Congratulations to BBB Employee of the month!

 

Cesar IGSay hello to Cesar Alvarado, our employee of the month for April! Cesar is our Regional Director of Public Relations in San Antonio, and an amazing person to have the BBB team.

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New IRS scam falsely claims to be from Taxpayer Advocate Service

scam-alert-pic-150x150As the deadline approaches to file income taxes, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reporting a new scam by criminals impersonating IRS personnel. Your BBB recently shared a warning from the IRS about a scam targeting immigrants.

Now the IRS is warning consumers to be on the lookout for a new email phishing scam designed to trick you into giving up personal information. The scam emails claim to be from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service and include a fake case number.

The bogus emails may include the message: “Your reported 2013 income is flagged for review due to a document processing error. Your case has been forwarded to the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance. To avoid delays processing your 2013 filing contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance.”

The phishing email will then tell you to click links that supposedly provide information about the “advocate” assigned to your case or let you “review reported income.” In reality, the links take you to web pages designed to gather your personal information.

If you get a message like that, do not respond or click the links. Instead, forward the scam emails to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov. For more info, visit the IRS’s Report Phishing web page.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is a real IRS organization that helps taxpayers resolve federal tax issues. The IRS–including TAS–does not contact taxpayers via email, texting or any social media.

See the “Dirty Dozen” list on IRS.gov for more IRS scams to watch out for.

BBB has the following advice to avoid being victimized by an IRS phone scam:

  • Don’t fall for threatening tactics.  Scammers sometimes use fake names and badge numbers, sometimes they even know the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number. They also use tricks like spoofing the IRS toll-free number on caller ID, sending bogus IRS emails and calling back pretending to be police or some other official.
  • Avoid unknown callers requesting money. The IRS first contacts people by mail – not by phone – about unpaid taxes. The IRS won’t ask for payment using a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. The IRS also won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone.
  • When in doubt hang up. If you are at all skeptical of the caller, hang up and call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to be sure you are speaking with an IRS employee.
  • Report the incident. report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484. You can also contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their FTC Complaint Assistant at FTC.gov.  Add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments of your complaint.
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Your child’s favorite online apps could be putting them at risk

Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin offers advice for keeping children safe online

The average child spends 2-7½ hours online every day. As a new, younger generation increasingly use their mobile device to gather and share information, BBB warns parents that some of those mobile applications may be siphoning children’s data. In many cases, developers are not disclosing whether data is being collected, with whom it is being shared or how it is used.

“Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures still not making the grade”, a report put together by the Federal Trade Commission, found that 59% (235 of the 400) apps transmitted some information from a user’s mobile device back to the developer or to a third-party. The data collected and shared can include the child’s location, telephone number, contacts, device ID and other information contained on the mobile device.

Additionally, according to the FTC, some applications offer the ability to make purchases and provide links to social media “without disclosing these features prior to download.” Of the 400 apps reviewed, only 20% contained any privacy-related disclosure on the app’s promotion page, on the developer website or within the app.

BBB Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) is here to help parents control what gets advertised to their child while they watch television, listen to the radio and surf the Web.

If you’ve seen an ad on a child’s mobile device, on television or on a child-oriented website, aimed at children under 13 that you think is inappropriate, it can be reported to CARU. BBB will evaluate and review the content. Many advertisers clear their ads before they air to be sure they are offering a responsible message.

Protect your kids from the information they are viewing and gathering by following this advice from BBB:

  • Research before downloading. Parents should carefully examine the details of any mobile app, including the description, developer information and privacy policy. Find a trustworthy source that offers reviews outside of the app store.
  • Change settings on devices. Restrict content to what’s right for your child’s age. Set a password so apps can’t be downloaded without parental permission. This will also keep children from being able to purchase from the app without permission.
  • Control sharing. Determine whether applications allow young users to post their own content to social media sites and decide whether it is appropriate to allow your children to do so before downloading an app.
  • File a complaint with CARU. If you find a problem with advertising or a children’s website content report it to CARU. CARU’s basic activities are the review and evaluation of child-directed advertising in all media, and online privacy practices as they affect children. When these are found to be misleading, inaccurate or inconsistent with CARU’s guidelines, CARU seeks change through the voluntary cooperation of advertisers.
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Fake IRS scam calls target recent immigrants

ID-100246752Most of us know it’s not a good idea to get on the Internal Revenue Service’s bad side, so a call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent would have to be rather scary.

