MONEY

Consumer Complaints About This Troubling Scam Have Soared

Behold the year's top consumer complaints.

Identity theft was the fastest-growing consumer complaint in 2014, according to a joint annual report by the Consumer Federation of America and North American Consumer Protection Investigators. The list is based on more than 280,000 claims made to 37 consumer-protection agencies in 21 states last year.

Recent, large-scale data breaches at major retailers are at least partly to blame for the rapid rise of identity theft complaints. (It also was the top consumer gripe handled by the Federal Trade Commission last year, making up 13% of all complaints.)

Read next: 10 Funniest & Most Creative Consumer Complaints Ever

Consumer agencies say that stealing someone’s identity to claim their tax refunds, in particular, is a growing problem. “Refund fraud caused by identity theft is one of the biggest challenges facing the IRS,” says the agency, which has 3,000 employees working on tax-related identity theft.

The 37 agencies the two groups canvassed deemed debt collection the worst category overall for consumer complaints, based on a combination of complaint frequency, the dollar amounts involved and how severely vulnerable populations were affected. In some cases, people were hounded to pay debts that weren’t theirs.

“They make harassing phone calls or send threatening emails to scare consumers… to satisfy a loan that doesn’t exist,” the groups’ report says. Other victims who filed complaints with state and local agencies said they were subject to abusive language and other illegal practices from debt collectors, such as threatening them with arrest or calling late at night. (By law, these agencies aren’t supposed to call after 9 p.m.)

Some complaint categories are perennial hot buttons. As in 2013, automotive-related issues were the most frequently reported to protection agencies last year, including, “misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes,” the CFA says. Other mainstays in terms of generating complaints include telemarketing robocalls, construction and home improvement firms, landlord-tenant disputes and shady retail practices like false advertising or issues with gift cards or coupons.

There were plenty of new contenders causing major consumer headaches last year, too. Consumer protection agencies reported an influx of complaints about student loan repayment or consolidation scams, and businesses refusing to honor customer agreements such as rebates, gift certificates and contracts after changing hands, sometimes even though the businesses retained their old names.

“A good recent example is gyms that have closed and be reopened by other, larger corporations,” says Ethel Newlin of the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. In some cases, she says, “Consumers were left with worthless contracts for the rest of the term they had already paid for.”

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MONEY Scams

5 Sure Signs You’re Talking to a Scammer

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Yuri_Arcurs—Getty Images

5. They request sensitive information

It happens all the time — you check your email inbox or your phone rings, and on the other end, someone trying to steal your money. Maybe you ignore it. Perhaps you hang up or delete the message. Then again, you might not.

You may think you know someone is trying to trick you, but keep in mind scammers succeed often enough to be successful, otherwise these things wouldn’t happen. For the most part, thieves employ one of a few tactics that may convince you you’re dealing with a legitimate person or company, and by knowing these strategies, you’re more likely to spot a scam before you become a victim of it. Here area few signs you’re probably dealing with a scammer.

1. They Ask You to Pay on a Prepaid Card

Sometimes, it’s not clear you’re dealing with a scammer until it comes time to pay for something. This often happens with Craigslist scams: You find something for a great deal, you go back and forth with the seller to ask questions about the item or service, and when it’s time to finalize the transaction, the seller requests a money order or a prepaid card.

It happens with loan or sweepstakes scams, too, in which you should be receiving money, but the person you’re in contact with requests you to send a deposit of sorts by putting money on prepaid cards and providing the person the card info.

Prepaid cards are a common tool in scams because it’s easy to receive the money and move it quickly, without being traced.

2. They’re Emailing You From an Unofficial Email Domain

Companies have custom email domains, so there’s no reason someone from your bank would be sending you an email from a Yahoo or Gmail account. Cross-reference the email address with the email information posted to a company’s website, and look closely for misspellings. Here are some other tips for keeping your email inbox scam-free.

3. They Say You’re About to Be Arrested

Scammers rely on targets’ emotional responses to get what they’re after, so they’ll do their best to scare you into giving money. If someone calls you saying your arrest is imminent, unless you pay $X (via a prepaid card, probably), stay calm and be realistic: If you really did something that warranted your arrest, do you really think someone would call and say it could all go away for a couple hundred or thousand dollars? It wouldn’t. Hang up.

4. They Threaten Immediate Legal Action

While a creditor can sue you for an unpaid debt, it’s not a swift process. You have debt collection rights the creditor and collector must respect, and you should verify the legitimacy of a debt before paying any money. If you suspect something illegal is occurring, a consumer law attorney may review your case for free. Make sure you’re familiar with these rights if you’re ever dealing with a debt collector.

