FTC alleges T-Mobile let customers get crammed

ID-100128578Last week, the Federal Trade Commission charged cell phone provider T-Mobile with making big bucks from premium text services that in many cases its consumers never authorized–a practice known as cramming.

The FTC alleges in its complaint that T-Mobile USA received 35 to 40 percent of the total amount charged for subscriptions for content that typically costs $9.99 per month, such as celebrity gossip, horoscopes and flirting tips.  The FTC alleges that T-Mobile in some cases kept billing customers for services offered by scammers for years after it was aware of signs that the charges were not authorized.

The FTC alleges that T-Mobile’s billing practices made it hard for consumers to find out that they were being charged. The complaint states that the online T-Mobile bill did not show customers that they were being charged by a third party or that the charge was part of a recurring subscription. The charges were listed under Premium Services, but could only be seen after clicking a separate heading, “Use Charges.” After clicking, consumers still could not see individual charges.

The complaint also alleges that the full T-Mobile bill, which could be longer than 50 pages, made it nearly impossible to find and understand third party charges.

Here’s how to reduce the chances of paying charges crammed onto your bill without your knowledge or permission:

  • Read your mobile phone bill each month – line by line, and page by page. Don’t ignore the billing statement you get in the mail or through an automated online payment system. You should know your baseline monthly bill. Taking time to read every page of your statements can help you detect potentially fraudulent charges, keep surprise charges to a minimum, and save you money.
  • Consider a block on third-party charges. Many phone carriers already offer third-party blocking service for free. You just have to ask.
  • Ask your mobile phone carrier for its policy on refunds for fraudulent charges. Some carriers have a 60-day period for refund requests, and many have a policy of partial refunds for fraudulent charges you detect – no matter how long the cramming charges have occurred.
  • If you have a prepaid phone plan, check that you’re not losing pre-paid minutes to pay for unauthorized third-party charges. Stay on top of how many calling minutes you have, and make sure that minutes don’t go missing due to deductions unrelated to your regular phone calls. Check your accounts online or call the number your carrier gives you for account access.

If you suspect you’ve been a victim of cramming, contact your phone carrier first about the charges, then file a complaint with the FTC.


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Be a smart shopper–don’t get misled by Fourth of July sale ads

ID-10047802The Fourth of July means different things to different people. It’s a celebration of our nation’s birth, for one. It’s also a time for fireworks and fun with friends. And last, but not least, it’s a good time to take advantage of holiday sales and find some deals.

Your BBB would like you to be an informed shopper. BBB reminds you that advertisements promoting sales and savings can sometimes be misleading or unclear. This often causes confusion and frustration for shoppers. You can shop smart this holiday by identifying truthful sales ads from deceptive ones.

BBB offers these recommendations for identifying honest advertisers:

Do your homework first. It’s a good idea to start by reading over BBB’s Code of Advertising to help you better understand ethical practices and standards in advertising. Then visit checkbbb.org for a list of BBB Accredited retailers in your area—these businesses are required to abide by BBB’s Code of Advertising in order to remain a BBB Accredited Business.

Determine if the item is available for a limited time. Read the fine print to determine the guidelines for the sale. Some sale items are only available for the advertised price during certain days, or even certain hours on a specific day.

Consider “on sale” or “sale” claims. Look for clear end dates on any sale. A “sale” is defined as a temporary reduction from the usual price of an item. If the sales price is offered for more than 30 days, this becomes the regular price and the item should not be advertised as “on sale.”

Be careful with “free” offers.  An item is free only if it is offered as an unconditional gift. If you must make a purchase in order to receive the item advertised as “free,” the information should be clearly disclosed in the ad. As with a sale this offer should be temporary, otherwise it becomes part of a continuous combination offer, no part of which is free.

Clarify the specifics of “Meet or beat a competitors price” offers. Some businesses may offer a refund on the difference in price if a shopper finds the same product for a lower price elsewhere. Consumers should take the time to understand the specifics of these offers, including what proof is necessary, and ask questions.

Research lowest price claims. Prices for products and services can fluctuate, making it extremely difficult for businesses to claim that their prices are lower than competitors’ prices. Consumers should engage in comparison-shopping to make sure they are getting the lowest price available.

