BBB warns: Don’t get taken by a government grant scam

ID-100297158Your BBB gets a lot of calls from people who had suspicious calls from scammers saying they qualify for a government grant. In reality, you have to apply for government grants. They will never come to you from out of the blue.

If you’re not familiar with how government grants work, the prospect of “free money” from Uncle Sam could seem pretty tempting. Unfortunately, the only one who stands to make money is the scammer.

The calls appear to originate from Washington D.C. Scammers will claim you were randomly picked to receive a seven or nine thousand dollar grant from the government.

Grant scammers usually follow a script. They congratulate you on your eligibility, then ask for your checking account information to either deposit the grant into your account, or to pay a one-time processing fee. The caller may even reassure you that you can get a refund if you’re not satisfied.

To avoid being a victim of a grant scam, BBB has the following tips:

  • Don’t give out your bank account information to anyone you don’t know. Don’t share it unless you are familiar with the company or person and ask why the information is necessary.
  • Don’t pay any money for a “free” government grant. A real government agency won’t ask you to pay a processing fee for a grant that you have already been awarded.
  • Just because the caller says they are with a branch of the government doesn’t mean they are. Take a moment to check the blue pages in your telephone directory, or do a Google search to check if the government entity exists.
  • Phone numbers can deceive. Scammers can use internet technology to disguise their area code in caller ID systems. Although it may look like they’re calling from Washington, D.C., they could be calling from anywhere in the world.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if you think you have been a victim of a government grant scam, complaints can be filed with the FTC online or over the phone, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).

For more information, visit bbb.org.

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FTC secures refunds for consumers who purchased deceptively-advertised ‘body-slimming’ creams

government actionLosing weight is hard. If only there was a product you could buy that would cut out all that exercise and dieting… There are businesses out there that CLAIM to have such a product. Unfortunately, when you send them money, you’re probably going to wind up with a slimmer wallet–not a slimmer you.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced on Friday, March 20 that it would be issuing more than 10,600 checks totaling more than $416,000 to people who lost money purchasing “body slimming creams” marketed by L’Occitane, Inc. The amount each check will vary based on how much of the product the consumer bought.

Money for the refunds was collected under a January 2014 settlement order with the company, which also must stop making deceptive claims that its Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight skin creams have body-slimming capabilities and are clinically proven. The retailer charged $48 for seven ounces of Almond Shaping Delight and $44 for 6.7 ounces of Almond Beautiful Shape.

Checks will come from redress administrator Gilardi & Co., LLC. They must be cashed by May 19, 2015. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

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BBB warns: Don’t be fooled by a puppy scam

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do you love puppies? Stupid question. Of course you love puppies. Who doesn’t? They’re so cute! But don’t let that cuteness blind you to online scammers’ tricks.

Your BBB urges you to be careful when responding to classified ads for pets. Scammers often post ads offering free or inexpensive puppies.

Communicating only through emails, the scammers will claim they are moving to a foreign country and need to “re-home” the puppies.

The scammer might seem sincere, but don’t be fooled. He may say he doesn’t care about money and just wants to find a good home for the beloved puppies. He might try to get information about your identity–phone number, birthday, address–and disguise it as an effort to “get to know who is buying the puppies.”

Eventually the scammer will ask for money–usually via wire transfer or prepaid debit card. If you see these red flags, beware—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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BBB and Center for Identity to host Q&A on small business ID theft, April 22

small business id theftSmall businesses are at great risk for identity theft, fraud, and abuse.

Join the University of Texas Center for Identity and the Better Business Bureau for an engaging discussion about protecting yourself, your business, and your customers from these risks.

Hear about common scams and best practices for preventing them, get tips on best data destruction practices, and learn about the tools and resources available from both the Center and the BBB to keep your business and its customers safe.

The discussion will be Wednesday, April 22 at 1 p.m. Central Daylight Saving Time.

Go here to sign up.

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Get those AC units tuned up before it heats up!

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Image courtesy of ILovefreedom at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

BBB offers advice for choosing the right AC repair company

Nice spring weather might be a welcome break from winter, but in Texas, it’s just a matter of time before warm days turn into blazing hot days.

Before that happens, Your BBB recommends that you get your air conditioning (AC) unit checked by a trustworthy professional to make sure it’s in good working order.

Don’t get burned by hiring the wrong service company. Nationally, BBB received more than 1,200 complaints against residential air conditioning repair and service contractors in 2014. Complaints against AC repair service contractors often allege problems with the final price or payment process, as well as complaints that the service was ineffective.

If you’re due for an upgrade, spending a little money on improvements can save you a lot over time. Air sealing is one of the quickest ways to cut your heating and cooling costs. Also, you can visit the Energy Saver website for DIY Savings Projects that provide step-by-step instructions on how to weatherstrip your windows and seal air leaks with caulk.

According to Energy.gov, turning your thermostat back from its normal setting by seven to 10 degrees for eight hours a day can save you as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling costs. Small changes have big results. Another way to save is by simply using a programmable thermostat and keeping your house warmer than normal when you are away.

