“Holidays are a time of celebration and giving,” said City Attorney Mike Feuer in a recent video message to the community. But, “they’re also a time that can be fraught with peril, if one purchases counterfeit or recalled goods, and if one contends with other seasonally-related scams.”
In the video (posted in full at the bottom of this story), Feuer goes on to discuss several of the scams his office has dealt with recently, including counterfeit (and unsafe) cell phone chargers, recalled bike helmets found for sale at K-Mart, fake charities that use names and websites close-to-but-not-the-same-as those of legitimate charities, and a variety of purchase scams in which vendors demand payment via cash, gift cards and wire transfers instead of the more usual credit card or check payments.
But these aren’t the only scams we’ve seen circulating recently, and because this seems to be a particularly scam-a-licious time of year, it also seems like a good time to pass along a few warnings about people and organizations that are working hard this holiday season to separate your from your money. Here are some scams that either we or people we know have encountered recently.
The scam: A phone call from “LADWP,” warning that you are behind on your bills and your power and/or water will be turned off in a matter of minutes if you don’t make an immediate payment to continue your service.
How it hooks you: We’re all at least a bit vulnerable to feeling guilty if we somehow missed a bill payment…and most of us are busy and/or distracted enough to think it’s possible we might have unintentionally missed seeing or paying at least one bill.
How you know it’s a scam: LADWP does not call customers to notify them about late payments or utility shutoffs. If you are behind in your payments, you will receive paper notices in the mail, just like your regular bills (but more insistent).
What to do: Hang up immediately.
For more information: See utilitiesunited.org
The scam: A phone call that goes something like this:
Caller: “Hello, this is X from Dr. Brown’s office. We had you on a waiting list for an appointment and a space finally opened up. Can I schedule you to come in?”
Recipient: “No, I don’t think I ever made a request…and I don’t see a Dr. Brown.”
Caller: “Well, this was a few months ago. Are you still having the problem?”
Recipient: “No, I don’t think so. What problem?”
Caller: “You’re not in pain? No migraines?”
Recipient: “No. This sounds like a marketing call and I’m not interested.”
Caller: “I assure you, it’s 100% covered for PPO members.”
How it hooks you: Most of us have medical issues we’ve been dealing with for a lengthy period of time, and many of us have made rounds of calls looking for a doctor or specialist for one of those issues. Also, invariably, one or more of those inquiries has resulted in being turned away from a potential health care provider because they were too booked up or not taking new patients when we called. So it’s easy to believe one of them might be calling us back.
How you know it’s a scam: You don’t recognize the doctor’s name, and you don’t remember asking to be put on a waiting list for an appointment. Also, the caller is extremely vague about your condition (only hinting at a couple of very general issues that a great many people suffer from). And, finally, when confronted with a direct inquiry about the nature of the call, the caller dodges the question with the fishy “don’t worry, it’s free” message and still tries to pressure the call recipient into scheduling an appointment.
What to do: Hang up. And if you do remember that a provider you were interested in might still have you on a waiting list, call their office directly to see if anything has opened up.
The scam: You type “Amazon” into a Google search box. When the search results come up, the one at the top of the list is a sponsored listing with a link to Amazon.com. But when you click on it, you get a very scary “Microsoft Warning” and “Windows Activation Error” page obliterating everything else on your screen.
How it hooks you: You clicked on what looked like a link to Amazon, which you generally trust to be a reliable site, and ended up with a very scary warning that your computer will be locked up if you try to click away or shut down your browser…so you don’t know what to do next, except follow the steps in the warning (which may actually install a dangerous virus or “ransome-ware” on your computer, and which will then lead to further attempts to get you to pay for debugging or another solution you don’t really need, or at least wouldn’t have needed if you didn’t click on the scary warning screen).
How you know it’s a scam: Although the “ad” at the top of the search results looks like a regular Amazon link, and Amazon does run such paid search results, those kinds of links are not as reliable as the links in non-sponsored search results. Also, such “lock your computer” warnings are often either bogus, or actually installers for the very kind of malware they purport to guard against. (NEVER click on them!)
What to do: Again, DO NOT click on anything in the warning message. DO close the browser tab containing the warning. (It won’t damage your computer to do that.) To be even safer, close and re-open your whole browser window. Or, to be even more safe, after closing the alarming tab and/or browser window, reboot your computer before continuing. Then, when you’ve rid yourself of the scam notice, simply type “amazon.com” into the URL bar on your broswer (NOT into a Google search box), to go right to Amazon’s site without using a search engine. If you do try typing “Amazon” into a Google search box again, ignore any paid or sponsored links at the top of the search results list (they’re always labeled as such), and scroll down until you find the non-paid link to Amazon, or another site you want to visit, in the search results.