Unfortunately, scammers have taken advantage of that fear to steal money. Recent immigrants have been among the targets, according to a warning from the IRS.

Your BBB urges you to make sure you’re dealing with a real IRS representative and never wire money to scammers.

Victims of the scam are being told they owe the IRS money, which must be paid immediately through a pre-loaded debit card or via wire transfer. The scammers threaten the victim with arrest, loss of a business or drivers license or deportation if they refuse to cooperate.

Scammers sometimes use fake names and badge numbers, sometimes know the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number. They also use tricks like spoofing the IRS toll-free number on caller ID, sending bogus IRS emails and calling back pretending to be police or some other official.

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, you should do the following:

  • If you know or think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 and speak with a real IRS employee.
  • If you know you don’t think you owe taxes, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484.
  • You should also contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their FTC Complaint Assistant at FTC.gov.  Add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments of your complaint.
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Don’t let puppy love blind you from online scammers

puppy

Better Business Bureaus warns consumers about scams targeting unsuspecting puppy buyers

Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin warns dog lovers to be cautious when responding to online or newspaper classified advertising. Commonly, a scammer—posing as a breeder—will place an ad offering free or inexpensive puppies. Communicating solely through emails, the scammer may claim they are moving to a foreign country and need to “re-home” the puppies.

Consumers may be taken in by the sincerity of the scammers. The con artist may say that they don’t care about money and just want to find a good home for their beloved puppies. Then, the scammers will ask for fees to cover shipping or re-homing the pet. These scammers may also try to take advantage of the buyer’s identity by probing for personal information like your birthday, address and phone number, all while masking it as “getting to know who’s buying their puppies.” Often sellers will request a wire transfer or prepaid debit card for payment. These are red flags that should be avoided—or you may end up without your money and without a puppy.

BBB offers this advice when considering the purchase of a pet:

  • Do your research. Ask for the breeder’s references. You can also check BBB.org to see details about complaints against the breeder, advertising issues and other details about the seller.
  • Visit the Breeder First. It is essential to visit the breeder at their home to see the entire litter, the care and conditions given to the puppies prior to purchasing. This will allow you to see if the environment is clean and healthy for the puppies.
  • Beware of breeders who seem overly concerned with getting paid. Any reputable breeder will be far more concerned with the appropriateness of the potential pet home than what and when they are getting paid. Make sure you have clear expectations – ideally in writing – of how and when the pup will be paid for. Be especially wary of any breeder who insists that you wire money or insist you can only pay with a prepaid debit card.
  • Don’t be fooled by a slick website. Dishonest breeders and even outright scams can be represented by professional-looking web sites that lure you in with fraudulent pictures of adorable puppies.
  • Take your time. Beware of breeders who claim to have multiple breeds ready to ship immediately. It’s highly unlikely that your perfect puppy will be available for shipping on the very day you call. Gestation and socialization of a litter takes months–no puppy should be separated from the mom before eight weeks of age.
  • Report a scam. Anyone who has experienced a dog-related scam should report it to their local authorities, as well as your BBB.
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Don’t wig out over fake hair–get the real deal

ID-100116249My dad used to warn me against getting scammed with the old saying, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” Looks like the modern version is, “Don’t take any plastic hair” (Or at least make sure you know what you’re getting).

I know someone who was very happy to find a designer purse from Italy, only to discover the stamp, “Made in China” on the inside. She got it cheaply enough that she didn’t feel too ripped off, but some folks pay a lot of money for counterfeit items and it can be a major hit to the wallet–as well as a big disappointment.

Your BBB warns to be careful what you purchase online to be sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Need to purchase hair for extensions, or to hide male pattern baldness? The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) warns that human hair–preferred by many for its natural feel and longevity–is being advertised for sale on websites alongside counterfeit clothing and other accessories. If the designer clothing is fake, the hair is likely fake as well.

According to a scam alert from IC3, numerous websites have been found advertising human hair, as well as brand name shoes, clothing and other items. However, consumers have received synthetic hair after paying a much higher price for what they thought was an authentic commodity.