5. They Request Sensitive Information

If you call your bank and they request identity verification, that makes sense. If someone calls you and wants to verify your identity, that’s a sign of a scam. Don’t share any personal information with someone who reaches out to you, and if you’re concerned the request is legitimate, independently verify the contact information for whatever company has contacted you and reach out yourself.

Additionally, don’t provide any sensitive information by email. First of all, any company claiming to keep your information secure wouldn’t do that, and even if you trust the entity on the other end of the message, you don’t have control over their email or computer security. That makes sending electronic records of your personal information a bad idea.

Americans lose billions of dollars to scams every year so don’t underestimate the importance of protecting yourself from financial loss or identity theft. Victims of financial fraud or identity theft may also see a negative impact on their credit standing, which can be time-consuming to correct. On top of exercising caution when engaging with others, regularly monitor your financial accounts and credit scores for signs of suspicious activity. Any large, unexpected changes in your scores could signal identity theft and you should pull your full credit reports to confirm. You can get your free annual credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.

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MONEY Scams

9 Summer Scams to Avoid

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Frank P wartenberg—Getty Images

It's easier to get scammed when your guard is down during the dog days of summer.

Summer is a time for sun, fun, exploration and relaxation. Unfortunately, as we unwind there are those who gear up to take advantage of our moments of diversion and distraction. Scammers love summer, too.

Here are a few summer scams that can turn a much-needed break from work into a break-the-bank moment or make for a truly unhappy holiday, and some simple tips to avoid getting got.

1. The Front Desk Scam

You arrive late at your hotel and all you want to do is check in, take a shower and go to bed. As you settle in, or just after you turn in, the phone in your room rings. The “front desk” is calling to tell you that your payment card was declined. Would you be so kind as to confirm your account number, or provide another card? You oblige then promptly forget all about it….that is until your monthly statement arrives (or whenever you check your account) and you get a rude awakening – the “front desk” wasn’t associated with the hotel at all and was really a scammer.

TIP: If you get a call from the front desk, hang up and call them back or go down to confirm your payment method in person.

2. The Hotel Take-Out Scam

Room service is closed, and you’re starving. There’s a restaurant flyer either on or near the door to your room—it could be for a diner, pizza joint or Chinese restaurant. It doesn’t matter. You order and give them a credit card number. You wait with eager anticipation for your food but nothing arrives. When you call again, there’s no answer because the person who took your order and asked for your credit card is busy maxing it out.

TIP: Call the front desk to make sure the flyer is not a scam, or go online to check for reviews.

3. The Summer Rental Scam

You find the perfect late-summer rental. Excited, or maybe a little anxious about losing out on this gem, you contact the person identified in the listing and—score—you get the place. On the appointed day, you show up at the right address, at the right time with bags in hand. You ring the bell and the door opens. The person standing in the doorway looks at you in wonderment as you happily announce that you have arrived. It might be the owner or maybe a tenant. Equally disturbing, you discover an office building, a parking lot or vacant field at the address you were given. Oh, and did I mention that the scammer and your money are long gone?

TIP: If you used a real estate agent, ask for the agent’s license number and check it, request references if there are no reviews online and confirm that the address is real and the premises are truly available for rent. Some home-rental websites have their own vetting processes and offer guarantees that will protect you in case of fraud. Be sure to read through the details, however.

4. The Wi-Fi Scam

Many destinations, travel stops, restaurants, retailers and public venues provide free Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, free Wi-Fi by no means guarantees secure Wi-Fi. Before you connect to anything that is free, confirm the exact name of the Wi-Fi network and that it is secure. Always be on the lookout for fake networks created by scammers.

TIP: Always check with the network provider or someone of authority at the venue before logging on to any new wireless connection.

5. The Summer Job Scam

You apply for a summer job and your prospective employer informs you that you’re hired, but before they can make a formal offer they have to do a background check. Sounds logical, right? So, you provide your information—including your Social Security number—but never hear back about the job. The reason: You were the job and your identity has been stolen.

TIP: Due diligence here is key: Never provide sensitive personal information to a job site or anyone claiming to offer a job as a prerequisite to starting the conversation. Always make a few calls or poke around online to make sure the company and the offer are legitimate. Then interact with an authorized representative. If at that point you want to move forward, it is appropriate to supply identifying data.

