Cramming operation shut down, ordered to pay back $38 million

ID-100128578No one likes spending money on things they never agreed to pay for, or “agreed” through some type of trickery. One of the most frustrating scams out there right now is called “cramming,” where a telemarketer calls businesses and other consumers to “verify information,” takes whatever answer the person gives as a “yes” and adds a monthly charge to their phone bill.

A court recently shut down a massive cramming operation known as Inc21 at the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and ordered the participants to pay back $38 million to consumers they allegedly deceived.

Inc21 placed charges on the telephone bills of thousands of small businesses and consumers for Internet-related services they didn’t agree to buy. The defendants were barred from charging consumers’ telephone bills and from telemarketing without prior approval from the FTC and the court.

Third parties through which charges were placed, including local exchange telephone companies (LECs), were ordered to return money in escrow to consumers. The defendants were ordered to pay consumers nearly $38 million in restitution for consumers.

The FTC sued Inc21 in January 2010, charging it with hiring offshore telemarketers to sell its Web-based services. The defendants used LECs to place charges on consumers’ phone bills. The charges were usually between $12.95 and $39.95 per month.

Consumers were billed after being told by telemarketers the call was only to verify business information, if they declined Inc21′s offer of Internet services, or after they were told they would receive a free trial offer (but weren’t told they would be billed if they did not cancel).

The FTC charged that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

Defendants are Inc21.Com Corporation; Jumpage Solutions, Inc.; GST U.S.A., Inc.; Roy Yu Lin and John Yu Lin. Sheng Lin, who did not participate in the scheme, but who profited from it, is a relief defendant, ordered to give up $434,000 in financial benefits he got from the scheme.

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Respect the earth–and your wallet: Five tips for hiring the right landscaper

It’s Earth Day, time to think about all things green and how you can help create a more earth-friendly environment.

If you’re a homeowner, you can promote Earth Day by making your landscape fit the local environment, which will help reduce the amount of fertilizer, pesticides and water it takes to maintain your yard.

If you lack a green thumb, you can hire a lawn care service or landscaper to ease the burden. Choose carefully, however. Without the right helping hands, your dreams of a green wonderland could quickly turn into a brown mess.

Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin advises consumers to get clear, written expectations for what services the company will provide and agree on a fee before work starts.

In the past 12 months, BBB received over 7,500 complaints against landscaping and lawn maintenance contractors. Many of the complaints allege dissatisfaction with the services provided and companies not performing the agreed-upon duties. Other complaints allege problems with advertising or billing. It’s important to do your research before hiring a lawn care business. You can find a list of BBB Accredited lawn or landscaping contractors at checkbbb.org.

BBB offers the following five steps to finding a lawn care company you can trust:

  1. Know what you want from a lawn service. Lawn care companies provide many services, so it is important to decide what services and products are appropriate for your needs and budget.
  2. Find a trustworthy company. Go to bbb.org to check the company’s BBB Business Review. You can find important background on the business, such as how long it has been in business, advertising issues, ownership information and how it resolves complaints.
  3. Check references. Ask the company for references and photos of previously completed projects. Call all references, and ask about their experience working with the company and if they were satisfied with the services provided.
  4. Ask for a lawn inspection and free estimate. Lawn care companies that quote a price without seeing your lawn may not give you an accurate estimate. A company should be willing to visit your home to provide you with an agreed upon fee.
  5. Get a written agreement. A contract should clearly state the services you will receive, guarantees and refund policies, as well as how and when payment will be handled. If you are using a recurring service, the contract should also include how often the company will come out to work on your lawn, how to cancel the service and a schedule for when payments are due.

For more tips you can trust, visit bbb.org. For the latest news and information, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

To check out a company and find trustworthy businesses, visit bbb.org.
Find other news story topics by visiting our Press Release News Center.

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Don’t get burned by a ‘hot’ travel deal

ID-100238090Now that spring is here, a lot of folks are thinking about summer vacation plans. Cheap deals can be pretty tempting. How does a one-week stay in a condo in Hawaii with return air fare, only $299.98″ sound?

