Top 10 phone scams to watch out for
Phony promise of rate reduction leads the list
It might sound like an unexpected blessing -- a call from out of the blue, promising to help reduce the interest rate you pay on your credit cards.
In reality, if you take the shysters up on their offer, you could end up losing thousands of dollars in fees or becoming the victim of identity theft.
These credit card rate reduction scams were the most common telephone scam during the first nine months of 2014, a study by Pindrop Security found. Pindrop helps companies prevent phone-based fraud.
Todd Mark, director of fundraising for Navicore Solutions, one of the nation's largest nonprofit credit counseling firms, isn't surprised by the prevalence of the scam. "People feel a bit more confident in the economy or in a better position to try to protect what they have." So when a call comes in offering to help cut their credit card interest rates, "people hear what they want to hear," Mark says. They think, " 'Wow, this just fell into my lap!'"
Pindrop analyzed more than 26,000 comments from online forums and complaint sites, and nearly 20 percent were about credit card rate reduction scams.
The callers promise interest rate reductions, but first the victim needs to pay the caller an upfront fee, Pindrop found. The victims rarely received a rate reduction, and might be asked to disclose personal and financial information, which then can be used to commit identity theft.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, these callers claim they'll save you thousands of dollars in interest and finance charges, and you'll pay off your credit card three to five times faster. Those promises seldom materialize, and victims rarely get their money refunded.
You should never give out your credit card information to callers, the FTC warns. Scammers can use it to make charges to your credit card or sell the information to other bad guys.
Even if a caller offers legitimate services, you don't need to have a third party involved if you want to try to get your credit card interest rate reduced, Mark says. Instead, you can work directly with your creditors or nonprofit consumer credit counseling agencies. Consumer credit counselors will help you for free, looking at your debt, the interest rate you pay and your credit score. They can advise you on how to ask your credit card company for a lower rate, or you can enter into a debt repayment plan for a minimal monthly fee in which the agency will negotiate your interest rates for you and handle bill repayment.
If your credit card company won't budge, you can shop for a new credit card or apply for a bill consolidation loan from your bank or credit union, Mark says.
The credit card rate reduction scam is just the tip of the iceberg, with consumers plagued by scammers doing everything from offering free cruises to threatening arrest because of nonpayment of debt.
In fact, the telephone is the most popular means of communication for shysters, according to Fraud.org. Of the more than 10,000 consumer complaints filed to the site in 2014, more than 40 percent of the scams originated with a phone call, while about 30 percent originated electronically via email.
Of the complaints examined by Pindrop Security, about 60 percent of the phone scams involved the caller impersonating a representative from a government agency or financial institution.
Many of the fraudsters have enough of your personal information, such as part of your Social Security number, your address or your bank account details, to sound legitimate.
The remaining nine top scams identified by Pindrop are:
No. 2. Home security systems: The caller offers a free home security system, and may mention a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood to frighten the victim into action. But the system is far from free. It comes with expensive long-term monitoring costs or fees.
No. 3. Spam text messages: Victims receive a text saying to call a certain number or check a particular website to win a prize. The message is designed to get you to reveal personal information, or to put malware on your computer.
No. 4. Free cruises: This scam involves calls or texts offering victims a free cruise. They're pressured into disclosing credit card information to pay for taxes and fees.
No. 5. Government grants: Victims are told they're receiving a government grant of between $5,000 and $25,000 just for being good citizens. They're charged hundreds of dollars in "processing fees" and may be asked for their bank account information.
No. 6. Microsoft tech support: The caller claims to be from Microsoft tech support and says your computer is infected with a virus. He'll request remote access to your computer to fix the problem and then may install malware to steal your personal information. You may be charge for this "service."
No. 7. Auto insurance: The caller says you're eligible for a lower auto insurance rate and asks for your personal information, which is used for identity theft.
No. 8. Payday loans: The caller targets those who have applied for a payday loan, claiming to be a debt collector. He'll demand payment and late fees. You'll be told to send payment, and you'll be threatened with arrest if you don't pay up.
No. 9. IRS scam: This is a quickly growing problem. Someone claiming to be from the IRS says you owe taxes and penalties. If you don't pay by prepaid card, wire transfer or credit card, you're threatened with arrest or legal action. Your personal information also may be targeted.
No. 10. Bank scams: The caller claims to be from your bank and says there's a lock on your account or a hold has been placed on your debit card. You're asked to verify your financial information, which the bad guys then use.
If you get a call from someone claiming to be from your bank, saying you need to verify your financial information or offering to help reduce your credit card interest rates, red flags should go up, says Chantel Negron, loss prevention manager at Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in Tampa.
Your financial institution may call, but won't ask for your bank account number, PIN or card expiration date because the information is already on file, she says. It also won't ask you to "pay fees upfront and work out a loan on the backside."
Don't fall for Friday scam
Scammers also may make an urgent call on a Friday afternoon, saying your debit card is about to be deactivated and asking for your financial information. "People react to that," Negron says.
If you receive such a call, hang up the phone, then look up your bank's phone number yourself and call directly. Never use a number the caller provides.
Matt Anthony, vice president of marketing at Pindrop Security, said the company's research found "the same bad actors for multiple scams," with several scams run from the same call center.
Some scams, such as the Microsoft tech support scam, have persisted for years. That means they're effective, Anthony says. "The bad guys do what works."
The fraudsters may doctor their phone numbers so it appears as if the call is coming from Microsoft or the IRS.
If you receive a robocall, hang up. Don't press a number to speak to a live person or to get your name removed from their call list. It will just lead to more robocalls.
If you think you've been hit by a credit card interest rate reduction scam or other fraud, you should file a complaint with the FTC, or call 877-FTC-HELP.
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