6. The Excursion Scam

When booking an excursion, double check that the company you’re working with has a good reputation. Call and make sure the number matches contact information online, and that there are reviews from happy customers. Otherwise, you could be just giving a stranger your credit card information and the ability to take you for a ride.

TIP: Read reviews, and make sure the company is legitimate.

7. The Mover Scam

Summer is the time to move. Your search for a mover yields a company that can do it fast, at what appears to be a reasonable price: but compared to what? Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure that you are getting a deal rather than being the deal. Many of these sketchy movers will force you to ransom back your belongings.

TIP: Always read the reviews before hiring a mover.

8. The Concert Ticket Scam

Taylor Swift is rolling into town with her celebrated “1989” tour. You just have to have tickets. Are you sure you’re on a legitimate ticket site? You don’t want to find out the hard way.

TIP: Go to reputable ticket sellers (also check with the concert venues) to make absolutely sure you are dealing with someone who can and will actually deliver the goods to you rather than sell you a bill of goods.

9. The Home Maintenance Scam

Everyone has a punch list of home repairs that needs to get done before winter rolls around.

A guy shows up at your door, and tells you that his crew is working in the area and about to finish a job with some materials to spare. He offers to give you a deal because it will save him time and you money. No contract, no fuss; you agree to hire him and pay a deposit. Then he and his imaginary crew—along with your dough—are gone with the wind.

TIP: Check out potential hires through friends, neighbors and online reviews. Also, get a written contract which specifies deliverables, including a definitive start and completion date. Note that many states require home improvement contractors to be licensed and provide written contracts.

Keeping Your Summer Scam-Free

There’s also a cheat sheet on the best practices that can help you keep your summer safe from fraud, courtesy of the Connecticut Better Business Bureau:

  • Don’t wire money to strangers – When booking a vacation or renting a property, avoid anyone who only accepts payment by wire transfer. Use a secure method of payment such as a credit or online payment system.
  • Be skeptical about giving out your information – That includes your credit card number. Ignore food flyers under your hotel room door and remember that the front desk at the hotel will never call to ask you for your credit card number over the phone.
  • Is the vacation really free? – It may appear to be, but like anything else, a free vacation is not free if you have to give out your credit card number.
  • Call your financial institutions before leaving town – It may not be enough just to call your credit card company to tell them you are leaving town. Call your bank as well, since your bank generally sets the level of security associated with your credit card. If you don’t do this, your credit card transactions will probably be declined, especially if your purchases don’t match your usual spending pattern, for example, using your card in another state or country.
  • Carefully check your receipts and statements – As soon as you get home, reconcile your credit card and banking statements with your receipts. Extra charges are not necessarily fraudulent. Mistakes do happen, and regardless of whether a charge is an error or unauthorized, you should report the problem as soon as possible.

We also want to add to this: Just because you’re on vacation, don’t go on hiatus from checking your credit reports and credit scores. If someone fraudulently opens an account in your name, you may not know about it until it has done a serious number on your credit. Better to catch it as soon as possible so you can deal with it before it becomes a big problem. You can get your credit reports for free every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com. A larger, unexpected change in your credit scores can tip you off to potential fraud.

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MONEY Scams

Airline Scams Take Off on Facebook

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Jake Rajs—Getty Images

Beware shady airfare sweepstakes and voucher scams.

July and August are historically the most popular months for air travel in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Travel Statistics, and when most people plan a vacation, they’re looking for deals. That desire to keep expenses down while also getting away for a few days makes the summer months prime time for travel scams.

Here are two recent examples of schemes that prey on your hopes to travel at a low cost as a way to steal money or personal information.

Flight Voucher Scam

Someone posted $200 airline vouchers for the price of $100 to a community buy/sell/trade group on Facebook, reports ABC7 in Denver, and at least one victim has come forward saying he paid for the vouchers, which had been used by the time he tried to book a flight for family to come visit. Before purchasing the vouchers (note: vouchers generally aren’t transferrable), he met the seller and checked with the airline to confirm their validity, but when he tried to make travel arrangements they had already been used.

This happened in Arvada, Colo., where police are investigating four related cases, ABC7 reports.

Fake Airfare Sweepstakes

You can fall victim to a scam even if it doesn’t involve money (at least not initially). A fake sweepstakes made the rounds on Facebook over the Fourth of July weekend, in which users could “like” a page and share a post from Virgin Airlines (not really Virgin Airlines) for a chance to win free flights for a year.

The idea behind this scheme is to drive thousands of people to a Facebook page and, once the page is popular enough, drive those users to scam content or malware. It’s called like farming, as Jennifer Abel explains in her report for Consumer Affairs. “Liking” a post with suspicious content may not directly harm you, but it could make you a target for other scams.