Unfortunately, a deal that sounds too good to be true, probably is–especially when you find it in an unsolicited fax. Unsolicited faxes are forbidden by the Federal Communications Commission. I think this is a pretty good rule of thumb: A business that markets by violating FCC rules might not be the most trustworthy business.

A consumer in Corpus Christi, Texas recently contacted your BBB and passed along a fax stating “Spring Blowout Sale” and listing a bunch of impossible-sounding vacation deals. The fax has toll-free numbers to call about the offers and to be “taken off the list,” but doesn’t give the name of the company or any other identifying information. When the consumer called and asked for the company’s name and address, they hung up.

I tried calling and someone answered “reservations,” then was put on hold till the line disconnected. I called back and was told the offer was over. It was only a “once-a-year, 24-hour sale.”

Needless to say, they didn’t come across as the kind of people I would feel comfortable giving my money to if I wanted to plan a vacation.

Watchyourbuck has warned about other travel offers that turned out to have hidden catches.

BBB has the following advice for consumers considering travel offers that sound “too good to be true”:

  • Know what you’re getting. Be aware that travel packages might require travel during restricted times and to stay in accommodations whose quality and location may not match photos in advertising. The company may also reserve the right to change accommodations without consulting the consumer.
  • Ask about hidden costs and restrictions. Travel package plans may not cover basic expenses such as transportation, meals, accommodations, and taxes. Reservation and cancellation requirements may also be restrictive. Request information about all accommodations, any costs not covered by the package and reservation and cancellation policies before buying.
  • Look before you leap. Beware of offers that require you to make an immediate decision.
  • Know who you’re dealing with. Deal only with businesses you know and have confidence in, or have checked out with BBB or a recognized travel organization and get the details of your vacation in writing before you send a check or provide credit card number information.
  • Report unsolicited faxes. If you receive an unsolicited fax, file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.
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Warning to businesses: ID thieves have you in their crosshairs

Identity theft is a serious threat to businesses, not just consumers

ID-10074457 (1)With the recent news stories about retailers having their records compromised by hackers, Americans are focused on the dangers of identity theft. According to a 2012 survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 14 percent of people age 16 or older, or 34.2 million people, experienced one or more incidents of identity (ID) theft in the past.

Identity theft isn’t just something that happens to consumers. Increasingly, criminals are targeting businesses as well. Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin is warning businesses to be on guard for signs of having their business’ name stolen.

Criminals look for ways to steal a business’s identity by gaining access to its bank accounts, credit cards and other sensitive company information. They can do this in a number of ways: hacking into databases, phishing emails, malware, swiping your credit card or other information in the workplace, or dumpster diving for sensitive paperwork. The criminals can then secure lines of credit with banks and retailers at the expense of the victim.

BBB warns businesses to be on the lookout for the following red flags of ID theft:

  • You receive a request to verify orders you didn’t place.
  • You receive phone calls from someone trying to verify an address for your business that is not associated with your company or that you cannot confirm.
  • You receive invoices for storage, shipping or other services that you did not purchase.

The following advice can protect your company against identity thieves:

  • Protect your business’s bank accounts. Review your commercial banking agreements to determine your protections and reporting requirements. Consider using a two-person authorization or other arrangement with your bank to protect against fraudulent wire transactions. Beware of phishing scams and monitor your bank account(s) frequently.
  • Protect your business identifying information. Guard your Employer Identification Number (EIN) and Tax Identification Number (TIN) the way you would your own Social Security Number. Don’t give them out unless required and shred old documents with business ID information in them. If your business or non-profit is required to give out your EIN, keep a close eye on your credit report.
  • Protect and monitor your state business registration information. Regularly review your information with the Secretary of State to make sure your information hasn’t been changed or updated without authorization.
  • Protect and monitor your business’ credit card, supplier and trade accounts. Keep an inventory of accounts and key contact information. Review and reconcile account statements as soon as they are received and immediately alert your credit card company if you find fraudulent activity.
  • Protect and monitor your business’ credit file. At least once a year, review your business credit reports with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Keep personal and business finances separate and consider placing a credit security freeze on your personal credit file to make it harder for thieves to open new accounts under your business’ name.
  • Protect your business’s computers and networks. Restrict use of your business computers to only business activities. Install anti-virus software and keep it updated regularly. Secure your company’s wireless network.

