FTC warns consumers of a new government imposter scam

Photo (c) tashatuvango - Fotolia

Scammers are impersonating officials from the National Institutes of Health

Government imposter scams have been around in one form or another for as long as anyone can remember, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that one current iteration is still getting the best of consumers.

The agency says that it has received reports of scammers calling unsuspecting consumers and purporting to be from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The callers say that they’ve selected the victim to receive a $14,000 grant, but in order to deliver the money they’ll need to collect a fee through an iTunes or Green Dot card, or by obtaining the consumer’s bank account number.

To the informed and wary consumer, this line rings with many of the hallmarks of a scam. The FTC says that NIH does not give grants to researchers who don’t apply for them, and that those grants are used for public purposes and never for personal use.

Red flags

The FTC says there are several ways that consumers can spot a government imposter. Many scammers tend to follow a similar script which usually relies on the following lines and phrases:

  • "This grant/scholarship is guaranteed or your money back."
  • "You can't get this information anywhere else."
  • "I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this grant/scholarship."
  • "We'll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee."
  • "The grant/scholarship will just cost you a one-time fee."
  • "You've been selected" or "you are eligible" to receive a grant/scholarship.

The FTC affirms that the federal government will never call you and demand that you give personal or financial information, such as your bank account or you Social Security number.

“Has a caller ever asked you to wire money, cash a check they send you (and send them money), or use a prepaid card to pay someone? Those are all red flags. Nobody legitimate – and certainly not the government – will ever ask you to pay in any of those ways,” the agency said in a blog post.

Beating the scam

In order to beat this sort of scam, the FTC lays out five rules that consumers should follow.

  1. Don’t wire money. Scammers will often try to get you to wire money or send them a prepaid debit card. The reason is that this type of payment is not traceable, and once the money is sent, there’s no getting it back.
  2. Don’t pay for a prize. If you enter and win a sweepstakes, no agency will ever tell you that you have to pay insurance, taxes, or shipping costs in order to claim your prize. If you haven’t entered a sweepstakes, then there’s no way you could win one either.
  3. Don’t give out personal or financial information. Never give a caller any sensitive information about yourself, including your bank account number, credit card number, or Social Security number. Many scammers will use this information to commit identity theft.
  4. Don’t trust your Caller ID. Many consumers tend to trust a call based on its Caller ID information, but this information can easily be spoofed by scammers. That means a call that says it comes from Washington D.C. could actually be coming from anywhere in the world, so don't take this information at face value.
  5. Sign your number up for the National Do Not Call Registry. Taking this step will not stop scammers from trying to contact you, but it should allow you to be more skeptical about any other calls that you receive unexpectedly. Consumers can register their phone number here.

Perhaps most importantly, consumers are encouraged to always report any suspicious call they receive to the FTC. You can file a complaint by visiting the agency’s site here, but be sure to include the date and time of the call, the name of the government agency the imposter used, what they told you, the amount of money and payment method they asked for, the phone number of the caller, and any other details from the call that you can recall.

If you mistakenly sent money to one of these imposters, be sure to contact your bank or any other agency you used to send the money to report the fraud as well.

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