The Wall Street meltdown has many consumers worrying about their fiscal health and may leave them vulnerable to opportunistic scam artists who try to capitalize on the economic crisis with get rich quick, lending and other scams, the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) warns.
New Yorkers are resilient, said Governor David A. Paterson, but we are facing difficult times and need to do everything we can to protect our assets. While we in government are working at the highest levels to ensure a sound fiscal future for the State, I have called upon State agencies to provide individual assistance for consumers. The Consumer Protection Boards 'Watch List' is a good 'heads up' for all of us as we deal with financial stress."
As scammers are salivating over this situation, we must take steps to protect ourselves from any bad apples who can potentially make matters worse, said Mindy A. Bockstein, CPBs Chairperson and Executive Director. The results of this financial storm are devastating and may be far-reaching, but we can weather the squalls if we are alert and careful. The best advice is — dont panic, use common sense, and educate yourself with accurate information before taking action. The preventive medicine approach can limit consumer risk.
Using various tools including phone calls, unsolicited e-mails or text messages to relay their information, scammers perpetrate crimes against unsuspecting consumers. They may make offers of assistance to provide loans or information, often charging fees for services or products that are never delivered or leading people to believe they have won money through lotteries, inheritances or other schemes designed to take advantage of vulnerable consumers.
While many use Phishing scams designed to obtain personal and financial information to commit identity theft and fraud, others use clever schemes to bilk consumers out of their hard-earned money. While not all offers and invitations are unscrupulous, consumers are urged to be wary of the CPBs Fiscal Crisis Watch List and note the following tips for protecting themselves as they navigate the uncharted waters of this financial crisis.
The board has placed the following on its Fiscal Crisis Watch List for consumers.
Credit Counseling and Debt Management Scams
What to be wary of? Some credit counseling and debt management companies are charging high up-front or monthly fees, using pressure tactics for voluntary contributions, or failing to provide specific and upfront information about the services they provide unless consumers give personal financial information such as credit card and bank account numbers and balances. While reputable credit counseling agencies can help consumers better manage their money, some credit counseling services take advantage of people who are financially vulnerable.
What to be wary of? Legitimate credit and loan opportunities are becoming more and more difficult to come by in these times of financial difficulty. While most loans are bona fide, consumers are warned to be careful about some tactics that can leave them vulnerable and even worse-off in the end. The CPB urges caution on the following two loans:
What to be wary of? Payday loans, also called cash advance loans are typically small ($100 - $500), short-term loans used to cover expenses between paydays. Interest rates on these loans may run as high as 400%. Payday loan creditors will often offer to extend the time to repay the loan and take that opportunity to apply additional charges to the original loan, resulting in consumers falling even deeper into debt. Consumers should be sure they can repay these loans immediately, as they are not solutions to long-term financial problems. Further, consumers should not take the first loan offered, but are advised to shop around, ask questions and negotiate terms.
Home Equity and Debt Consolidation Loan
What to be wary of? Home equity and debt consolidation loans can leave consumers vulnerable to increased debt, possible foreclosure and the loss of their home. Abusive lending practices associated with these loans include equity stripping. Equity stripping occurs in various forms of complex business transactions. A common equity stripping tactic is for a company or "investor" to grant a loan to a homeowner in exchange for the deed to their property. The homeowner is usually in or on the brink of foreclosure, and accepts the terms of the loan to stay in the property and pay "rent" as a tenant. However, the homeowner never pays down the mortgage and the property is stripped of any equity, leaving the homeowner vulnerable to eviction. Consumers are urged to check out loan institutions carefully, making sure banks are FDIC insured before taking a loan.
Work At Home Scams
What to be wary of? With unemployment on the rise, work-at-home scams are expected to increase. The CPB is urging consumers who receive offers to make big money while working from home to examine those offers carefully to be sure they know with whom they are dealing and get references and details before signing up. People should be especially cautious about unsolicited e-mail job offers as many of these are fraudulent and particularly skeptical of envelope stuffing schemes and offers providing payment in advance for work not yet performed. Once these paychecks are deposited, banking information becomes available to the alleged employer, who can deplete accounts. Additionally, many of these checks are fake, so consumers end up owing the bank for the full amount of the check deposited. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that con artists pitching work-at-home schemes rake in more than $400 billion dollars a year.
Online Job Search Scams
What to be wary of? The CPB has noted an increase in the number of people conducting online job searches, and is warning consumers to be very suspicious of e-mail job offers looking legitimate but containing multiple grammatical and spelling errors, asking for personal information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information and requiring upfront processing fees for things like background checks as these can lead to identity theft. Particularly troubling for job hunters is a Phishing scam involving e-mails allegedly sent from websites where, after creating an account on sites like Monster.com or Careerbuilder.com, job hunters receive a response indicating a problem. These e-mails con readers into linking to a site, which then infects computers with viruses, worms and other harmful programs, leaving consumers without a job and without a functioning computer.
What to be wary of? Consumers should carefully check all investment opportunity offers they receive to be sure that the offer is not a Phishing scam. In this scenario, an e-mail may be received from an alleged financial advisor claiming to be from a reputable institution with which the consumer already does business. Consumers should not respond to unsolicited e-mails. In at least one documented case, the sender was actually a scammer looking to siphon off information to enable the direct withdrawal of funds from the consumer account.
The CPB urges consumers to follow these tips to avoid schemes or scams.
1. GET INFORMATION UPFRONT AND IN WRITING and READ THE FINE PRINT.
2. ASK QUESTIONS about all offers received - - getting details on the terms, total price including any fees, interest rates, delivery dates for purchases, return or cancellation policies, and warranties for products and services. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
3. THINK CAREFULLY about every offer before accepting it. Take time to consider what youre planning to do. Do not act in haste. DO NOT let yourself be pressured into signing agreements. Make sure to RESEARCH companies, the offers they provide and their privacy and security policies and practices, and assure that there is an actual office, not just a mailbox or a website. Make sure the phone number matches the address given.
4. NEVER DISCLOSE credit card, bank account or Social Security numbers to someone who contacts you by telephone or Internet. Be wary of offers requiring the return of information in the form of a questionnaire or survey.
5. USE CAUTION WHEN CONSIDERING A LOAN, making sure to shop for the lowest fees and penalties and to borrow only as much as can be repaid.
6. DO NOT DEPOSIT a check or money order that you receive from a work-at-home offer or a sweepstakes.
7. NEVER PAY AN UPFRONT FEE in order to collect a lottery or sweepstakes prize. If they ask you for money before you can collect a prize, then its a scam. As a rule, DO NOT PAY IN CASH.
8. KEEP PAPERWORK, including copies of any complaints you file against a business. RECORD personal information using the CPBs Personal Identification Documentation (PIDD) card. DO NOT CARRY THIS CARD WITH YOU, but store it in a safe place where it can be accessed should your wallet or personal information be misplaced or stolen.
9. PASSWORD-PROTECT ACCOUNTS including financial and utility accounts and vital personal records using complex Personal Identification Numbers (PINs). Dont share these numbers.
10. CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT for fraud regularly through the three major credit reporting companies: Experian, Trans-Union and Equifax.