BBB offers the following advice for shopping safely when looking for deals, as well as tips on how to spot a fake:

  • Always deal with reputable businesses. The number one way to avoid getting ripped off when buying luxury goods is to deal with reputable businesses. When in doubt, shoppers can contact the manufacturer and verify which vendors are authorized sellers. Consumers should also check out the business with BBB at bbb.org.
  • If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. One of the biggest red flags for knock-off merchandise is an unrealistic price. Extremely low prices are tempting but not to be believed.
  • Read between the lines. Some websites or online classified ads will go overboard in their description of the item in order to coax the buyer’s trust. Overuse of “genuine,” “real” or “authentic” is a bad sign. Buyers also need to keep an eye out for sneaky phrases like “inspired by.”
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Texas AG cracks down on Veterans Support Organization for deceptive marketing

ID-100128578Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced today that Veterans Support Organization (VSO) and four of its principals (Richard Vanhouten, Michelle Vanhouten, Steven Casella and Robert Cruz) were charged with unlawfully soliciting charitable contributions and misrepresenting to Texas donors that the the money it raised would benefit local veterans in need.

The state filed court documents alleging that the defendants claimed to offer help to needy local veterans through VSO’s work, housing, and grant programs. The state’s investigation found VSO’s “work program” was just a type of structured panhandling used to collect funds for VSO. (PDF of state’s lawsuit against VSO can be read here.)

The State charged that the defendants actually hired both veterans and non-veterans to stand in front of storefronts for up to 12 hours a day to raise at least $225 a day in donations for VSO.

Defendants allegedly misrepresented to store management that the solicitors were veterans who were there mainly to raise awareness about veterans’ programs and provide resource information to customers–not to solicit donations.

The defendants conducted solicited money in numerous counties statewide, including Bell, Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Nueces and Travis. The AG’s Office reports that VSO’s own records show few of the donations raised in Texas were actually used in Texas, although the defendants told donors that their contributions would help “local” veterans “in the area.”

The defendants reportedly raised more than $2.5 million in Texas from 2010 to 2012, with more than 70 percent of the funds going to Florida or Rhode Island.  

According to the state’s lawsuit, defendants often profited from their “housing program” for veterans that consisted of VSO renting two residences–one in Austin and one in Dallas–and subletting rooms to employee solicitors, only some of whom were veterans.

Individuals had to pay $125 a week for rent, participate in VSO’s “work program” or be subject to eviction. Employee solicitors who were unable to pay the rent were evicted.

The state seeks a temporary and permanent injunction as well as civil penalties against VSO. The State also asks the court to secure the defendants’ assets and funds, so they can be distributed to help needy veterans as donors intended.

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Cheap website of your own that earns lots of money with little or no work? Dream on.

ID-100128578Your BBB often warns consumers about the risks of work-at-home opportunities. One of the schemes that gets consumers in trouble these days is the promise of a website that  lets you collect ad revenue with a small payout and little technical knowledge–hidden expenses and hard technical work to be discovered later.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just announced a settlement it obtained against such a work-at-home scheme that the FTC charged with defrauding consumers.

The Online Entrepreneur sold a work-at-home program that claimed to set consumers up with their own websites that would let them earn money by affiliate marketing with websites of well-known brands.

The settlement is part of a federal and state crackdown on work-at-home scams that take advantage of the unemployed and underemployed.

Under the settlement, The Online Entrepreneur will be banned from selling business and work-at-home opportunities.

According to the FTC, the defendants sold the “Six Figure Program” to consumers as a supposedly no-risk, money-back guaranteed chance to make money with their own website, falsely claiming that they could affiliate with well-known companies’ websites and earn commissions for a $27 fee. Consumers who purchased the program discovered they had to pay $100 or more in additional costs just to set up their websites.

The court halted the allegedly deceptive practices, froze the defendants’ assets, and put the companies into receivership pending a court hearing.

The settlement order permanently prohibits The Online Entrepreneur Inc., Ben and Dave’s Consulting Associates, Inc., and David Clabeaux from selling business and work-at-home opportunities. They are forbidden from misrepresenting that consumers will likely earn money and misrepresenting any material fact.

There was a judgment of more than $2.9 million, which will be suspended when Clabeaux has surrendered real estate, personal property, and bank and investment accounts. The defendants must pay the full judgment immediately if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

Before signing up for any work-at-home opportunity, BBB advises job hunters to:

