift cards if you provide one.

Google asks its users to remember two very important truths about Google Play gift card scams, and these are true of any kind of reloadable payment card. First, it can never be used for any purpose other than downloading content from the Google Play Store. Second, you must protect the number like cash. No one will ever have a genuine reason to ask you for the number from the back of a card. If you have been a victim of a gift card scam, report the instance to the Federal Trade Commission.

Of course, the Identity Theft Resource Center is here to help. Speak to an identity theft advisor for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Experian proudly provides financial support to the Identity Theft Resource Center.


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Imposter Scams Were the Most Reported Complaint in 2018

In New Scam, Criminals Pose as Government Pretending to Help With Identity Theft

Study Explores Non-Economic Negative Impacts Caused by ID Theft 

 

In one of the most ironic twists to come along in identity theft-based crime, there is a new scam attempt making the rounds, one that works so well because it tries to protect you from – you guessed it – identity theft. According to one victim’s story, criminals posed as members of government agencies and pretended that the victim’s identity had been stolen and asked him to cooperate in resolving this issue.

It started with a call from a scammer claiming to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA). “Your Social Security number has been used to rent a car,” the scammer said. That seems fairly straightforward and basic. The catch, though, is that the agent eventually transferred the call to someone pretending to be a Border Patrol agent who said the car had been recovered at the border and that there was a large amount of illegal drugs within the vehicle.

The callers threatened the victim in a very plausible way, even admitting that the victim probably had nothing to do with this, but would spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees clearing his name. You can read the full story, but the short version is this: before the victim got through with this three-hour ordeal, he bought thousands of dollars in Google Play gift cards, and sent photos of the card numbers and PIN numbers to the scammers. After the callers received the information and money, they vanished.

Here are some of the multiple warning signs that could have prevented this crime if the victim had only known what to look for:

  1. You cannot trust your caller ID to be a verified identity. Any name or number—even your own—can be programmed to appear on that screen.
  2. The Social Security Administration does not call citizens about these or benefits matters.
  3. The government does not call individual consumers and enlist their help in an investigation.
  4. No one will ever call you with a legitimate issue and only give you an hour to comply, so be on your guard against high-pressure tactics.
  5. You will never be told by SSA or any other government agency to buy gift cards and give them the card details.
  6. A simple Google search for the phone number and the story the callers used would have told the victim that this was a scam.

The right thing for the victim to do would have been avoiding the scam with a few simple steps. First, ask for the name and agent identification number, then hang up. Contact the SSA yourself using a verified phone number, and ask the agent about this call. You can do this for any government agency the scammer claims to be from. In fact, imposter scams were the most reported complaint in 2018 to the Federal Trade Commission.

Once you call the agency for yourself, provide the agent’s name and number, and tell them what you were told. You will immediately be informed that your information has not been compromised and this was a scam.

Finally, report the phone call to your local law enforcement agency. They can post the incident on their social media pages so that others in your community are not victimized.

Of course, the Identity Theft Resource Center is here to help. Speak to an identity theft advisor for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.


Read more: Imposter Scams Were the Most Reported Complaint in 2018

 

Renting out your home might be the key to making big money, especially if you live in a sought-after location. While in the past you might have had to hire a property management company among other hurdles, technology has made it easier to take advantage of this opportunity. Companies, like Airbnb, let you post a listing for your home or property online, and people can rent the use of it at prices you determine and dates that fit your schedule. It might be your beautiful beach house in an exotic tropical location or just the spare bedroom in your house or apartment – some users have even posted their lawn space for camping.

While apps and technology make it easier to list and more affordable to rent properties, there is a downside. Criminals have flooded this innovative market place with scams. Scammers have used Airbnb to conduct rental scams, posting properties for rent they never managed. Now users are reporting fraudulent activity has taken place in the Airbnb platform. Account owners have noticed reservations being booked for non-refundable rentals that the users did not make themselves. Some have had their cards charged and money removed from PayPal accounts.

According to Airbnb, the platform has not been attacked or breached. In a statement from Airbnb they called these fraudulent charges “isolated incidents.” Airbnb’s investigation shows that these accounts were logged into with accurate login credentials and then the accounts were used to rent accommodations, charging the victims’ payment methods.

In short, that means someone got a hold of the victims’ login credentials. It’s quite likely that the information was gleaned from a previous data breach of a different company. This practice, known as credential stuffing, means if a users’ login information was breached in a previous attack their accounts using the same login are also in jeopardy. The Yahoo email breach, for example, would give criminals access to every single account you own if you are reusing that compromised username and password combination on other accounts.

