Tis’ the Season to Get Ripped Off, if Your’re Not Careful

 

Published in Pawtucket Times on November 23, 2015 

             With just a little over 30 days left to Christmas, a newly released AARP Fraud Watch Network telephone poll finds that 70 percent of American consumers failed a quiz about how to protect themselves from common holiday scams.  Many of the survey’s respondents, age 18 and over, say they are regularly engaging in risky behaviors which could put them at risk of being victimized by con artists during the approaching holidays..

The 26-page report, “Beware the Grinch: Consumers at Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays,” details AARP’s random polling results of consumers about their knowledge of the most common scams occurring before holidays, including those related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries, and use of public Wi-Fi.  Seventy percent of the respondents were only able to answer correctly four or fewer questions out of a total of seven questions

“While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts,” warns Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP.  “We’re encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season,” she says.

Prompted by the dismal survey results, AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has launched an education campaign, including a new web page, www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/fraud-watch-network, specifically designed to educate the public about the top five holiday scams:

Charitable Giving

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2015 Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity.  Government officials who regulate nonprofit charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85-90% of the money they raise.

AARP’s survey finds that 70 percent of the respondents who donated to a charity or fundraiser in the past 12 months did so without even asking any questions about how that donation would be spent, and 60 percent made donations without verifying that the charity groups were legally authorized to raise money in their state. .

The pollsters say that about a third of the respondents admitted that they don’t know (15%) or aren’t sure (18%) that, in most states, professional fundraisers must be registered with the government and report how much funds they raise and how much goes to the charitable purpose.  Less than one in ten (8%) could correctly name the government agency they should contact to verify the legitimacy of the charity or fundraiser (the correct answer: Office of the State Secretary).

Gift Cards

Fraud experts warn that scammers sometimes hit store gift card racks, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds.

Fifty-eight percent of AARP’s survey respondents say they plan to buy gift cards from a rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store this holiday season for gifts.  Only 54 percent knew that the gift cards purchased from a gift card rack at retail stores are “not safe” from hackers or thieves than gift cards purchased online.

Pull Out that Credit Card

The AARP survey findings note that almost two-thirds of the holiday shoppers surveyed (64%) say they will buy holiday gifts this year using a debit card.  Consumer protection experts advise using credit cards rather than debit cards for most purchases, to better protect the buyer from fraud and theft.  With credit cards, you are financially liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use.  But with a lost or stolen debit card, the scam can be more costly and hit you hard in your pocketbook

Surf Safely on Public Wi-Fi

The survey findings found that holiday shoppers incorrectly believe that it is safe to access “sensitive” financial information via a free Wi-Fi network.   About 52 percent of internet users in this survey say they will use free public Wi-Fi in making purchases or to do their banking.  Many of them, while using public Wi-Fi, will make purchases (42%), access their bank accounts (28%), and check their credit card accounts (16%).

Package Signoffs Reduce Scams

The AARP survey findings indicate that over 40 percent of holiday shoppers are unaware that package delivery companies are not responsible for stolen packages that are left at your front door without requiring a delivery signature.  Seventy nine percent of the respondents claim that they ship packages to friends without requiring a signature at least some of the time. Seventy-three percent indicate that they have received home deliveries without having to provide a signature “some” or “all of the time.”

AARP Fraud Watch Protects Consumers

In Rhode Island, AARP has deployed a corps of volunteers who travel around the Ocean State, with a presentation introducing the Fraud Watch Network and offering attendees free copies of “The Con Artist’s Playbook, a brochure written by former con artists, revealing their techniques they use to steal identities. Fraud Watch was AARP’s central theme at last summer’s tournament week at the Newport-based International Tennis Hall of Fame and volunteers were enrolling people as recently as last week at a Providence Bruins game. To date, more than 1,200 Rhode Islanders have signed up for the free fraud alert this year.

“Con artists think they can bully people into forking over their hard-earned money,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell said. “That’s why today, we’re turning the tables on them and arming Rhode Islanders with the information they need. This require constant vigilance, and the upcoming holiday season is a time when con artists up their game,” she says.

Connell notes that groups of a dozen or more can request a Fraud Watch presentation by calling the AARP state office at 401-248-2671. In 2016, AARP wants to train more volunteers to present Fraud Watch in their communities and to point people to AARP resources designed to combat fraud.

People are more aware of telephone and online scams than ever before,” Connell said. “But the con artists manage to keep one step ahead, inventing new and disarming ways to punch people’s emotional buttons and lead them to a place where they make bad and sometime terribly costly decisions.”

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin whose office works to alerts and educate consumers about the latest scams making their way through Rhode Island noted that despite the news of increased scams during the holidays, a little perspective is important, “the true meaning of Christmas is about celebrating family and friends and being thankful for what we have.”

 

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AARP Report: Using Public Wireless Network Can Be Costly

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 2, 2015

This week Rhode Islanders learned about a secret NSA map obtained exclusively by NBC News detailing China’s cyber attack on all sectors of the U.S economy, including major firms like Google and Lockheed Martin, as well as the U.S. government and military.