It’s good to want to save money on travel, but there are plenty of ways to do that without buying tickets from strangers or entering contests. If you’re a frequent traveler, you may want to consider getting a credit card with travel rewards. Take a look at our list of the Best Travel Credit Cards in America to get an idea of how you can benefit from a card like this. You generally need good or excellent credit to qualify for these products, and it’s best if you don’t carry a balance on them (they have high interest rates), but travel credit cards can be a huge money saver. It’s important you see the big picture: Many rewards cards also carry annual fees, which may outweigh their benefits, depending how often you use them, and it’s never a good idea to go into debt for the sake of earning a reward.

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MONEY gambling

$1 Billion Powerball Jackpot Is Coming

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At same time, the odds of winning are worse than ever.

Earlier this week, the New York Gaming Commission, which is a member of the Multi-State Lottery Association, announced it was tweaking the odds of winning the lottery to raise more revenues. But don’t get excited: Your chances of winning aren’t getting better.

Precisely, the odds of winning Powerball, which are now 1 in 175,223,510, are shooting up to 1 in 292,201,338. So your chances of hitting it big in the lottery, which are already far less likely than getting killed by a shark or struck by lightning, are about to get much worse.

While there is arguably nothing positive about the lottery before or after the changes are instituted, the big brains at FiveThirtyEight point out that there is somewhat of a silver lining to the news that the odds of winning are getting worse.

Assuming that all of the states that participate in Powerball get on board with the changes, sooner or later some luckier-than-ever winner stands to win an epically huge chunk of cash. “The chances of a Powerball win making some future player a billionaire are radically higher. Like, 7.5 times as high,” FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey explains.

Basically, a $1 billion jackpot is likely to happen in part because the likelihood of anyone winning an individual Powerball is decreasing. The longer that no one wins, the bigger the pot gets. What’s more, as the pot grows, the number of tickets sold grows as well, which in turn increases the pace of the pot’s rise.

Hickey ran simulations of five years of play comparing the old and new odds. With the old odds, only 8.5% of the five-year simulations wound up with a $1 billion Powerball jackpot. However, under the new scenario, in which the odds of anyone winning are worse and the pot will therefore rise and rise, a $1 billion jackpot appeared in nearly two-thirds (63.4%) of the simulated five-year periods.

MONEY Tech

Our National Robocalling Nightmare May Soon Be Over

robot using smartphone
iStock

Take that, spammers and robocallers!

In the phrase “unwanted robocall,” the word unwanted probably isn’t necessary. Is there any automated sales call that is actually wanted? Ever?

Earlier this year, 200,000 people signed a petition asking telecom companies to give customers the means to block commercial robocalls. They probably could have gotten tens of millions of such signatures with a little more time and outreach.

In any event, on Thursday, hallelujah, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a package that will make it much easier to put a stop to the extremely annoying and unwanted robocalls. The commission’s decision “affirmed consumers’ rights to control the calls they receive,” while also clarifying that it was fully legal for telephone companies to offer robocall-blocking technology to customers.

“Complaints related to unwanted calls are the largest category of complaints received by the Commission, numbering more than 215,000 in 2014,” an FCC statement explained. (The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, reportedly received an astounding 3 million complaints about robocalls in 2014.) The new rules are intended to address consumer concerns by “closing loopholes and strengthening consumer protections already on the books,” according to the FCC.

Despite heavy lobbying from multiple industries on the pro-robocall and pro-spam side, the FCC ruled to uphold and clarify the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, while also bolstering the protections offered by the Do Not Call Registry. Specifically, the package affirmed:

• Phone service providers can offer robocall-blocking technology to customers.

• Consumers can decide to opt out of robocalls at any time.

• The same protections and opt-out rights regarding telemarketing messages apply to text messages as well as calls to wireless and landline phones.

A group of consumer advocates jointly applauded the measure as soon as it was announced. “We applaud the FCC for holding the line to keep the plague of unwanted robocalls from becoming even worse,” said Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “Since the FCC has now clarified that telephone companies can block these types of calls, we expect the companies to act quickly to implement blocking options for their customers.”

On the other hand, speaking on behalf of the business community, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that the FCC’s move could lead to more class-action lawsuits against companies, which would “likely lead to increased costs for consumers.”

Or perhaps businesses could simply stop robocalling and avoid lawsuits entirely.