Bonus information: If you’re not already aware of the difference between web browsers (Chrome, Safari, etc.) and search engines (Google, et al), it’s worth learning. Web browsers display individual websites – like Amazon – and you type the website address into the browser’s URL bar to be taken directly to that site. Search engines, on the other hand, help you search for the address (URL) of a website, if you don’t already know it. So you could type in something like “book store” to see a list of various booksellsers, both online and brick and mortar. Then you could click on the link of one of those vendors that apears in the search results list to be taken directly to their website. This is handy if you don’t know a website’s specific address…but it’s not necessary to use a search engine when you do already know an address, such as Amazon.com. And using a search engine to get to a website, when you already know the address (as with Amazon.com) adds additional clicks to your path to the well-known website and – at the same time – also provides opportunities for scammers (like the fake Amazon ad) to insert themselves between you and your target site.
The scam: A phone call says you are being sued by the IRS (or a lawsuit is imminent), and you risk going to jail if you don’t pay back taxes immediately…OR that your Social Security benefits have been cancelled and you must act now to restore them.
How it Hooks You: Reciving this kind of sudden and dire warning always feels a bit “off,” but no one likes being told they’re being sued or about to be arrested. And it’s natural to want to make sure, asap, that something this dire isn’t really happening.
How you know it’s a scam: As with LADWP, neither the IRS nor the Social Security Administration will ever call you with news like this. They work exclusively by paper mail, and many notices would be provided before anything as dire as cancelling your benifits, suing you, or sending you to jail could ever happen – those are end steps in very long processes, not sudden decisions. So this kind of message, from out of the blue, is just too dire to ever be true.
What to do: Hang up immediately.
The scam: A phone call from “Microsoft” or “Apple,” saying there’s a problem with your account or your computer.
How it hooks you: Many people don’t really have a good sense of how their computers work, and whether or not companies like Microsoft and/or Apple can or do monitor their systems remotely. If you have a Windows-based or Macintosh computer, and the parent company (Microsoft or Apple) calls to tell you there’s a problem with your system, it might be at least a bit worrisome.
How you know it’s a scam: Microsoft and Apple do not monitor computers like this, and – with the exception of regularly scheduled software updates and occasional security notices – do not reach out to customers with messages like this. Also, when they do, they use the technology they specialize in – your computer – not the telephone.
What to do: Hang up immediately.
The scam(s): Someone knocks on your door, and when you answer, they say they are looking for a friend, but just realized they have the wrong address…or they’re selling magazine subscriptions to benefit a local high school sports team…or they’re not selling anything, but they want you to sponsor them in a leadership competition…or they’re collecting for funeral expenses for a family in the neighborhood that just lost a child or other relative.
How it hooks you: Most people want to be compassionate and help others, especially when those others are neighbors and fellow community members. Also, in a big city, we don’t always know all of our neighbors, so we can believe person at the door might live in our neighborhood, even if we don’t remember seeing them before.
How you know it’s a scam: Any of the messages above is suspect because they’ve been used so many times, over so many years, by so many scammers (this reporter has personally experienced every single one of them, more than once). Also, in the case of high school sports teams, you should know that NO local schools, public or private, allow students to go door to door for fundraising activities. This is something that used to be done decades ago, but all schools now recognize it as unsafe for their students, and they now use other kinds of fundraising sales instead. (You can call your local school to verify this.)
What to do: Politely refuse to help the person at the door, close the door, and make sure all your other doors and windows are closed and locked, too. Also be aware that, in addition to potentially talking you out of money, this kind of scammer may be searching for houses where no one is home, as potential break-in targets. So after you turn the person away at your door, it’s a good idea to also report the incident to LAPD’s non-emergency line – (1-877-ASK-LAPD), to your LAPD Senior Lead Officer, and also to other neighbors on your block through your local neighborhood association, neighborhood watch group or phone tree, social media, and – if you have one – your private security company. (But always start with the police. They cannot track or work to prevent activity like this if they don’t know about it.)
While none of the above scams will hook everyone, all of them can trap at least some of us, especially when we’re busy, distracted and stressed by other holiday-season activity. Also, seniors may be particularly vulnerable, since they may be less comfortable with and knowledgeable about technology, as well as more prone to forgetting whether or not they’ve paid a critical bill, and eager to rectify the situation if they have.
So as this holiday season progresses, please be aware of the scams going around, be very wary of any kind of notice, phone call, or warning that seems in the least bit odd or unwarranted…and also watch out for family members who might be particularly susceptible to these scammers’ messages. It’s a great way to make sure everyone has a happier holiday season.