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Drivers beware: new phishing/notice-to-appear scam targets E-Z Pass customers

American Automobile Association issues a mid-Atlantic warning

Photo © Tim - Fotolia
New phishing scams appear practically every day. Yet the latest scam, which prompted the American Automobile Association (AAA) to issue a warning to its members this week, might snag a few victims who'd otherwise be too savvy to fall for it. This is because this new scam, in some ways, superficially resembles a “legitimate” money-grab.

WTOP in Washington, D.C. reports that AAA Mid-Atlantic has noticed a recent uptick in phishing scams targeting E-Z Pass customers. Specifically, victims are receiving emails, often adorned with the actual E-Z Pass logo and other authentic-looking details, claiming that the driver is “indebted” for having traveled on an E-Z Pass toll road. You're then told to click a link, which brings you to a website asking for personal and financial information (and might also infect your device with dangerous malware).

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said, “Everyone must be on guard for these fraudsters attempting to con you out of your hard-earned funds and account information. Be skeptical of all email that directs the user to a website in which credit card or personal information is entered.”

Phishing scams

A “phishing” scam is a con wherein scammers trick their victims into revealing personal or financial information by sending email or text messages that appear to be from legitimate organizations. For example, you might get a text message which at first glance looks to be from your bank, warning you of non-existent problems with your account – problems which can supposedly be solved if you give your passwords, account numbers, or other important information to the scammer who sent you the text.

To avoid most phishing scams, one common piece of advice is to hold all business communications to the standard “Don't call me; I'll call you.”

In other words, be suspicious of any unsolicited email, text message, phone call, or any electronic communication you get reporting problems or changes with your accounts – even if that message does seem to be from a legitimate company or institution. You can (and should) contact your bank if you think something's wrong with your account — but if the bank supposedly calls or emails you with a complaint, don't believe it. You didn't call the bank; they called you, and that means it might be a scam.

E-Z Pass variant

So if this were a warning about the latest bank-account or Netflix-flavored phishing bait, we could tell you “Any unsolicited or unexpected message can safely be ignored.”

However, this advice might not strictly work to protect from scammers purporting to be from E-Z Pass or other electronic toll collectors, because in such cases it is genuinely possible to receive a legitimate bill you never knew you owed – if you drove through one of those “invisible” electronic tollbooths without realizing it was there. (This is especially likely when you're driving through an area of the country unfamiliar to you.)

That said: even if you do owe such a toll fee, you still can safely ignore and delete any email demanding payment — because toll payments are not collected that way.

Electronic tollbooths collect payments in two different ways: if a vehicle is equipped with a compatible transponder, the toll charges are deducted directly from the driver's account attached to it. Otherwise, the vehicle’s license plate is photographed, and a bill mailed to whatever address it's registered to.

If you drove your own car through the tollbooth, that means a paper copy of the bill is snail-mailed to your home. If you drove a rental, the bill is sent to the rental company, which will most likely charge the cost to whichever credit card number it has on file for you. In neither case will you get an email demanding payment.

Look for specific details

Indeed, this E-Z Pass scam AAA warned about also qualifies as another variant of the old “jury duty” or “notice to appear” con.

With such scams, the email, phone call, or whatever fake message you get is allegedly coming from your local sheriff, police department, or some other potentially scary law-enforcement authority. In classic jury duty or notice to appear scams, the scammers usually accuse you of skipping out of either jury duty or a mandated court appearance, and threaten to have you arrested and thrown in jail unless you pay a “fine” using a prepaid money card, wire transfer, or some other untraceable and non-refundable payment method.

The scammy E-Z Pass emails which the AAA warned about are often labeled as “notices to appear” (with the implication that you-the-driver don't merely owe money for an E-Z Pass toll, but are actually being sued over it).

But even if you know nothing about phishing or notice-to-appear scams, it should still be obvious this email is a fraud – and not just because real court notices are sent through the old-fashioned U.S. Mail. Notice-to-appear or jury-duty scam emails almost always use generic wording (“You must appear in court” or “You must serve jury duty”), whereas legitimate notices are not only printed and mailed on paper, they identify you personally, with your full legal name and mailing address, plus other identifying information which your real local government already has on file, but a generic email scammer hopes to steal.

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