Scamlines 8: Tax scammers strike in US and Australia

Full scale IRS alert tops this week’s headlines

Tax scams — we’ve written about them so many times, but with economic stimulus and refund checks finding their way to millions of homes across the US this month, it’s time to sound a new warning.

Police departments across the nation, the IRS itself, the FTC and a host of consumer organizations have issued a full-scale alert.

And don’t think you’re safe if you’re outside the US. Australian authorities issued a tax scam warning in the past week. Who knows where they’ll strike next?

Also in this week’s round-up of scams in the headlines: a couple of cons based on the American Idol TV show, a cunning scam tricks people into paying for something that’s free and a baffling spam-scam hits a Texas zoo.

1. Tax scam alert #1: New IRS warning

The scam: Although they’ve warned us… oh, seems like a million times already, the IRS issues a new alert as it mails millions of refund and economic stimulus checks.

By phone or email, the scammers, claiming to be the IRS, say your payment is waiting and all they need now are your personal financial details — bank account and Social Security Numbers. Sometimes they even ask for credit card details, saying they’ll pay your refund direct to your credit account. Maybe they’ll even ask you to fill out an official looking form.

Whatever the technique, the scammers are out to steal your identity.

The solution: The IRS does not contact taxpayers about refunds this way. It doesn’t send emails and it doesn’t make phone calls about the economic stimulus payment.

It does not issue special forms for refunds or seek personal financial details except on your main tax return if YOU choose to have your refund sent direct to the bank.

And never click on an email link that appears to come from the IRS. It’s a scam and will just take you to a phony site, or download spyware onto your PC. More about tax scams here.

2. Tax scam alert #2: It’s the same Down Under

The scam: In a mirror-image of the IRS scam, fraudsters email Australian taxpayers with “good news” that they’re entitled to a rebate. Convincingly passing themselves off as the Australian Tax Office, the scammers ask victims to click a link in the email and complete a simple form.

Anyone who falls for it gives personal details and surrenders their identity to these criminals.

The solution: Ditto the above. The ATO doesn’t use emails to announce refunds.

3. A pricey bargain in-deed

The scam: Here’s a new take on an old trick. In Toledo, OH, a scammer phones homeowners to offer a real bargain — a copy of their house deeds for just $69.95. Regular: $100.

Sounds like a steal. And it is. Any homeowner can go to the local courthouse, where deeds are kept, and make a copy for 10 cents.

The solution: Several hundred people fell for this before the scam hit the headlines. A bargain is not a bargain just because someone says it is. Always price check against anything you’re planning to buy.

4. The worst kind of scam

The scam: In Cass County, TX, a state trooper is killed in a traffic stop, and friends launch a memorial fund for his family. Scammers get busy phoning locals, asking for money and/or personal financial details (which will later be used in ID theft).

The solution: Whenever someone from the military, police, fire department or other rescue service agency dies in action, it signals the worst type of scammer to swing into action.

If you want to donate, contact the service direct — or check the local media for fund details.

5. Is it ‘plane? Is it a scam?

The come-on: Open an account or get a new credit card and, when you buy an airline ticket, your companion can fly with you for free.

We’ve all seen this kind of offer. But a Torrington, CT, man calls “foul” after discovering that the price he pays for a qualifying single ticket from the free-flights firm — a separate company from the one he gets his new card account from – would buy him two seats elsewhere. One way or another, he’s paying for both.

The solution: Is it a scam? Connecticut’s Attorney General says it could be, but the operator says that’s the way it does business and that it has plenty of satisfied customers.

The victim didn’t lose any money, of course. But he didn’t gain anything either. It makes sense to do what he did — check the true value of the offer. He complained to the credit card company who refunded the money they charged for his account membership.

6. American Idol scam #1: You won the sweepstakes!

The scam: Surely you wouldn’t fall for this as a Scambusters subscriber: You get a bogus check as payment for something you’re selling or as a prize, with a request to return part of the money as some sort of fee or overpayment correction. You send the payment and then the check you received bounces. Come on; that’s old hat.

But what about a letter supposedly from your cable TV company in San Joaquin, CA, that says you won the American Idol sweepstakes through a random drawing of viewers who watched the top-rated show on a particular day? Look, here’s your check. Just send a payment to cover the pesky government fees associated with TV competitions. Neat trick.

The solution: Cable companies don’t know what you’re watching unless you have a Neilsen Ratings box.

Bottom line: It’s still the same old trick. You can’t win a competition you didn’t enter. This is a combo of the check overpayment and lottery winner scams. Read more about overpayment scams and lottery scams here.

7. American Idol scam #2: The Kelly Clarkson pickup pick-up

The scam: A supposed “associate” of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson tells the sales manager of a Houston, TX, truck dealership that the star is in town and wants to buy a sparkling new Ford F-150 truck for her sister.

The manager drives the truck, and the conman, to a local mall, valet parks it, and the pair go into the mall in search of the star. The conman splits from his victim, saying he’s going to fetch Kelly. In reality, he returns to the valet, picks up the pickup and drives away.

The solution: Celebrity names just give some people stars in their eyes. Why believe a person just because they tell you they’re connected to the rich and famous? Watch out for that clever trick of leaving the vehicle with a valet. And don’t blame Kelly.

8. Hoots in Houston

The scam: Let’s stay in Houston. Maybe it’s someone’s idea of a joke — thousands of cell phones owners receive a text message, asking them to call a Mr. G Raff at a certain phone number, that turns out to be Houston Zoo [G(i)raff(e) — geddit?].

Others are told to call “Ellie Fant”, “Anna Conda” and “Mr. Lion”. No one knows the reason for the pranks — there was a similar one at a zoo in Dublin, Ireland earlier this year — but the Houston zoo called in the FBI after its switchboard was jammed with more than 250 calls an hour, which went on for days.

The solution: Really, who would phone a zoo and ask for Mr Giraffe — Dr Doolittle?

Scammers trade on the believability of their tricks – and there’s no shortage of believers. Watch out for them in your neighborhood, on your PC or on your cell phone. And don’t go talking to animals!