For more information about ways to prevent business identity theft and resources for dealing with the problem if it happens to your business, visit BusinessIDTheft.org, a website operated by the Identity Theft Protection Association and the National Association of Secretaries of State.

To find out more about scams and to report them, visit bbb.org.

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BBB offers simple steps for keeping your identity safe

ID-100217483Community invited to Shred Day events in Waco and Corpus Christi, April 26

Identity theft is a major problem in the United States. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) 2013 Consumer Sentinel Network report showed that there were 290,056 complaints filed relating to identity theft. The number of victims reported in Texas totaled 23,266.

Fraudsters looking to steal your identity actively seek to gain access to your personal information, which means it’s important to discard personal documents carefully. According to the FTC, American consumers reported losing over $1.6 billion to fraud overall in 2013, according to the FTC’s annual report on consumer complaints.

Identity theft has many forms, from phishing to dumpster diving. But there are ways you can protect your identity. BBB offers these steps to keep your personal information safe:

  • Shred all sensitive documents. Shred all statements and applications you get in the mail that you don’t want to keep, including credit card applications, insurance forms, financial statements, health forms, billing statements for utilities and phone service. Visit bbb.org to find a Shred Day location near you.
  • Protect your Social Security number, account numbers and passwords. Don’t carry these numbers in your wallet. Give out your Social Security number only if absolutely necessary and offer to provide another type of personal identifier, if possible.

  • Never give personal information over the phone or to unknown persons. Unless you are the one initiating the phone call, you should not give your Social Security number, driver’s license number or bank account information over the phone.
  • Monitor your bank and credit card transactions for unauthorized transactions. Crooks with your account number generally start with small transactions to see if you’ll notice.
  • Steer clear of suspicious texts, emails and links. Unsolicited e-mails and pop-up ads can be full of computer viruses designed to steal usernames and passwords from your computer. Don’t give in to curiosity. Close or delete the message.
  • Check your credit report at least once a year. There is only one source authorized to give you one free annual credit file disclosure per year from each of the three consumer credit reporting companies. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to find out more.

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin invites consumers and businesses to participate in its bi-annual Shred Day:

Corpus Christi

Date: Saturday, April 26, 2014

Time: 9:00AM – 12:00PM

Address: KIII-TV Parking Lot

5002 S. Padre Island Drive

Corpus Christi, Texas 78411

Waco

Date: Saturday, April 26, 2014

Time: 9:00AM – 12:00PM

Address: KWTX-TV Studios

4601 Bosque Blvd.

Waco, Texas 76710

Free shredding and electronic recycling services will be available until noon or until the shred trucks reach capacity, at these locations. Consumers can bring up to two boxes of sensitive documents per vehicle to be shred on-site. The program is a BBB-branded identity theft, fraud prevention and educational initiative. Monetary donations benefiting BBB’s Education Foundation will also be accepted.

For more details visit: http://go.bbb.org/1ncNE26

 

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Don’t become a victim of the ‘grandparent scam’

scam-alert-pic-150x150The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports receiving a continued stream of complaints about alarming phone calls from scammers who claim a relative is in an emergency and needs money fast. Sometimes the scammer pretends to be the relative in danger. It’s a scam that often preys on seniors and it’s sometimes referred to as the “grandparent scam.”

We’ve talked about the grandparent scam a number of times on WatchYourBuck.com, but it never hurts to mention it again. The scammers tell potential victims not to tell other family members. They also sometimes pretend to be officials, like police officers or lawyers. They give instructions on how to wire money to the “bail bondsman” or other official in order to free the relative.

Callers hide their identities by spoofing phone numbers. IC3 reports scammers claiming to be in Canada, Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala and Peru–among other countries.