BBB offers this advice when hiring a trustworthy air conditioning contractor:

  • Consult your owner’s manual. Before doing anything, check the warranty on your current air conditioning unit to determine whether any tune-ups, repairs or replacements may be covered.
  • Hire a professional to maintain your heating and cooling system. Arrange for annual maintenancewith a qualified technician. This includes checking the airflow over the coil, testing for the correct fluid (refrigerant) level, checking the combustion process and ensuring proper air-flow to each room.
  • Research the company. Visit org for the BBB Business Review of any air conditioning service or energy auditor you plan to hire to learn details about the company, like its history of complaints. Visit checkbbb.org for a list of Accredited Businesses.
  • Check Licensing. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation requires a license for heating, ventilation and air conditioning technicians and electricians. Ask to see a copy of the license before work starts.
  • Compare prices. Get at least three estimates in writing. All bids should provide a full description of the services provided and the materials used.

To find an accredited AC contractor that you can trust, go to BBB.org.

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‘Rich father killed by Boko Haram': latest twist to classic Nigerian Prince scam

ID-100215081The details change, but the scam remains the same…

You may have heard of the “Nigerian Prince” email scam, where the exiled Nigerian prince needs your help to smuggle lots of money out of his country and needs your help. If you fall for it, you could wind up with a compromised bank account, money stolen, identity stolen.

Scammers often take advantage of current events to make their pitches sound more convincing. Recently, a group known as Boko Haram has been making headlines for its kidnappings and other violent acts.

A colleague at Your BBB recently got an email offer that uses Boko Haram as a hook–but is essentially the same old Nigerian Prince scam we’ve come to know and love.

Dearest,
From Miss Binta.
It is my pleasure to contact you for a business venture which I intend to establish in your country, though I have not met with you before but I believe one has to risk confidence to succeed some times in life.

There is a huge amount of money totalling ($6.7 Million U.S. Dollars plus 14 kilos of Gold dusts and 14,220 Carate Diamond Gem stones) which my late father kept for me as the only daughter in a Security Company before he was killed by the ISLAMISTS MOVEMENT BOKO HARAM in my country Cameroon.

Now I have decided to invest this money in your country or anywhere safe enough for security reason. I want you to help me claim and retrieve this fund from the Security Company and and bring it to your country for an investment purposes in these areas below or, you can as well advice me on some profitable investments in your country.

1). Industrial productions.
2). Real estate
3). Hotel business.

If you can be of an assistance to me, please reply to my mail address [ bkhal1@yahoo.com ] I will give you the full details and will be pleased to offer to you 15% of the total amount of the money.
I am waiting your soonest response.

Respectfully yours,

Binta.

Helpful hint: While these scams might be updated with references to current events, much of the text is usually boilerplate, used over and over. If you copy one or two lines from the message and paste it into a search engine, you’ll find lots of other people talking about the same scam. I just did that with a sentence from this email and sure enough, I found lots of discussion on forums from others who got similar email offers.

Here is some advice on how to protect yourself from the Nigerian letter scam and its variations:

  • If you receive a letter from Nigeria, or any other country, asking for personal or banking information, do not reply! The BBB suggests you immediately delete or throw away any such correspondence.
  • If you have already responded to such a plea, or if you know someone who is corresponding in this scheme, contact the U.S. Secret Service as soon as possible (phone: 202.406.5572 or e-mail 419.fcd@usss.treas.gov).
  • Ignore individuals representing themselves as foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts.
  • Be leery when strangers are eager to place unexpected, large amounts of money at your disposal, in exchange for your bank account number or other personal or financial information.
  • Cashier checks and money orders can be counterfeit. When a stranger sends a check or money offer to purchase a product or service from you, consult with your bank about the time it will take to verify the check, and wait for the funds to clear.
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FTC returns over $2.9 million to Inc21 cramming victims

government actionYour cellphone bill is probably expensive enough without companies sticking unwanted charges on it without your consent–a practices known as cramming.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced it is mailing out a second round of payments totaling more than $2.9 million to victims of the Inc21 cramming scheme shut down by the FTC in 2010.

According to the FTC, Internet services company Inc21 had third-party billing aggregators place charges on phone bills. Victims in most cases either had not been contacted, were deceived about why they were contacted or were denied the services for which they were billed.

Consumers who receive the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should deposit or cash them within 60 days of the mailing date. No consumers will be required to pay money or provide information to the FTC before refund checks can be cashed. Refunds will average approximately $51, but will vary based on how much money was lost.

Checks will be mailed by Epiq Systems, Inc. Consumers who receive checks and have questions about the redress can contact Epiq Systems directly at 1-866-328-1992. More information about the FTC’s refund program is available on the FTC’s website.

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BBB warns last-minute SXSW attendees to avoid bogus badges and wristbands

ticketsSouth By Southwest (SXSW) starts today. Did you get a badge or a wristband? If not, you might be tempted to look to a third party to find them at a cut rate–badges are expensive and wristbands are sold out. Unfortunately, that’s a good way to get ripped off.

Your BBB is warning interactive, music and film fans to be on the lookout for counterfeit badges and wristbands.