MONEY Scams

New Scams Target People Buying and Selling Gift Cards Online

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baona—Getty Images

In some cases, victims are out thousands of dollars.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation published an alert Thursday warning of a worrisome trend: Thieves are using gift card exchange and auction websites to steal money from unsuspecting card buyers and sellers.

There are several traps that target people selling gift cards in particular, the FBI reports.

In one scam, fraudsters pay you for a card (or the code on the card), but then dispute or cancel the charge after they have already used the gift card. In another, they ask you to buy a bunch of gift cards in exchange for an item on an auction site—and then never actually send you the purchase.

To avoid becoming a victim, the FBI suggests you take several precautions when you use gift card websites.

  • Check reviews of any website you use.
  • Always review gift card balances before and after purchasing the card.
  • If you are selling a gift card, don’t ever give out the card’s PIN until your payment transaction is complete.
  • Be wary of auction sites selling gift cards at a discount or in bulk.
  • If you are buying a gift card in a store, examine the protective scratch-off area on the back of the card for evidence of tampering.

And beware of social media postings offering vouchers or gift cards: Fraudulent messages can sometimes appear to have been shared by a friend when they really come from a scam artist.

 

MONEY Banking

How to Get Bank Alerts on Your Phone

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Peathegee Inc—Getty Images/Blend Images RM

They're the best way to stop fraudsters.

If you haven’t already signed up to get alerts on your mobile phone from your credit card issuer, what are you waiting for?

Mobile alerts can tell you within minutes if your card is used in another country or if your payment is overdue. They can save you the embarrassment of being blocked at the cash register if a transaction seems suspicious by asking you via two-way text if the purchase is legitimate. And as I recently learned firsthand, they can help you catch fraud almost instantly.

I had just started receiving mobile notifications of every transaction on my American Express card when a transaction I didn’t recognize for $748 popped up. I immediately got on the phone. Sure enough, it was fraud. And even though AmEx hadn’t flagged it as a suspicious transaction, I was able to shut it down right away because I saw it.

That’s the beauty of mobile alerts and notifications, said Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research: “It’s a way to involve the customer and deputize them, because they often know better than the banks if something is legitimate or not.”

The alerts can also help you manage your personal finances by alerting you before a payment is due, if your balance goes over a specific amount or if you’re close to your credit limit. About four in every 10 consumers today have received some kind of alert from a financial institution, according to a Javelin report published in April. The company predicts that number will rise to more than half of U.S. consumers by 2019.

However, the report said most banks aren’t doing enough to promote their alerts, that it’s confusing and difficult for customers to enroll, and the alerts are “remarkably difficult” to turn on. “Finding alerts settings is akin to a Where’s Waldo’ search,” the authors wrote.

Since the issuers may not make it easy, here’s what you need to know to sign up:

How do you want to get your alerts?
You can get alerts through email, text message or “push notifications” that pop up in the status bar or notification tray of your cellphone. Email alerts are still the most common, according to Javelin, with 36 percent of consumers receiving them, compared to 22 percent for texts and 14 percent for notifications. Here are the pros and cons of the different types:

  • Email: Every bank surveyed by Javelin offers email alerts, and this type has been around the longest. The problem, of course, is that some folks don’t have email on their phones. Even if you do, you may not check it regularly. “Fraudulent transactions happen fast,” said Julie Conroy, research director at Aite Group. “A thief will do a little testing and then go to town, so it’s important to catch fraud as quickly as possible.”
  • Text message: About 95 percent of banks allow their customers to receive at least some financial alerts via text. Because we’re conditioned to give texts our immediate attention, this type of alert is a good choice for news you consider urgent. “Since you use texts to communicate with people, it might be annoying to get a text for every transaction,” Conroy said. “Also make sure you consider whether you’re going to incur charges for texts.” Some banks offer two-way texts that pop up instantly on your phone if you try to make a transaction that looks suspicious. If you respond that the purchase is legitimate, your card will go through instead of being blocked at the point of sale.
  • Push notification: This is the type of notification that I received from American Express. They pop up on your phone’s lock screen, in the banner at the top of your phone or in your “notification tray” even when you’re not using your card’s mobile app. They are more likely to get your attention than an email, but they’re less obtrusive than a text. Fewer than half of banks offer these, but Javelin predicts they will surpass text notifications as the No. 2 form of alert by 2019. Fueling that prediction: 45 percent of consumers surveyed said they think push notifications from their bank would be valuable, even though only 14 percent receive them.