While the damage appears to be rather limited, it is a good idea to change your Airbnb account password, even if you were not affected by these fraudulent charges. Monitoring your accounts regularly will also help you recognize suspicious activity as soon as it occurs.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read more: First American Financial Breach Exposes Millions of Complete Identities

 

Scams and Seniors: If You See Something Say Something

You may have heard of the phrase, “If you see something say something.” The intent behind this concept is that if the public looks out for each other and reports suspicious activity, crimes have a better chance of being prevented.

Recently one of ITRC’s advisors was shopping at his local grocery store. An elderly woman in front of him at the register was trying to buy $2,500 in gift cards. The cashier called the manager to the front because the store has a $2,000 limit on gift cards. While the employees were discussing the situation, the ITRC advisor politely interrupted asking the woman why she needed so much in gift cards. The elderly woman replied she had been contacted by US Bank regarding a sweepstakes she had won totaling $750,000 in cash. In order to collect her winnings she needed to pay $2,500 upfront in gift cards to cover the taxes. Our advisor immediately recommended she not make the purchase.

He explained that this was a scam, and that a valid lottery will not ask you to pay taxes or other fees upfront in gift cards or via wire transfer before receiving your winnings. The elderly woman was apprehensive at first saying she needed to complete this step to receive her prize. Our advisor elaborated on his role with ITRC and the commonality of these scams. The woman decided to not move forward with her transaction and was relieved that he intervened. She thanked him for speaking up and for saving her $2,500 dollars.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, lottery scams were the third most common type of fraud reported to them in 2017. In many cases, scammers will take the gift card approach because it is an untraceable payment. Meaning once you release the physical cards or card numbers, scammers will take the money and run. Leaving you with no way to link the crime back to a specific individual and out a significant amount of money. Sometimes ITRC hears about cashiers and other employees educating shoppers to help prevent these scams, but not every victim is so fortunate.

By speaking up when you see something suspicious or educating friends and family about identity crimes, you can help others minimize their risks. By taking a few minutes to politely address a situation, like that of this elderly woman, you too can help save someone a lifetime of woes.

If you or someone you know is a victim of a scam or identity crime and needs assistance, you can receive no-cost help from ITRC. Contact one of our expert advisors via phone or LiveChat today. You can also download our app.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at 888.400.5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: Help! My Parent or Friend is a Victim of a Scam

Phishing scams are a low effort way for scammers to trick consumers into revealing personal information. Communication from payment platforms can be convincing with a Stripe email now making the rounds.

Phishing scams have been around for years, and with the ability to send out millions of phony emails a day, scammers don’t have much legwork to do. All they have to do is send a plausible email, get you to click the link or follow the instructions, and their work is done. One widespread form of attack involves pretending to be a high-profile company like Amazon, PayPal, or your bank in order to trick you into following their instruction and landing in their trap.

The latest front for this type of phishing attack is mobile payment company Stripe. Many small business owners, charities, and everyday consumers rely on Stripe for processing everything from payments to donations to cash from friends or relatives. The “Stripe” email claims that your account has been compromised and any money you are expecting will not be transferred to you, scammers hope to lure you into clicking and entering your info.

See real example sent to an ITRC employee:

An email typically with a subject line, “Stripe: deposit will not be made to your bank account,” has been circulating and frightening the site’s users, so much so that the company issued a scam watch statement. This post tells users what to do if they receive a strange communication that appears to come from the company. For instance, misspellings in the message or uncapitalized use of the company name are some red flags, as is an unknown email address or one that does not include the “stripe.com” domain name. Other telltale signs are listed in the website’s post.

There are some steps that tech users can follow to protect themselves from this kind of low-tech crime.

  • Never click a link, open an attachment, or download a file in an email or message unless you were specifically expecting it; even if you think you recognize the sender, it is a good idea to verify it with the sender first.
  • Next, never submit any kind of sensitive information based on a communication about your account. This includes usernames, passwords, account numbers, or any other details. Instead, go directly to the company’s website and log into your account. If there is a problem, it will be visible on the screen.
  • If all else fails, contact the company directly using a verified phone number or email address.

Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

When it comes to avoiding a scholarship scam or financial aid scam is that there really are some obscure and even bizarre scholarships out there. There’s a scholarship for being left-handed, one for being above average in height or below average in height, one for being a redhead, and so much more. That means it’s easy to accidentally fall into a trap of applying for a scholarship from a company or organization that you’ve never heard of.

Fortunately, avoiding a scholarship scam only takes a little bit of attention and precaution.

Stick to reputable scholarship links

Many colleges and high schools will link to safe, trustworthy sources of financial aid on their websites. Start with your school’s site or your guidance counselor to find these and other sources.

Watch out for emailed offers

Once you begin engaging in activities that can be linked to college life—such as signing up for updates, filling out online applications, even searching for housing or shopping for dorm room essentials—that can trigger scammers who are looking for victims. When your email inbox begins filling up with scholarship offers and even “congratulations, you’ve been awarded a grant!” messages, it can be tempting to open them and click the link but you don’t want to do that. Opening the email and finding out if it’s legitimate is fine, but clicking a link or downloading an application can be dangerous if the sender isn’t genuine and can lead to a malicious virus or another compromise of your data.