BBB offers these tips to avoid becoming victim to a grandparent scam:

  • Be skeptical. Ask questions only the grandchild could know the answer to, without revealing too much personal information yourself. Ask the name of a pet, a favorite dish or what school they attend. Your loved one should not get angry about you being too cautious.
  • Verify information. Check with the parents to see if their child is really travelling as they say they are.
  • Don’t wire money. Never use a transfer service to send money to someone you haven’t met in person, or for an emergency you haven’t verified is real.
  • Stay private. Check your privacy settings on all your social media sites. Scammers often make their stories more believable by trolling for information on Facebook, Twitter and similar sites.
  • Know where to turn. If you fall victim to a scam, report the incident immediately to local police and your state Attorney General’s office.
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Heartbleed: what you should know to protect yourself

heartbleedYou might be tired of hearing about online security threats, but there is one you really should pay attention to: Heartbleed.

It’s not a virus or a case of hacking, but a two-year-old coding mistake that was just discovered. A friend of mine compares it to banks discovering their vaults were unlocked for two years. You don’t know that anything was stolen, but you don’t know it wasn’t either. And in this case, some of the “vaults” might still be open.

The Heartbleed bug exploits a flaw in the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) of popular open source software called OpenSSL. SSL is the standard security technology that establishes an encrypted link between a user’s web browser and the server where a website is hosted. It is used to secure numerous kinds of data transfers, including email, instant messaging, social media, and business transactions. Encryption is essential to Internet security.

The flaw, discovered on April 7 but apparently in existence for two years, means that attackers can copy a server’s digital keys and use them to impersonate servers to decode communications from the past (and, potentially, the future).

BBB has the following advice about how to protect yourself online now that the Heartbleed bug has been uncovered:

For businesses:

BBB recommends that businesses immediately check to see if their website(s) use Open SSL or have been vulnerable. One way to check, recommended by tech/media website CNET, is a tool developed by a cryptography consultant. If vulnerability exists, businesses should work with their IT department or computer professional to install a more secure SSL on their websites.

For systems administrators:

Systems administrators should follow the advice of the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT). Although this information comes from the U.S. government, it is applicable to systems in other countries.

For consumers:

CNET has also published a list of the top 100 websites, which it is updating regularly as it checks for vulnerabilities and repairs. Consumers can check this list or use the tool mentioned above to see if websites they regularly use are free of problems, or have fixed vulnerabilities.

It’s also imperative that consumers change passwords on all sites, particularly those that retain personal identifying information. Change your password after confirming that the site is not vulnerable or has fixed its SSL.

The “Stop. Think. Connect.” campaign offers the following suggestions to protect your identity:

  • Secure your accounts: Ask for protection beyond passwords. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.
  • Make passwords long and strong: Combine capital and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols to create a more secure password.
  • Unique account, unique password: Separate passwords for every account helps to thwart cybercriminals.
  • Write it down and keep it safe: Everyone can forget a password. Keep a list that’s stored in a safe, secure place away from your computer.
  • Own your online presence: When available, set the privacy and security settings on websites to your comfort level for information sharing. It’s ok to limit how and with whom you share information.

BBB also suggests choosing passwords that are phrases (for instance, ilovetofish) and making each letter O into a zero to make the password more complex. Look into password management software to help you keep track of really “long and strong” passwords.

BBB’s servers do not use Open Source SSL. All of its websites have been checked and found to be free of vulnerabilities.

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BBB Investigation: All American Home Improvements builds reputation for broken promises

ID-1008377BBB advises consumers about San Antonio-area company’s contract issues

Consumers who do business with San Antonio-area remodeling company All American Home Improvements report making large upfront payments followed by little or no work and a long wait in getting projects done or in getting their deposits back.

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin found a common theme among complaints filed against All American Home Improvements. Several complaints allege the company does not complete remodeling jobs that were paid for in advance. Disputed amounts are in the $3,000 to $39,000 range.

As of April 8, 2014, BBB has received a dozen complaints against All American Home Improvements in the last year regarding project delays and trouble getting refunds. The business failed to resolve about half of those complaints. However, the business did resolve some complaints by issuing a refund.

Although All American Home Improvements is not accredited, consumers notified BBB that the company is using contracts with a version of the BBB Accredited Business seal. BBB has requested the company quit using the seal on its printed material, but consumer complaints continue to report the trademark violation.