Determine if the savings add up. Ads that offer savings as a percentage, such as “up to 50 percent off,” should clearly state both the minimum and maximum savings. Also, the number of items available at the maximum savings should make up at least 10 percent of the items sold.

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Businesses: Don’t wire money to a scammer!

Businesses, look out. The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is reporting a new scam that could cost you thousands of dollars. The scam has been referred to as the “man in the email” scam, or more recently, the “business email compromise.”

ID-100146153The scam involves a spoofed email–one that appears to be from a known source, but actually belongs to a crook–requesting an unauthorized wire transfer to pay for goods or services.

The email claims to be from a vendor, who requests a wire transfer to a designated bank account. The scammers use an email address that resembles a legitimate one, with very small changes that are hard to spot.

The average loss per victim is arround $55,000, but the IC3 reports some victims were taken for more than $800,000.

IC3 believes the scam may be based in Nigeria. According to the IC3, the scam is more likely to affect businesses in the U.S., England or Canada; businesses that often trade internationally; and businesses that conduct wire transfers for large amounts.

Visit IC3 for more information about the scam.

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Get a call claiming you owe a debt or missed jury duty? Don’t let a scammer bully you into wiring money!

ID-100157134There is a common theme with the scams I’ve heard about lately: Scam artist calls a consumer, either promises something they are in dire need of (like a loan, grant or a cash prize), or scares the heck out of them (threatening to arrest them or put them in jail or cut off their utilities), then tells them to get a pre-paid debit card and send money immediately, or else.

You skipped jury duty and you’re going to jail!–unless you wire us some money with a Green Dot card, then it’s cool

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office is also reporting in Central Texas media that a jury duty scam has been going around (via the Hill Country News‘ Facebook feed).

People have been getting calls from scammers claiming to be with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. The scammer tells them a warrant is being issued for failure to appear for jury duty and says they are going to be arrested unless they wire money with a Green Dot or other pre-paid card. The same scam has been reported all over the U.S. in recent months.

The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office says it does not “solicit payments or confirm payments over the phone for any warrants, fines or citations.”

If you live in Williamson County and have received a jury duty scam call, you can report it to the Sheriff’s Office at (512) 943-5242.

For everyone else, if you get a call like that, just hang up. Don’t give the scammers any payment information. Once you pay someone with a Green Dot card, the money is gone forever.

Tips to avoid being ripped off by the jury duty scam:

  • Be suspicious if the “official” contacts you by phone. As a rule, jurors are not summoned via text message or phone. The court normally communicates through mail.
  • Don’t give out sensitive information. Do not provide credit card or social security numbers to anyone claiming to represent the court system over the phone.
  • Don’t wire money. Never wire money to someone you don’t know, through bank transfer or pre-paid debit card. You’ll never see the money again.
  • Call the real number. If you ever question whether you need to appear for jury duty, call your local court system to check.

‘Pay this debt right now or you’re going to jail’

Your BBB was recently contacted by a consumer from Wisconsin whose fiancee had one of those scary phone conversations over a debt–the “investigator” who was supposedly in San Antonio wanted her to pay a debt of $440.50 or she would go to jail for 21 to 45 days “to wait for the hearing” and would then have to pay $4,000. Understandably, the woman got extremely upset. Luckily she didn’t pay them any money and reported the incident.

I called the number and got an “investigator” who wouldn’t give me her address–she said I “might send a bomb or something”–gave a corporate address that went to a medical supply business in Atlanta and a company name that went to a business in California that has nothing to do with private investigations. Totally bogus in other words.

What to do if you get a harassing call from a debt collector:

  • Get validation. Ask the debt collector to provide official “validation notice” of the debt. Debt collectors are required by law to provide the information in writing. The notice must include the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor and a statement of your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. If the self-proclaimed collector won’t provide the information, hang up.
  • Get information about the collector. If you think that a caller may be a fake, ask for his name, company, street address, and telephone number. Then, confirm that the collection agency is real.
  • Don’t give out sensitive information. Do not provide or confirm any bank account, credit card or other personal information over the phone until you have verified the call. If the scammer has a great deal of personal information about you, be safe and place a fraud alert on your credit report.
  • Check your credit report. Check your credit report for by going to annualcreditreport.com or calling (877) 322-8228. This will help you determine if you have outstanding debts or if there has been suspicious activity under your name.
  • File an FTC complaint. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission if the caller uses threats. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collections from being abusive, unfair or deceptive.