When do you want to get an alert?
Signing up for at least some mobile alerts should be “a no-brainer choice for the customer,” said Brian Riley, principal executive adviser at CEB TowerGroup. “You don’t necessarily need an alert for every transaction. But everyone should want some type of notification,” he said.

Most issuers allow you to customize the type of notifications you receive and how you get them, so you can make sure you don’t get too many. “Typically there’s a control panel that says, ‘Text me or email me based on these specific conditions,'” Riley said. You can also turn them on or off anytime.

Some alerts are designed to enhance security; others help you stay on top of your personal finances. Here are some options you may see:

Security alerts:

  • Suspicious transaction: When issuers suspect fraud, they automatically try to contact you. But federal law requires them to get permission before they can notify you via text instead of calling you or sending an email.
  • Card-not-present transaction: This notifies you anytime a purchase is made without a swipe, so it’s mostly Internet transactions. “These transactions are much more vulnerable to fraud because all they need is your account number, not your actual card,” Riley said, “so this option should be first on your list.”
  • Gasoline transaction: Gas stations are another hot spot for thieves; you’ll be notified anytime a purchase is made at one.
  • International transaction: Because a lot of fraud originates overseas, this can be a good way to catch fraud if you rarely travel abroad; you can turn it off when you leave the country.
  • Transactions over a preset amount: You can choose to be notified of every transaction over a specific dollar amount. If you choose $0, you’ll be alerted to every transaction; set a higher dollar amount to minimize the number of alerts.

Personal finance alerts:

  • Available credit: Sent when your credit falls below a specified amount you set.
  • Balance: Sent anytime your credit card balance exceeds an amount you set. This can be particularly useful if you have multiple people using your card or if you’re trying to stay within a budget.
  • Low balance: An alert if the balance in an account linked to your debit card falls below a specified amount.
  • Payment due: Notifies you a specified number of days before a payment is due.
  • Missed payment: Sent if no payment was received by the due date.

How to sign up
Banks are cautious about automatic enrollment, Schwanhausser said, because “they don’t want their customers to feel like they’re being spammed or overwhelmed.” Most send automatic security alerts via email (or through a call to your home phone) anytime your personal information or settings are changed or if they notice suspicious activity.

To start getting text messages or push notifications to your cellphone, you have to proactively sign up. Though it can be difficult to enroll, it’s worth doing simply so your bank can reach you quickly on your cell if it detects suspicious activity. “It’s also a lot more convenient for you to hit reply to a text and say, ‘Yes, this was my transaction,’ or ‘No, it wasn’t,’ than to get an email about something and have to take the time to call in,” Conroy noted.

Every card has a slightly different process, but here are the basic steps to start getting text message alerts:

  • Log in to your card’s website.
  • Look for something in the menu that says “manage alerts” or “go to alerts.” If you don’t see the word ‘alerts,’ you may have to click on “Profile” or “Settings.”
  • Look for an option that will allow you to put in your mobile number, change your contact information or add text messages.
  • Because federal law requires you to opt in to receive text, you’ll have to activate the service by entering a code that the bank will send as a text.
  • Most issuers then list the types of alerts you can receive and how you want to receive them (email or text). Make your choices and then hit save.

To start getting push notifications, follow these steps:

  • First, find out if your card issuer offers the service. Javelin’s report in April said the following financial institutions were using push notifications, but more banks are adding them every day: American Express, Bank of America, M&T, BBVA compass, Regions, Chase, USAA, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third.
  • Download the institution’s mobile app.
  • In most cases, you can add push notifications through an app menu option that says something like “Manage alerts.” If you don’t see it as an option in the mobile app, you may have to add push notifications through the card’s website. Call the phone number on the back of your card if you’re having trouble.
  • Once enrolled, you may still have to change the settings on your phone to “allow notifications” from your bank’s mobile app. On most phones, you can go to settings and look for “notifications.” Some, including iPhones, let you decide whether to turn on sounds and badges with the notifications.

After my own experience with fraud, I took the time to turn on mobile alerts for all of my active credit cards and bank accounts (it did take some time and a few phone calls). To keep my messages box from filling up, I elected to receive texts only for news I considered urgent: suspicious activity, a low balance or a payment missed. But I’m receiving push notifications on my phone for most other transactions, and so far, I haven’t minded the extra communication. In fact, I take comfort in knowing that if fraud happens, I’ll catch it quickly.

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MONEY Scams

10 Phone Scams You Should Hang Up on Immediately

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Credit card rate reduction scams are the most common.

It might sound like an unexpected blessing — a call from out of the blue, promising to help reduce the interest rate you pay on your credit cards.

