2007-03-23 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

Audrey Pheffer
Audrey Pheffer Consumer scam artists employ trickery, deception, and other unscrupulous tactics in their efforts to separate consumers from their hard-earned dollars. Fraudsters intent on taking your money are constantly inventing new schemes, and adding new spins to classic scams. When it comes to protecting you and your family from consumer scams, it is important to remain defensive by staying abreast of the latest scams and familiarizing yourself with the best ways to avoid being victimized.

In recent years, phishing has emerged as one of the most prevalent consumer scams. "Phishing" refers to scams in which fraudsters "fish" over the internet for consumer's personal information by impersonating a legitimate business or government agency in an attempt to trick consumers into divulging their personal information such as their account passwords, account numbers, credit card numbers, and Social Security numbers. Many phishing fraudsters use fake e-mail messages, websites, or pop-up messages in their attempts to obtain personal information from unsuspecting consumers. Two high-profile phishing attacks that emerged in 2006 provide a good example of what to look for, and avoid.

An e-mail message purporting to be from the Social Security Administration with the subject "Cost-of-Living for 2007 Update" was widely circulated on the Internet in the second half of 2006. The message described a 3.3 percent benefit increase for 2007 and contained the following: "NOTE: We now need you to update your personal information. If this is not completed by November 11, 2006, we will be forced to suspend your account indefinitely." The reader is then directed to a website designed to look like the Social Security Administration's internet website. Once logged on to the phony website, visitors are asked to confirm their identity by submitting personal information, including their Social Security number, bank account information, and credit card information. If you ever receive a request for personal information through e-mail or a pop-up window, do not respond or click on the link.

If you are concerned about your account, contact the business or organization named in the e-mail or pop-up using a phone number that you know to be valid. You should also forward the e-mail to the named organization or business as well as to spam@uce.gov. Additionally, you may wish to file a complaint at the Federal Trade Commission's website, www.ftc.gov, and visit their identity theft webpage at www.consumer.gov/idtheft because phishing victims may become victims of identity theft.

While many scam artists have embraced high tech devices, others are relying on established technology such as the telephone to perpetrate their crimes. If you receive a call purporting to be from an official of the court explaining that you missed jury duty and need to provide personal information in order to verify your identity, or provide a credit card number to pay a fine and clear up the situation, hang up. Court officers do not ask for confidential information over the phone; they generally correspond with prospective jurors via mail.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, jury scams have been around for years, but have seen a resurgence in recent months. These scams are bold and simple. Victims are often caught off guard and are tempted to resolve the situation quickly by providing the requested information.

Some consumer scams are not overtly criminal. Often it is hard to distinguish between a legitimate business offering and a person or business attempting to take advantage of a consumer's lack of knowledge. It is in this moral gray area that businesses known as record retrieval services exist.

These businesses often canvass entire neighborhoods with solicitations offering to provide homeowners with a copy of the deed to their home for a fee. At least one company operating in the New York City area charges ninety dollars for this service.

I have been contacted by several constituents concerned about the legality and legitimacy of these offers. While such offers are legal, they are certainly overpriced.

According to the New York City Register's Office, property owners can obtain a certified copy of their deed for four dollars per page. Since most deeds are between two and five pages in length, a certified copy can be obtained for between eight and twenty dollars, which is considerably less than the fee charged by some record retrieval businesses.

For more information on the latest fraud schemes, as well as information on how to avoid common schemes, you may want to visit the FBI's Common Fraud Schemes website at:

http://www.fbi.gov/majcases/fraud/fraudschemes.htm. On the site, you can sign up for the Bureau's email notification service, if you would like to receive updates via email when the Bureau posts new fraud schemes.

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