Scamlines 5: No RIP for latest scam victims

7 new scams — plus PayPal move to block phishers

Is it possible to scam the dearly departed? Absolutely. Separate incidents in this latest Scamlines round-up show two different ways scammers have stolen the identity of recently deceased people. In both cases they were caught — but their crimes can be a warning for all of us, if or when we lose a loved one.

An old “favorite” — the advance fee loan scam — is also among the latest con tricks we’ve uncovered for this week’s Scamlines, along with important news about PayPal’s bid to thwart the scammers.

As our regular look at the scam headlines shows once again, scammers and con artists know no boundaries. They follow the money. What happens in Sweden today or Sacramento tomorrow could show up in your town next week. Please stay on the alert.

1. Scamming the dearly departed #1: The family tree trick

The scam: A woman in Southern California uses a well-known family history site to access the Social Security Administration’s Death List that names people who’ve recently died, along with their birth dates and Social Security numbers.

She uses these details to phone credit card companies about “her” account. Mostly, they tell her they have no account with the name she’s using, but every so often she strikes lucky and finds a card issuer who does have an open account in that name. She gets the finance company to change their address record to a phony one she has set up. Then, she gets to work, maxing out the cards.

Solution: A woman has been caught and charged with this offense. Since the real card owner is no longer alive, the credit card companies take the hit on this scam.

2. Scamming the dearly departed #2: The home thief

The scam: A scammer in Portland, OR, forges the names of dead people to transfer home deeds to a phony organization he runs. Then he sells the homes, netting more than $750,000.

The solution: If you are the executor of a will or relative of a recently deceased person, ensure either you or your lawyer contacts whoever is responsible for land title registers. The scammer in this case has been caught and tried; he’s now awaiting sentence.

3. Another home thief: The rip-off contractor

The scam: We recently reported on rip-off contractors (and we’ll be doing a Special Issue on contractor scams shortly), but this latest incident takes the crime to a whole new level.

An elderly resident of Sacramento, CA, hands over almost $250,000 to a contractor to remodel a house across the street. She’s in a two-story home and wants to move to the other house because it’s a single story and she’s disabled.

The contractor does some work, repeatedly asking for money to finance the project. Eventually he disappears, with most of the work not done or unfinished, leaving the victim deep in debt.

The solution: The victim borrowed against her first home to finance the other. Now she stands to lose both. Ask for and check references on any builder you employ and only advance payments (if you really have to) after completion of each prior phase of the project.

You can find more about home improvement scams here.

4. Top-tenner loan scams still luring victims

The scam: A San Francisco woman wants to launch a business and contacts a company supposedly in Massachusetts, seeking a low interest, $5,000 loan. Hey presto! They tell her: “We got your paperwork and we approved you for a loan at 8.5%, with low repayments.”

It’s so easy and she’s so excited, she doesn’t hesitate when they ask for five months’ payments in advance, and then another $1,000 for “insurance fees”. But later she realizes she’s been scammed when she checks the firm’s name on the Internet. Her money has disappeared somewhere in Canada.

The solution: Advance fees for loans appear regularly in the annual Scambusters Top 10 list of scams (check out our latest Top 10 list of scams here) and this latest story is just one of several we came across this week.

Don’t pay upfront fees to someone you’ve never heard of. Work only with reputable loan companies with a verifiable track record.

5. Cruising to a $400,000 car scam

The scam: Classic car lovers in Sweden and Canada are hooked by mouthwatering ads for old Cadillacs and other vintage autos. The “sellers” follow up the buyers’ inquiries with photos and other encouraging details. At least 11 victims are bilked out of $400,000. Some receive rusty old cars; some get nothing.

The solution: Two people have been arrested and are due to appear in court in Calgary. Buying anything sight-unseen is always a big danger. Risking a few dollars is one thing; handing over $80,000, as one victim did, without any proof, is crazy. Savvy vintage collectors always physically check out vehicles before buying — even if it means jetting across the Atlantic.

6. Oz students sell fake art

The scam: Residents of Western Australia are impressed by seemingly hand painted art, offered at their front doors by students who say they’re trying to raise money to make ends meet. The victims hand over up to $600 dollars for pictures worth only $5.

The solution: This scam is currently active in Australia, the US and Canada. Depending on how the scammer explains the painting, it may not even be illegal — but you’re still being duped. There’s only one fail safe way to avoid this: don’t buy paintings from someone on your doorstep.

7. Targeting the vulnerable

The scam: Identity thieves usually target the most vulnerable victims: the young, the old, or the unsuspecting — like those with language barriers. In Boston, MA, a scammer speaking Mandarin homes in on older members of the city’s Chinese community, claiming to be calling from a Hong Kong company.

To gain credibility, the scammer invites the victim to a Chinese cultural event. He calls again, a few days later, to say the victim has won a prize. It’s an old trick but if you’re not alert to scamming threats, it’s easy to fall for the request for a fee so the “winnings” can be released. Which is what happens here. Of course, there is no prize.

The solution: Whenever you have the opportunity, spread the word about scamming to people who might be easy targets because of their age or their culture.

8. PayPal may block “unsafe browsers”

The news: Online payment service PayPal plans to alert people who use Internet browsers that make them easy targets for identity thieves. And, if that doesn’t work, the firm, which is owned by eBay, says it may even block usage of these browsers.

Old versions of Internet Explorer are especially vulnerable. Some people are still using Version 3 that was released 10 years ago! These and some other browsers do not use latest security technology, known as “Extended Validation SSL Certificates”, that helps block phishing — attempts to steal your financial information by taking you to a phony site.

The solution: Make sure you always use the latest version of your browser software. Stick with the mainstream ones like latest versions of Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer (which we don’t recommend).

There are lots of things you can do to cut the risk of falling victim to the scammers. A key message from this week’s Scamlines is to make sure you pass the word on to others. Tell them about Scambusters — and Scamlines — too!