The past few years have brought more than their share of challenges, but throughout it all, one group has refused to let it hold them back—scammers.
Whatever twists and turns this pandemic takes, scammers have been ready with sleazy tricks that make difficult times even worse for their victims. They’ve come up with online-shopping scams that exploit the pandemic-driven increase in Internet shopping…streaming scams that exploit the boom in Netflix viewing…rental scams that exploit the recent shortages of available homes…and so many more. Here are the scams that have become common, and how to avoid becoming a victim…
Trusted online merchant scam. A man in Tempe, Arizona, wanted to buy a refurbished computer that he found listed on Amazon.com for $441. The computer was being sold by an Amazon “third-party seller”—not Amazon itself—but it was listed on Amazon. This third-party seller advised would-be buyers to get in contact via e-mail before buying the computer to confirm that the item was still in stock. The buyer did so and received a reply assuring him that the computer was still available and providing a link to the seller’s Amazon “e-payments page.” This page recommended that the buyer make the purchase using Amazon gift cards, which the seller explained would give both the buyer and the seller an added layer of Amazon’s consumer protections. The buyer followed the directions—after all, buying a product listed on Amazon using Amazon gift cards was safe, right? But: He suspected something was wrong and quickly contacted Amazon customer service when the purchase didn’t appear in his Amazon account transactions. A customer service rep informed him that he had been scammed and explained that gift cards cannot be canceled after they have been used for purchases. Amazon also refused to make good on this man’s losses because the “e-payments” page he’d received from the seller to complete the transaction wasn’t a real Amazon web page, even though it looked like one.
What to do: Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because you’re shopping on a well-established website such as Amazon.com or Walmart.com. Not only do scammers have tricks to lure shoppers away from these legitimate websites, there also are massive numbers of authentic-looking imposter sites—cybersecurity-research firm Check Point Research recently warned that more than 2,300 new imposter Amazon sites had sprung up in the 30 days leading up to Amazon’s most recent annual “Prime Day” sale alone.
Be especially wary if a third-party Amazon seller asks you to contact him/her via e-mail or text before making a purchase—it could be a ploy to shift the sale off the Amazon website.
And don’t buy from sellers who request payment be made using gift cards—they likely are doing so because gift-card payments are difficult to track and/or overturn. If you pay with a credit card, you often can get your money back by asking the card issuer to initiate a “chargeback”—that’s not possible with gift cards.
If you’re not 100% certain you’re on the legitimate Amazon.com—or another legitimate mainstream US shopping site—confirm that there’s a little closed lock icon before the web address…and cut and paste the website’s address into WhoIs.com, a website that identifies who owns a website and confirms that a domestic mailing address is listed for the website’s owner.
Vaccination-status scam. A woman in Orlando received a text supposedly from the Florida Department of Health asking her to confirm her vaccination status—the text said if she was fully vaccinated, she could have this information embedded in her driver’s license. A link in the text led this woman to an official-looking website that asked her to confirm her identity by providing her Social Security number and other information. It also asked her to supply a credit card number to pay a modest fee for the replacement license. This “phishing” scam is designed to steal victims’ Social Security and credit card numbers—no state has launched any program to add vaccination status to driver’s licenses.
What to do: Decline to provide personal information or credit card information to anyone who contacts you regarding your vaccination status.
If this person insists you must provide the info or face unfortunate consequences, such as financial penalties, ask what company or government agency he/she represents…look up the actual phone number of that organization online…and call it directly to see if the call was legit.
Do not believe that a caller is from a particular company or agency just because your caller ID says so—scammers can fool caller ID.
Delivery-delay scam. A New York woman got a little good news after a holiday season of out-of-stock gifts and slow shipments—an e-mail informed her that UPS would be refunding the money she’d paid to ship a gift because it had failed to deliver the package in a timely manner. A link in this UPS e-mail directed her to an online refund form that requested details about the delivery, including the credit card she had used to pay. As you’ve probably guessed, this e-mail actually was from a scammer. The woman fell for the scam because UPS had indeed failed to get her grandkids their Christmas gifts on time, something that it seemed only the real UPS was likely to know. But the scammers didn’t need to know that UPS had let this woman down—they knew that the major delivery companies including UPS, FedEx, the post office and Amazon all have been overwhelmed lately, so if the scammers send out lots of these delivery-delay e-mails and texts, many recipients will find them plausible.
What to do: Ignore delivery-company refund e-mails, texts and calls unless you have specifically requested such a refund and the delivery company communication cites the correct delivery details.
Never provide a credit card number to a company that reaches out to you to offer a refund—if it was the real company, it would already have your credit card info on file.
Secret-shopper employment scam. A woman living outside Fresno, California, received an offer to earn some extra money as a Walmart “secret shopper.” It wasn’t the first job offer she’d received in this unusual job market, but this one seemed like easy money—she would be paid to shop at local Walmarts and provide feedback about the experiences. When she expressed interest, she received a check for $2,350 in the mail and instructions to purchase $2,000 in gift cards at two area Walmarts. Walmart would get that gift-card money, but she could keep the remaining $350 for her efforts.
Fortunately, this woman sensed something was amiss and reached out to the police, who warned her that it was a scam. If this woman had deposited the $2,350 check in her bank account, the money would have appeared in her account within a few days—but that would not have guaranteed it was real. What many bank customers don’t know: Banks typically are required to “provisionally” credit deposited checks to accounts within a few days—but those checks still could bounce days or even weeks later…and when that happens, the bank subtracts the amount from the account. If this woman had followed the instructions, she would have lost the $2,000 she spent on the gift cards.
What to do: Do not accept any job that involves making purchases with your own money, even if you first receive a check for a larger amount—it’s almost certainly a scam.
Also be suspicious if a remote employer “accidentally” overpays you, then asks you to refund the overpayment—it’s a variation on the same scam.
And never assume that a check has cleared simply because the money has been credited to your account. Ask a manager at your bank to confirm that the check truly has cleared if you need to be certain.
Netflix sneak-preview scam. A California man who had watched the Netflix hit show Squid Game received an e-mail from Netflix that read, in part “we’re glad you enjoyed season one.” The e-mail provided a link to a sneak preview of the show’s forthcoming second season. He believed the e-mail was legitimate because, after all, only the actual Netflix would know that he was a subscriber and that he’d watched Squid Game. But this scammer was just playing the odds—Netflix membership and use skyrocketed during the pandemic, and Squid Game was among its most popular late-2021 shows. The sneak-preview link loaded malware onto the man’s computer.
What to do: Ignore e-mails featuring links to Netflix sneak previews—when new content is available, the real Netflix may alert subscribers, depending on their preferences. But subscribers will also be notified when logging on to their accounts, so it’s not worth the risk to click a link in an e-mail that might be from a scammer. If you’re curious about a show, go to Netflix.com and look for more information there.