There’s no such thing as free money

 It might sound like the opposite of a scholarship search—since scholarships are, by nature, free college money—but no one will hunt you down to give you money. Scholarships are funded by many different sources, and they are to reward hard-working students with the means to afford their tuition. No one sends out emails begging students to take the money, though. Many scholarships involve a rigorous selection process, so any claims that something is free or already yours should be a red flag.

You can’t win if you don’t play

Another important truth about scholarships is you cannot receive one if you don’t apply for it. That means you’ll never receive a scholarship that you didn’t submit your application for. If you are contacted by email, text, social media message, or some other way and told you’ve won a scholarship, make sure it’s one you applied for before you engage with the message. Furthermore, don’t fall for any hidden “fees” like paying $40 to process your new $400 scholarship; you never have to pay money to receive money.

Protect your data

With very few exceptions, you should not have to submit your Social Security number in order to apply for a scholarship. The exception may be scholarships that are awarded directly by your university (and even then, they should already have that information) or government grants and aid. A club, team, community organization, or other company should not need it, so don’t turn it over without investigating why it’s necessary.

It’s hard to believe that someone would stoop so low as to steal from a young college hopeful with a scholarship scam, but it’s true. Safeguard your identifying information and be very careful of what information you share.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Criminals have developed DNA test scams targeting victims to retrieve medical and sensitive information. DNA test kits have grown in both popularity and affordability in recent years. While not claiming to be foolproof or accurate, they can provide a glimpse into the genetic makeup of your family tree. There have been stories about these swab-at-home test kits providing more important information as well, such as the likelihood of certain medical issues.

Attorneys general in two states have already issued warnings about DNA test scams that steal the victims’ sensitive information. The caller claims to be from a testing agency and offers the victim a free DNA test kit if they meet specific criteria. In one victim’s case, the criteria was a family history of cancer. You would be hard-pressed to find an individual who does not have a relative who has had cancer, so of course, the victim instantly qualifies.

All they have to do to receive their free kit is answer some general questions and provide their medical coverage information. Some experts believe that DNA test scams may have grown out of the recent announcement that Medicare would cover the cost of genetic screening for cancer patients if the kit is an FDA-approved tool.

In some of the reports of these scams, individuals were actually going door to door and offering victims a free kit plus $20 in exchange for their medical coverage information. The kits are easy and cheap to replicate, as they only require some cotton swabs and a mailer envelope. Victims were easily fooled into thinking they were receiving real testing kits.

The best advice for avoiding DNA test scams is remembering that no one will ever call you and offer you something that is genuinely free. Whether it is medical services or anything else, the only reason to offer you anything is because the other person is getting something in return. In this scam victims sensitive data or medical identity is compromised. Remember to always speak with your physician about any potentially necessary tests, or contact your health coverage provider directly to see if there are services or treatments you can use that they cover. Otherwise, steer clear of anyone who wants access to your records or data.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

A new report from the Federal Trade Commission found that tax return fraud actually declined recently, and Social Security scams stepped in to take their place. These scams can manifest in a few different ways, but all of them are intended to steal your money, your identity or both.

Listen to the real scam below:

In one of the Social Security scams circulating, a caller claiming to be from the Social Security Administration informs you that there has been suspicious identity theft activity involving your SSN. You are urged to purchase a prepaid debit card, iTunes gift card or other reloadable funds card and transfer all of your money out of your bank accounts and onto that card. This is supposed to keep those dangerous hackers from getting your money. The agent calls back later to confirm that you have done it, and then tells you the Social Security Administration will record the card’s account number and PIN number in your file, supposedly to protect your money in case something happens to that card. Once you read the card number and the PIN number to the fake agent, they will drain the funds off the card and you will now be completely broke.

The more common of the Social Security scams, is to call a potential victim and claim that their SSN has been suspended. This scam has actually been at work for some time, but there has recently been a renewed number of victim reports. In this Social Security scam, a fake agent tells you that your number has been suspended due to possible identity theft, meaning you will no longer receive benefits, it can no longer be used for health care or other benefits. You are required to confirm your SSN and some other sensitive personal information for the agent in order to reinstate your SSN. After you confirm your personal identifying information, the fake agent steals your identity and uses it for a variety of malicious activities, including opening new lines of credit and claiming your benefits.