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Don’t get burned: BBB gives tips to avoid the top five scams of summer

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“Sad video” tricks you into spamming your friends on Facebook, Twitter

Want to see a “sad” video of a woman getting a fatal beating during a fight? You might not want to admit it, but you’re probably at least a little bit tempted. Don’t be. KENS-TV and other news outlets are reporting on a scam going around on Facebook and Twitter right now that takes advantage of people’s curiosity to help scam artists make money.

fbThe video title is “[SAD VIDEO] Her head was beat in and she died during this fight (Press PLAY to watch)”

The link appears in your feed if one of your friends clicks through trying to watch the video. If you click the link it, you are asked to share before you can watch. After sharing it on your timeline, it will try to get you to fill out an online survey, which is how the scam artists make money. You won’t actually get to see the video and you’ll end up spamming all your Facebook friends. (I did a search and found out the fight in the picture is actually on Youtube and nobody died–which is a good thing.)

If you did click the link, delete the post from your timeline and let your friends know it’s a scam.

Similar scams circulate on social media all the time. WatchYourBuck previously posted about a supposed gory video of actor Paul Walker’s fatal car crash and a supposed “mystery solved” video claiming to show what happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

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Law enforcement takes down Gameover Zeus Botnet – but malware threat remains

ID-100258813I don’t know about you, but the thought that my computer could be part of a global network used by a criminal organization gives me the heebie geebies.

Many computers that get infected with viruses become part of something called a botnet, a network used to send out spam and spread viruses. One of the biggest was called Gameover Zeus, a network designed to steal banking and other sensitive information, which the FBI estimates caused $100 million in losses worldwide.

A few weeks ago, a multi-national law enforcement effort disabled Gameover Zeus and filed charges against one of the people alleged to be responsible for the botnet.

However, the malware and the risk still remains, as the Federal Trade Commission points out. If your computer is one of the 500,000-plus computers infected with the botnet software, you should take steps to remove it:

  • Install and run security software that can find and remove Gameover Zeus.
  • If your software finds malware, remove it and restart your computer.
  • Change passwords for important accounts like your bank and email accounts.
  • Make sure your operating system and Internet browsers are up to date and set them to update automatically.
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Fishing for romance this summer? Don’t catch a catfish!

ID-100216914When I was younger I was happy to catch a catfish. Happy to eat it too if it was big enough. These days, “catfish” has another meaning: someone who assumes another person’s identity and creates a fake online profile to take part in an online relationship.

Summer can be a hot time for romance, but Better Business Bureau warns consumers to be wary of logging on to an online romance scam.

The “catfish” is often looking for personal information and/or financial support. They put a lot of time and effort into building a fake persona and relationship with their victim(s).

According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), more than 10 percent of all reported online financial losses involved romance scams; a financial loss for females of over $46,000 to males $9,000.

When considering an online dating service, BBB recommends you:

Research in advance.  Check out the dating service online at bbb.org to review their history of complaints and reputation with consumers.

Select with integrity.  Request in writing what guidelines the company follows in screening its applicants. For example, does the service conduct a criminal background check and sex offender screening for each applicant?

Read the fine print. Specifically keep an extra eye for free trial offers and deals. Some require you to cancel before the trial offer ends in order to avoid recurring charges.  Be sure the contract lists out payment plans, length of contract and refund and cancellation policies in case you are dissatisfied with the company’s service. For payment, use your credit card for extra protection.

Put safety first. Inquire about the company’s policy on disclosure of personal information. Avoid putting too much personal information on your profile, such as home address, work information and telephone number.

Inquire about cost. Make certain you understand the company’s pricing policies before agreeing to the terms of service. Find out if refunds are offered and what conditions determine the refund amount.

To avoid ‘catfishing’ scams, BBB suggests:

Read the signs. Be wary of profiles that lack photographs and information in the “About Me” section, as well as individuals who make the following claims: to have fallen instantly in love or to be from the U.S. and traveling or working overseas. Beware of those who prey on your emotions by claiming to be trapped in a foreign country or involved in an emergency, and needing you to wire them money. This is a red flag for a ‘catfishing’ scam.

Create a separate email. Only use this account for online dating. Not only is it an easy way to keep dating emails separate from personal and professional emails, it also keeps your primary email address private.