In reality, if you take the shysters up on their offer, you could end up losing thousands of dollars in fees or becoming the victim of identity theft.

These credit card rate reduction scams were the most common telephone scam during the first nine months of 2014, a study by Pindrop Security found. Pindrop helps companies prevent phone-based fraud.

Todd Mark, director of fundraising for Navicore Solutions, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit credit counseling firms, isn’t surprised by the prevalence of the scam. “People feel a bit more confident in the economy or in a better position to try to protect what they have.” So when a call comes in offering to help cut their credit card interest rates, “people hear what they want to hear,” Mark says. They think, ” ‘Wow, this just fell into my lap!'”

Pindrop analyzed more than 26,000 comments from online forums and complaint sites, and nearly 20 percent were about credit card rate reduction scams.

The callers promise interest rate reductions, but first the victim needs to pay the caller an upfront fee, Pindrop found. The victims rarely received a rate reduction, and might be asked to disclose personal and financial information, which then can be used to commit identity theft.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, these callers claim they’ll save you thousands of dollars in interest and finance charges, and you’ll pay off your credit card three to five times faster. Those promises seldom materialize, and victims rarely get their money refunded.

You should never give out your credit card information to callers, the FTC warns. Scammers can use it to make charges to your credit card or sell the information to other bad guys.

Even if a caller offers legitimate services, you don’t need to have a third party involved if you want to try to get your credit card interest rate reduced, Mark says. Instead, you can work directly with your creditors or nonprofit consumer credit counseling agencies. Consumer credit counselors will help you for free, looking at your debt, the interest rate you pay and your credit score. They can advise you on how to ask your credit card company for a lower rate, or you can enter into a debt repayment plan for a minimal monthly fee in which the agency will negotiate your interest rates for you and handle bill repayment.

If your credit card company won’t budge, you can shop for a new credit card or apply for a bill consolidation loan from your bank or credit union, Mark says.

The credit card rate reduction scam is just the tip of the iceberg, with consumers plagued by scammers doing everything from offering free cruises to threatening arrest because of nonpayment of debt.

In fact, the telephone is the most popular means of communication for shysters, according to Fraud.org. Of the more than 10,000 consumer complaints filed to the site in 2014, more than 40 percent of the scams originated with a phone call, while about 30 percent originated electronically via email.

Of the complaints examined by Pindrop Security, about 60 percent of the phone scams involved the caller impersonating a representative from a government agency or financial institution.

Many of the fraudsters have enough of your personal information, such as part of your Social Security number, your address or your bank account details, to sound legitimate.

The remaining nine top scams identified by Pindrop are:

No. 2. Home security systems: The caller offers a free home security system, and may mention a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood to frighten the victim into action. But the system is far from free. It comes with expensive long-term monitoring costs or fees.

No. 3. Spam text messages: Victims receive a text saying to call a certain number or check a particular website to win a prize. The message is designed to get you to reveal personal information, or to put malware on your computer.

No. 4. Free cruises: This scam involves calls or texts offering victims a free cruise. They’re pressured into disclosing credit card information to pay for taxes and fees.

No. 5. Government grants: Victims are told they’re receiving a government grant of between $5,000 and $25,000 just for being good citizens. They’re charged hundreds of dollars in “processing fees” and may be asked for their bank account information.

No. 6. Microsoft tech support: The caller claims to be from Microsoft tech support and says your computer is infected with a virus. He’ll request remote access to your computer to fix the problem and then may install malware to steal your personal information. You may be charge for this “service.”

No. 7. Auto insurance: The caller says you’re eligible for a lower auto insurance rate and asks for your personal information, which is used for identity theft.

No. 8. Payday loans: The caller targets those who have applied for a payday loan, claiming to be a debt collector. He’ll demand payment and late fees. You’ll be told to send payment, and you’ll be threatened with arrest if you don’t pay up.

No. 9. IRS scam: This is a quickly growing problem. Someone claiming to be from the IRS says you owe taxes and penalties. If you don’t pay by prepaid card, wire transfer or credit card, you’re threatened with arrest or legal action. Your personal information also may be targeted.

No. 10. Bank scams: The caller claims to be from your bank and says there’s a lock on your account or a hold has been placed on your debit card. You’re asked to verify your financial information, which the bad guys then use.

If you get a call from someone claiming to be from your bank, saying you need to verify your financial information or offering to help reduce your credit card interest rates, red flags should go up, says Chantel Negron, loss prevention manager at Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in Tampa.