In order to protect yourself, you must adopt one ridiculously easy habit: never believe what you hear over the phone. It is far too easy to scam people via phone, and thanks to simple tools that anyone can acquire, the scammer can even change their phone number on your caller ID in order to look legitimate. Therefore, it is vital that you ignore any warning or request from anyone who calls you—and the same is true for emails, social media messages or texts. If there is a genuine problem with your account or your information, you can always contact the organization, agency, or business directly to put the matter to rest.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

If you have not filed your tax return yet, the deadline is looming. If you have filed already, you are probably still very aware of the date as you anxiously await your return. Whether you have filed or not, there is a good chance you have encountered one or two tax scams this year or in previous. Many scammers take advantage of the lack of knowledge and fear that comes with the April 15th tax day. While there may be fewer calls from shady people demanding your tax information after the 15th passes, that only means that tax scams will take on a new look and scammers will adapt.

First, remember that not everyone will file by the April 15th deadline. Whether due to late activity or previously-approved extensions, a significant number of consumers will mail or e-send those returns in after the date. Scammers know this, and therefore, have no intention of cutting off their activity. It is important to be on the lookout even after the deadline has passed and after you have filed your return.

Of course, extensions or late filing only applies to some people. If you have already filed but a caller tells you that your return was never received, you can probably have a good laugh and hang up the phone. Why? Because the IRS does NOT call you, but rather sends letters through the postal service instead (if you have not received any confirmation that your postal return was received, you might check in with the IRS to be safe, but they still will not call you).

What if the caller has a different story? What if someone posing as an IRS agent tells you that your return had an error, or that they suspect you have been the victim of identity theft since someone else sent in a return in your name? Those scenarios can be very frightening, and that means these tax scams are a lot harder to ignore.

First of all, the same rule from above still applies: the IRS will not call you, even for something as serious as those situations. You will receive a mailed letter if there is an issue, and this letter will provide you with the information you need to take your next steps. Even if your caller ID says “IRS,” you should be very careful since it is most likely a scam.

Next, it is important to develop a good habit of safeguarding your information, no matter who calls or why they claim to need it. If you are ever asked to verify your identity by providing anything more sensitive than your name or home address, do not comply. Instead, take down the caller’s information and contact their company or agency yourself using a verified contact method.

Also, if you are ever told you failed to pay your taxes correctly or owe a penalty, you will never be required to make an immediate payment over the phone (see previous mentions of phone calls). You will have time to look into the matter and take appropriate action. This is very important: you cannot pay with an iTunes or other gift cards, no matter what the scammer tells you. You will also never be required to use an untraceable method like a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Your own check, a money order, or a cashier’s check are all valid forms of payment.

Finally, tax scams rely on the fear factor of messing up where the IRS is concerned but do not fall for this scare tactic. The burden of proof has been on the IRS’ shoulders for quite some time, not on the individual taxpayer. Do not be frightened into handing over your money or your identity to a thief.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: Imposter Scams Were The Most Reported Consumer Complaint

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the U.S. government agency tasked with protecting consumers. Whether it is issuing warnings and recalls about dangerous products, policing companies for misleading advertising or helping write regulations in regards to harmful products, the FTC is certainly the unsung hero that protects all of us on a daily basis.

The FTC has another crucial job, it is the go-to department for reporting scams, fraud, and other related crimes. As such, the FTC keeps tabs on the types of consumer reports that are filed each year and releases this comprehensive information in its annual report from the Consumer Sentinel Network.

The 2018 report has been released with a shocking new finding: for the first time since the FTC began tabulating and reporting the complaints, imposter scams topped the list of most commonly reported consumer fraud.

An imposter scam occurs when a criminal uses a false identity or persona to trap you. It might be someone pretending to be a Microsoft employee, a Google ad salesman, someone from your bank or credit company, an IRS agent, or a customer service representative from your utility company, just to name a few examples. Using this false persona, the criminal alerts you to some plausible reason why you must pay money or face a consequence of some kind.

For obvious reasons involving threats of jail time and significant penalties, government imposter scams are commonplace. Scams involving phony IRS or Social Security agents made up about half of the 535,417 imposter scam attempts that were reported to the FTC last year. The thought of a fraudulent charge on your credit can make some scam victims comply with a banking imposter scam, but thinking that they have broken the law with regards to their taxes is far scarier.

What is interesting about the increase in government imposter scams is that it is branching out from the norm. IRS scams were commonplace for a long time, as a caller would contact you and claim you have failed to pay your taxes. Now, Social Security imposters contact potential victims and frighten them into thinking their SSN has been suspended or their benefits will not be issued that month unless they verify their identities.

In either case, the goal is money or information. If a scammer can convince you to pay or provide your personally identifiable information, then they can cash in. Sometimes the scammer even manages to acquire both a payment and your data, which will then be used for identity theft.

Unfortunately, as the number of complaint reports to the FTC increased, so did the number of losses that victims reported. With nearly three million different consumer reports made to the FTC last year, the total amount of loss was $1.48 billion, a 38 percent increase compared to the previous year.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: The How and Why of Tax Identity Theft