Speak on the phone/meet in person. It is easier to spot a fraud over the phone than online. If it’s possible, ask to meet in person and always in a safe, public place.

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Did you just win the lottery or are you about to get ripped off?

ID-10027339The thought of winning a lottery or sweepstakes is pretty exciting. Who couldn’t use a influx of cash in these tough times? Unfortunately, there are a lot of con artists who try to separate you from your hard-earned money with the promise of a big prize.

Case in point: Georgia resident Dominic Smith, 26, recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud for his role in a lottery scam based in Jamaica. He was just one fish in a big sea full of crooked fishes.

There’s always a chance you will get a phone call from someone claiming you’ve just won a lot of money–someone who actually wants to trick you into paying them a lot of money for nothing.

BBB serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin gets numerous calls from people asking about fraudulent lottery offers. Some art too late–they already wired advance payments and got ripped off. Here are five red flags of a lottery scam, so that doesn’t happen to you:

  1. You’re told you’ve won a contest you didn’t enter. You need to buy a ticket or complete an application to participate in a contest or lottery. Whether it’s by phone or mail, scammers seek out their targets. Verify that it is a legitimate business by doing research on the company.
  2. You are offered ‘too-good-to-be-true’ prizes. It is almost always a large sum of money, but there is always a catch. Scammers attempt to make it sound easy to claim your prize. The reality is it is very unlikely that someone will give away large sums of money with no strings attached.
  3. You have to give personal information. Anytime someone tries to get your bank account number, Social Security Number or other sensitive information, that should be an automatic red flag. There is also no need to access financial information, like a credit card number in response to a sweepstakes promotion.
  4. You have to pay to win. Don’t be blinded by the promise of a large sum of money in the future. If they are asking you to give them money first, that’s a red flag. According to the Federal Trade Commission, It’s illegal to ask you to pay or buy something to enter or increase your odds of winning. Legitimate prizes do not come with processing fees, and taxes are paid directly to the Internal Revenue Service after winnings are collected.
  5. You have to wire money or use prepaid debit cards. If you are asked to use these transfer methods in order to get a prize or any other large sum of money, that is a major red flag. It’s difficult to track these types of transactions, so you will have little to no way of getting your money back.

Below is a video reenactment of a typical sweepstakes scam scenario, courtesy of BBB Serving Nebraska, South Dakota, The Kansas Plains & SW Iowa:

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Cash strapped? Falling for a card cracking or cell phone credit muling scam will make you even poorer

scam-alert-pic-150x150I remember how it was being a broke college student, digging around under the car seats for enough change to buy a soda or a small bag of chips. If someone had come along offering me “free” money, I’m sure I would’ve been tempted.

Unfortunately, nothing really comes for free–there’s always some kind of catch. There are a couple of scams out there targeting cash-strapped college students. If you play along with one of these scams, the criminal who talked you into it will end up with the “free” money and you’ll be left holding the bag.

Card Cracking

Card cracking is a variation on the classic check depositing scam (other variations include secret shopper, work-at-home and “this will help pay advance fees for the sweepstakes you didn’t really win”). The scam artist convinces a victim to give access to their debit card and PIN. The scammer then deposits a check (or checks) in the victim’s bank account and withdraws a portion of the money, letting the victim keep the other part.

Then the victim discovers that the check was counterfeit or stolen. By the time the victim finds out, the scam artist is long gone. The victim is then in trouble for depositing a counterfeit check and must pay the bank back for whatever was taken out. In some cases, the victims are recruited using social media.

A web search finds a number of news stories about the scam, as well as a warning from the state of New York. I’ve also heard anecdotal reports of the scam occurring in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Cellphone Credit Muling

The Federal Trade Commission is warning about a scam targeting college students known as credit muling.

With this scam, the crook pays the victim to open up several accounts with cell phone providers–accounts that come with new phones, tablets or other electronic devices. The scammer reminds the victim to cancel their accounts within the 15- or 30-day time limit. The scammer then takes the phones or other electronic devices, unlocks them so they can be used with other services, and disappears.

The victim then discovers he or she has been tricked–you have to return the phone before you can get out of the contract. So the victim now has to pay for the phones he or she gave to the scammer, as well as monthly payments to the carriers until the contract is over.

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