  • Start with trust. Check out any company at bbb.org to view their BBB Business Review free of charge. There you will find the company’s history of complaints and contact information. For a list of accredited businesses, go to checkbbb.org.
  • Be skeptical. Beware of any offer that guarantees a lot of money for little effort and no experience. Thoroughly read the website’s terms and conditions, keeping in mind that a free trial could cost you in the end.
  • Don’t be fooled by affiliation claims. Be wary of work-at-home offers that use logos from Google, Twitter or other popular online sites. Just because Google is in the name doesn’t mean the business is affiliated with Google.
  • Check the domain. Research the website with Whois.net or a similar site for determining domain name ownership. Be cautious if the site is anonymous or individually registered.
  • Beware of unexpected offers. If you receive a job offer without filling out an application, meeting with the business or being interviewed, it is probably a scam.
  • Don’t pay up front. Being asked to make an advance payment to get on the ground floor of a big opportunity is a red flag, especially if it is a large payment or the company doesn’t provide much information about the deal. Handing your Social Security number or other personal information to suspicious sources could lead to identity theft.
  • Don’t wire money. Being asked to wire money is a red flag. Scam artists often ask you to wire payments because they know you won’t be able to get the money back.
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New report of bogus BBB ‘are you planning to move your business?’ calls

scam-alert-pic-150x150Your BBB just got a report from a business that received a type of scam phone call we’ve reported on in the past.

The scammer falsely claimed to be with Better Business Bureau, asked the business for information about any plans to move their business and offered to help them find a location. The call came from (882) 014-0105. The number was probably spoofed. If you try to call it back, you get an automated message stating the number doesn’t accept return calls.

A quick web search for the phone number and found reports of similar calls–people asking businesses about plans to move. Some complaints stated the caller claimed to be with a government agency. Some reported the caller hung up when they began asking questions. (Best thing to do if you get a call like that is hang up.)

The incident is similar to one we reported on this blog in June 2013. As we said back then, BBB doesn’t make calls like that. We might sometimes call to update or verify an address, but we do not and would not ask companies if they are planning to move.

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BBB investigation: Prison Call Solutions locks up consumers’ money

ID-1008377Consumers allege Austin company takes money for prison call services it can’t provide

Austin, Texas-based Prison Call Solutions (PCS) advertises its service as a guaranteed way to save money for people who wish to talk to an inmate on the phone, but consumers report paying up front for services that don’t work.

Prison Call Solutions’ website prisoncallsolutions.com states the price of calls made from prison will be reduced by approximately 80 percent by using its service. The service sets up a relay system allowing prisoners to make calls using a local phone number, which PCS says will avoid long distance charges.

Consumers told Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin that they paid PCS in advance for services they were not able to use, either because the local number they received didn’t work, or because the prison facility would not contract with the company.

As of March 18, 2014, BBB has received 105 complaints against Prison Call Solutions in the last three years. The company did not respond to 95 complaints and failed to resolve six complaints.

BBB files show a pattern of disputes from consumers stating they purchased prepaid call plans that did not work. Consumers also state the company will not return calls requesting refunds. The company did not respond to BBB attempts to address the pattern of complaints.

The business has also failed to respond to a BBB Advertising Review asking it to substantiate savings and guarantee claims made on its website.

Kim Richardson of Beaumont, Texas paid upfront for service with Prison Call Solutions, but the company was not able to supply her with a usable number for the prison in Five Points, New York.

“I was supposed to get a local phone number,” Richardson said. “Prison Call Solutions said there was no number available there. They said they would send a refund, but they never did. I tried calling, but couldn’t get anyone to help me.”

Karen Orofino of La Salle, Michigan, paid Prison Call Solutions a total of more than $60 for a local number that would allow her to talk affordably with a friend who was incarcerated in the Ottowa County Jail in Ohio. The price included a $20 fee to expedite activation of the number. She said the numbers they gave her never worked and she was unable to get a refund.

“You pay to get the number. When the prisoner tries to call, the number is no good,” Orofino said. “You call the company and tell them you can’t get through and they give you another number. That number doesn’t work either. They were supposed to refund me the $20 extra, but they never did. I tried for several months to get a refund for the original amount.”

For those who need a service to contact someone in prison, BBB offers the following advice:

  • Contact the facility first. Different facilities will contract with different communications services. Call to ensure the company you are considering will work with the facility in question.
  • Start with trust. View the company’s BBB Business Review at bbb.org/central-texas for background information and complaint statistics.
  • Read the fine print. Before you pay for anything, make sure you understand the company’s refund policy and check the company’s complaint details at bbb.org/central-texas to see if it follows its stated policy.
  • Pay with a credit card. Under federal law, charges made on a credit card can be disputed up to 60 days after the purchase.
  • Get it in writing. Make sure any guarantees or discounts and their limitations are spelled out in a written contract. Do not accept a verbal promise from a sales representative.

To check the reliability of a company and find trustworthy businesses, visit bbb.org.

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