The company is located at 2041 Universal City, Blvd., Universal City, but consumers report that contracts continue to list a closed storefront at 509 Main Street in Schertz as its address.

Audrey Ford of San Antonio said she hired All American Home Improvements after receiving a telemarketing call. She said she paid $39,500 up front for home improvements that were left incomplete. She said the business has made promises to continue the project, but has not returned to complete the job or issue a refund.

“I hired them before Thanksgiving,” Ford said. “They did some work, tearing stuff out in November. They left everything in an incomplete state. I’m disgusted. When kids come around here, I’m afraid they’re going to get hurt. Also, my husband had a stroke and his [physical] balance is not good.”

Joseph Turnbaigh of San Antonio said he and his wife paid All American Home Improvements $17,320 up front to install 11 windows and build a sunroom. He said five windows were installed and a slab—of the wrong size—was poured for the sunroom. After that, no work was done and Turnbaugh has been unable to reach the business by phone.

“He was supposed to install 11 windows, but only five were put in,” Turnbaigh said. “We wanted a sunroom in the back. All they did was pour a slab. I called about 30 times over the last four months to get the windows to the house. We signed the contract in Oct. 29 and he said it would be done by Thanksgiving.”

BBB offers the following advice when hiring a contractor:

  • Do your research. Check the company’s BBB Business Review at bbb.org before signing a contract. For a list of Accredited Businesses that meet Standards for Trust, go directly to checkbbb.org.
  • Get a list of references. The contractor should provide names, addresses and phone numbers of at least three clients who have projects similar to yours. Ask about their experience with the contractor. Also, tell the contractor that you’d like to visit jobs in progress.
  • Don’t pay cash. Pay by credit card if possible. You may have additional protection if there is a problem. Otherwise pay by check so your cancelled check can provide proof of payment. Consider using an escrow company.
  • Spread payments out. Do not pay too much up front. Make additional payments during the project contingent upon completion of a defined amount of work. Do not make the final payment or sign a final release until you are satisfied with the work and have proof that the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid.
  • Shop around. Get at least three bids in writing based on the same specifications, materials, labor and time needed to complete the project. BBB’s Request-a-Quote service is free to use and contacts BBB Accredited Businesses to quote on your job.
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Scam Alert: Don’t get burned by ‘Malaysian Airlines flight mystery’ video scam

mh370-breaking-newsSocial media teasers about exclusive footage could give you malware, steal your identity

If we’re honest, most of us will admit to being curious about big, tragic events like the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

When something like that happens, you can count on scammers to come out of the woodwork. The promise of exclusive video that hasn’t turned up in the news is just too tempting.

If you’re scrolling through your social media feed and see a teaser promising “Video of Malaysia MH370 Plane Found in Bermuda Triangle Passengers alive,” or “[NEWS FLASH] Missing Plane Has Been Found!” resist the temptation to click.

If you click the link you are taken to an unfamiliar, third party website. A popup may appear, prompting you to “update your video player.” When you click “OK,” you aren’t getting a new software version, you are downloading malware.

Like all scams, this has many variations. Another common version asks you to take a survey before viewing the video. Filling in your personal information opens you up to identity theft. Or your information could be sold to spammers.

This scam is also not limited to Facebook. Watch out for similar links posted on Twitter, and other social media or sent by email.

Here are some steps to protect yourself and others from shared scam links:

Don’t take the bait. Stay away from promotions of “exclusive,” “shocking” or “sensational” footage. If it sounds too outlandish to be true, it is probably a scam.

Hover over a link to see its true destination. Before you click, hover over the link to see where it will take you. Don’t click on links leading to unfamiliar websites.

Don’t trust your friends’ taste online. It might not actually be them “liking” or sharing scam links to photos. Their account may have been hacked. But it may also be “clickjacking,” a technique scammers use to trick you into clicking something that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Report scam posts. On Facebook, report scam posts and other suspicious activity by following these instructions. On Twitter, if another user is sending you links to malware or other spam, report it to Twitter by following these instructions.

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