But, they also learned that the stealing of personal and financial information isn’t just taking place nationally at federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies but throughout the state, too.  Internet users who put convenience ahead of protecting financial information stored on their laptops and mobile devices are becoming more susceptible to hackers, too, says a newly released 21 page AARP report.

Giving Hackers Easy Access to Your Personal Info

A new survey of internet users, ages 18 and over, released on July 29, 2015, shows that the freedom and convenience of public wireless networks may come at a cost. Nearly half failed a quiz about online and wireless safety, while tens-of-thousands admit to engaging in activity that could put them squarely in the sights of hackers looking to steal their personal information.

An AARP Fraud Watch Network report, “Convenience versus Security,” shows that among adults who access the Internet, a quarter (25%) use free public Wi-Fi once per week or more. “A free Wi-Fi network at an airport, hotel or coffee shop is convenient,” said Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island. “But without a secure network, Americans risk over sharing, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks by con artists and hackers.”

In response to these cyber threats recognizing the need for greater awareness of the risks of internet scams, the Washington, DC-based AARP is launching the “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign to educate Americans about the risks of free public Wi-Fi and how they can protect themselves.

Researchers identified a high incidence of risky online behaviors that might lead to financial theft and fraud.  According to the findings, among those who say they use free public Wi-Fi, more than a quarter of respondents (27%) say they have banked online via public Wi-Fi in the last three months.  Similarly, 27% of those who use free public Wi-Fi have purchased a product or service over public Wi-Fi using a credit card.

Additionally, the findings noted that 26% of the respondents who use smartphones do not use a pass code on their phones.  Sixty one percent do not have online access to all of their bank accounts.  Finally, among those who have set up access to all or some of their online banking accounts, almost half (45%) say they have not changed their online banking passwords in the past 90 days. Experts say that online bank account passwords should be changed every 90 days.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The researchers found that nearly half of survey respondents (45%) failed a quiz about online and wireless safety.  The findings also indicated that approximately 40% of respondents were not aware that it is not okay to use the same password on more than one site even if it contains a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols.  Even if you are not using the Internet, if you’re in a location with a public Wi-Fi network, you should disable your wireless connection, say the researchers, adding that it is NOT safe to access websites with sensitive information, such as banking or credit cards, while using a public Wi-Fi network, even if the website is secured by https.

More than 8 in 10 (84%) people surveyed did not know that the most up-to-date security for a home Wi-Fi network is NOT WEP — Wired Equivalent Privacy.  Experts advise using at least WPA2 wireless encryption for better protection.

“The Fraud Watch Network’s “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign is giving Rhode Islanders the information they need to stay connected without sacrificing their personal security,” Connell added.

Protecting Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

A newly launched FWN cyber scam website features “Four Things Never to Do on Public Wi-Fi”   You can protect your financial data by following these website pointers.  First, “Don’t fall for a fake.”  Scam artists often set up unsecure networks with names similar to a legitimate business, coffee shop, hotel or other free Wi-Fi network.  Always “Mind your business.”  To reduce indentity theft and fraud, do not access your email, online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.  Always “Watch your settings” too.  Keep your mobile device from automatically connecting to nearby Wi-Fi.  Finally, “Stick to your cell:” Don’t surf the internet by using an unknown public network if the website requires sensitive information – like online shopping.  Your cell phone network is safer to use. .

“The survey by AARP on Americans’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online is alarming.  With more people online than ever before, the public needs to be more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace and take the necessary measures to protect to protect themselves from being a victim of cyber crimes and scams,” said Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, whose Consumer Protection Unit is often the first place consumers call when they have been victimized online.

Attorney General Kilmartin offers these pointers on how to protect yourself while cruising cyberspace:  When creating a password for an online account, the key to remember is to make it “long and strong,” with a minimum of eight characters and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.  Always use dual verification and ask for protection beyond passwords based on information only you would know, like your first elementary school or the name of your first pet. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.  Finally, use different passwords for different devices and different accounts.

According to Kilmartin, it may be easier to remember one simple password for all your accounts, but you make it easier for hackers to figure out your password and gain access to all your online accounts.  “I write down my passwords in a notebook which is kept in a safe place, separate from my electronic devices. This may seem like a cumbersome step, but trust me, it’s much easier than trying to reclaim your identity and clean up your credit if someone steals your identity,” he says.

Pawtucket Police Chief Paul King sees increase in identity theft and fraud in the City of Pawtucket.  It’s a national trend, he notes.

“In many incidences these crimes are perpetrated far beyond the borders of the United States,” says King, noting that Detective Hans Cute is assigned to the cyber and financial crimes beat.  Detective Cute has received specialized training and works very closely with the US Secret Service, US Postal Service, and other state and federal agencies when this type of crime occurs, he says.

Pawtucket residents can report a cyber and identity theft crime to Detective Cute at (401) 727-9100, Ext. 758.  For Woonsocket residents, call the Woonsocket Police Department at (401) 766-1212.

If you would like to schedule the Attorney General’s Office to visit your organization for a consumer protection presentation, please visit www.riag.ri.gov or call 401-274-4400 and ask for the Consumer Protection Unit.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.