Your financial institution may call, but won’t ask for your bank account number, PIN or card expiration date because the information is already on file, she says. It also won’t ask you to “pay fees upfront and work out a loan on the backside.”

Don’t fall for Friday scam
Scammers also may make an urgent call on a Friday afternoon, saying your debit card is about to be deactivated and asking for your financial information. “People react to that,” Negron says.

If you receive such a call, hang up the phone, then look up your bank’s phone number yourself and call directly. Never use a number the caller provides.

Matt Anthony, vice president of marketing at Pindrop Security, said the company’s research found “the same bad actors for multiple scams,” with several scams run from the same call center.

Some scams, such as the Microsoft tech support scam, have persisted for years. That means they’re effective, Anthony says. “The bad guys do what works.”

The fraudsters may doctor their phone numbers so it appears as if the call is coming from Microsoft or the IRS.

If you receive a robocall, hang up. Don’t press a number to speak to a live person or to get your name removed from their call list. It will just lead to more robocalls.

If you think you’ve been hit by a credit card interest rate reduction scam or other fraud, you should file a complaint with the FTC, or call 877-FTC-HELP877-FTC-HELP FREE.

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MONEY Scams

Most People Can’t Spot an Email Scam

'Spear phishing' is especially hard to detect

Plenty of folks think they could never be outsmarted by a hacker; plenty of them are wrong. In fact, perhaps 97% are wrong.

Two new studies make this point, and show the devastating consequences of being wrong.

Security firm McAfee has created a tool that lets consumers test their ability to distinguish between real emails and fake “phishing” emails designed to steal their personal information. So far, consumers have failed the test — miserably.

In a report released earlier this month, McAfee said that of the 19,000 plus visitors from more than 140 countries, only 3% of test-takers identified every email correctly.

Even worse, four out of five thought at least one phishing email was real.

“The worldwide average score was 65.4%, which means test takers missed one in four phishing emails on average,” McAfee said.

Those results are dismal. It costs criminals almost nothing to send phishing emails, and this study suggests that they only need to get four of them into a potential victim’s inbox in order to pull off a caper.

That’s bad enough, but traditional phishing attacks are little more than vaguely targeted spam — a fake Bank of America email sent to a million people in the hope than 25,000 are actually Bank of America customers. The really insidious, and increasingly successful, crime is known as “spear phishing.” Rather than send out a million fake messages, spear phishers send out only a handful — or even only one — at a time. These emails are meticulously designed to trick the recipient. A common tactic: A booby-trapped email sent to an important person’s administrative assistant with a realistic-sounding urgent message, such as “Traveling: Please review this document immediately.”

Spear phishing is blamed for some of the most high-profile hack attacks ever. A report released earlier this month by the InfoSec Institute blamed spear phishing for the Target and Sony attacks, and cyberattacks operated by the Syrian Electronic Army and others. The group Citizen Lab provided evidence last year that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had used spear phishing attacks against a group attempting to document human rights abuses in an effort to unmask its members’ location.

“Thank you for your efforts to deliver a true picture of the reality of life in Raqqah,” reads a translation of part of the email, Citizen Lab claims. “We are preparing a lengthy news report on the realities of life in Raqqah. We are sharing some information with you with the hope that you will correct it in case it contains errors. …We also hope that if you happen to be on Facebook, you could provide us with the account of the person responsible for the campaign.”

A recipient who clicked on the attachment in the email was infected with software that attempted to transmit the victim’s location to the sender, Citizen Lab says.

It should be no surprise that phishing emails have also been used to attack workers at America’s critical infrastructure plants and other crucial systems.

“Spear phishing represents a serious threat for every industry, and the possibility that a group of terrorists will use this technique is concrete,’ the InfoSec report concludes.

The best defense against phishing and spear phishing is humility. Yes, you can fall for a well-crafted trick email. It only takes one moment of weakness, one click when you are distracted by something seemingly more important, to make a critical lapse in judgment that can ruin your whole day, or much worse. Your best defense: Be skeptical of every email, even those that appear to be sent by friends or co-workers. If you have any feelings of doubt, don’t click — call.

McAfee offers these additional tips:

  • Keep an eye out for telltale signs. Bad grammar, bad syntax, suspicious senders and links to misspelled URL addresses are all telltale signs of phishing.
  • Also watch for emails from unknown senders or ones asking you for personal information, especially if it’s in a threatening manner.

You may not always know that your information has been compromised until the damage has already been done. However, regularly checking your account statements, credit reports and credit scores for signs of fraudulent transactions and new accounts can help you spot many problems before they become even bigger.

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