BBB typically receives complaints after big events, with some ticket buyers alleging they did not receive their passes on time, did not receive them at all, or in some cases were sold counterfeits.

BBB has these tips to help fans protect themselves financially:

  • Do your research. Know the going rate for the badge or wristband you’re after, and avoid offers that are deeply discounted or highly inflated. You should buy badges and wristbands directly from sxsw.com.
  • Avoid wiring money. Be wary when using wire services for payment, because once you pay your money transfers instantly. The recipient is untraceable and you won’t be able to get your money back. Also, avoid having your tickets mailed.  Arrange to pick them up in a public place in person.
  • Verify its authenticity. BBB recommends you verify the legitimacy of the badges and wristbands before you pay. Ask for a receipt. Look at the badge or wristband and compare it to a verified one. If something looks different, or if a seller claims they don’t actually have the badge in hand, walk away.

And if you’re planning to use a mobile device to surf the internet while at the festival, here are some tips to keep your smart phone safe:

  • Lock your phone. Add a security code to your phone to prevent thieves from accessing your data.
  • Avoid unsecured Wi-Fi. If you choose to connect to an unsecured or public Wi-Fi network, do not enter passwords or access any personal information.
  • Beware of unknown apps and links. During SXSW, businesses might promote their apps for you to download. BBB advises you avoid downloading apps without first researching the source. They may contain viruses, malware or spyware that can compromise your personal data.
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House renting for SXSW? Here’s what you need to know

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s that time of year again: the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) film, interactive, and music festival and conference is March 13-22.

Thousands of people are about to descend upon Austin with their badges, cameras, and unbridled enthusiasm to explore every inch of our city. Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin has some advice for Austin locals and those coming to town about renting homes.

Many Austinites opt to excuse themselves from the madness by conveniently going out of town during SXSW. Some of those individuals take full advantage of the entrepreneurial spirit by listing their homes on vacation rental sites, allowing them to both enjoy some quiet from the crowds as well as make a few extra bucks. But you have to make sure to follow city rules first.

The Vacation Rental Licensing Program is cracking down on those that have not applied for a vacation rental license. The application requires a $285.00 application fee plus proof of payment of a hotel occupancy tax.

For those looking to rent, be wary of online classified ads promising a low cost rental. Some scammers will use fake pictures to lure unsuspecting renters into a good deal, asking for an upfront wire transfer deposit. It’s not until the renter arrives at the property that they find out that it has already been occupied-so now they’re not only out the money they wired, but also a place to stay.

There are more secure ways of finding a vacation rental rather than just finding an online ad. Legitimate websites exist to protect renters by providing secure payment solutions, visitor comment sections and rating systems.

For those who are looking to rent a room or residence in Austin, BBB offers the following tips:

Be wary if the deal sounds too good to be true. Scammers will often list a rental for a very low price to lure victims. Find out how comparable listings are priced. If the rental comes in suspiciously low, consider walking away.

Ask for additional photos or information. Request more photos of the property, or ask to be given a virtual tour via webcam. Ask for specific details about the house. Legitimate property owners will be happy to oblige.

Never wire money. Money sent via wire transfer service is extremely difficult to retrieve. Once the scammers have picked it up, there is little recourse, if any, for getting any money back.

Don’t rent if you feel pressured.  If you receive a phone call or email pressuring you to make a decision on the spot for a rental. Ignore it and move on, don’t be conned into making hasty decisions.

For more tips like this, check out your local BBB.org

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BBB offers advice for National Credit Education Month

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Credit can be extremely helpful–but it can also get you in trouble if you’re not careful.

March is National Credit Education Month and Your BBB wants you to be prepared before you shop for a car, buy a house or open a credit card account.

A big part of that is checking your credit score. Your BBB encourages you to check your credit report regularly.

Your credit report has information about finances, bill payments and bankruptcy history.  Businesses use your credit report to evaluate your application if you apply for a loan or want to extend a line of credit. The report contains important information that can affect whether you get a loan and how much interest you will pay.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. To pull your free credit report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com. It is the only government authorized website for free credit reports.

It is important to pull your credit report is to make sure the information is accurate, complete and up-to-date. According to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study, one in five consumers had an error on at least one of their three credit reports.

When looking at your credit report, look for these red flags of identity theft:

  1. Any inquiries not initiated by you;
  2. Any debts reported that are not yours; or
  3. Contact information such as your address that was changed without your approval.

When pulling your annual credit report, BBB advises:

  • Be wary of unsolicited emails and pop-ups. AnnualCreditReport.com does not approach consumers via email, telemarketing or direct mail solicitations. Instead, go directly to AnnualCreditReport.com to request your free report.
  • Pull your children’s credit report. As child identity theft remains a national problem, it can be just as imperative to pull your child’s report as it is to pull your own. While the credit reporting agencies do not knowingly maintain credit files on minor children, you can contact the credit reporting agencies directly to see what information, if any, they have about your child to avoid a financial mess for them in the future.
  • Dispute inaccuracies. If you find inaccurate information on your credit report, immediately contact the reporting agency you pulled the report from and file a dispute. Inaccurate, derogatory information can lower your credit score, and in some cases, may indicate fraudulent activity.
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