Friday, November 21, 2014

In the Market for a New Home? Renters, beware!

When it comes to looking for a place to live, websites and apps like Zillow, Trulia, Craigslist and ultimately offer consumers everything they need without picking up the phone. With the touch of a few buttons, an application fee, security deposit and first month’s rent can all be wired to the homeowner before they even show the property.
Once you find the perfect place, all you have to do is wire the money to the homeowner who happens to be out of the country, but has a plan to get the keys in your hand - perhaps through an “agent” or lawyer working on their behalf. 

Here’s the catch – some of these listings don’t exist or are posted by fraudsters. And once you wire the money, it’s gone. As we’ve seen locally and warned about in the past, some scammers hijack legitimate listings by changing the contact information and posting them on a different site. Maybe the photos are of a home that isn’t even up for rent, or listed at an address that doesn’t exist! Whatever the case, if you haven’t done your homework you can say goodbye to the money you sent.

Here’s a suggestion. If you contact the homeowner, “Realtor” or “manager” by email or online and receive a reply with these characteristics, steer clear and reconsider how you’re searching:  

1. The email starts out with Sir/Madam
2. There are misspellings scattered through the email
3. Character mistakes are ample: i.e. Hello,my nameis Susie.
4. Excessive capitilization is used
5. The email references the UK, Cashier's Checks, Doctors, Nigeria, etc. 
6. The writer prefers to communicate via email and doesn't want to talk on the phone

If you think you may be a target of a rental scam, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. And as always, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

They billed you HOW much? Warning Signs of Medicare Fraud

While it’s safe to assume that most physicians and healthcare providers practice with integrity, we would be foolish not to believe that there are a few bad eggs out there taking advantage of consumers. Medicare fraud wastes millions of dollars every year and results in higher taxes for everyone. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provides online tools to help detect and prevent fraud and abuse. Let’s say you’re looking over a Medicare bill and suddenly feel completely overwhelmed. How can you tell if you’ve been overcharged and if so, who can you trust enough to tell? Begin by looking for resources and ask for help. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Let’s say you’re not a victim, but have suspicions about your provider. Here are some of the warning signs to look for:

  • Your provider offers equipment or service for free, tells you it won’t cost you anything and they only need your Medicare number for their records
  • Your provider tells you they “know how to get Medicare to pay” for the equipment or service
  • The more tests they provide, the cheaper the tests become
  • They tell you they won’t charge you a copayment without first checking your ability to pay
  • They use pressure or scare tactics to sell you high-priced equipment or medical services or threaten to withhold care 

Be wary of suspicious providers and continue to stay on top of your personal healthcare. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Warning about the IRS Scam

The latest scam to sweep the U.S. is reaching citizens right here in Sarasota County. It comes from a seemingly familiar entity – the IRS – and here’s how it happens: A citizen receives a phone call from area code 202 (Washington, D.C.) with a voice on the other end of the line claiming to be an IRS employee warning of an impending lawsuit. If no one answers, they simply leave a message. Some scammers even go as far as to alter their phone number so that you will read ‘IRS’ on the caller ID. Victims claim that the caller threatens to have their utilities shut off, driver’s license revoked or even have them sent to jail. Scammers are frequently hostile and aggressive, apparently in an attempt to intimidate their potential victims.

Some of the characteristics of the scam include:

  • The caller using a fake name and IRS badge number
  • The caller might recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number
  • Callers follow up with bogus IRS emails to support their phone calls
  • Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site
  • After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up and others soon call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim

 Here’s what the IRS tells us about this scam:

  • If you know you owe taxes or you think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. The employees at that line will help with payment issues, if you have any
  • If you know you don't owe taxes or have no reason to think that you owe any taxes (for example, you've never received a bill or the caller made some bogus threats as described above), then call and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484
  • File a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant; choose "Other" and then "Imposter Scams.” If the complaint involves someone impersonating the IRS, include the words "IRS Telephone Scam" in the notes

Our advice – if area code ‘202’ pops up on your caller ID, don’t pick up. Allow the caller to leave a message and use your best judgment in returning their call. Something else we learned from the IRS – if you do actually owe them money, they will contact you in person or by certified mail. No one is going to call you and they’re certainly not going to turn off your power! 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Consumer Fraud: Who's Really at Risk?

You may have heard about our recent sting, Operation Freelancer, where deputies arrested 19 local unlicensed contractors attempting to offer their services to undercover deputies. The intent of the investigation was to encourage those practicing without a license to become insured but also for many reasons beneficial to consumers. While safety is priority, so is the financial obligation of the client as well as the opportunity for civil litigation in the event that something goes wrong. When Operation Freelancer launched the same time as International Fraud Awareness Week, we knew it was a perfect opportunity to look at consumer fraud and talk about who’s most at risk.

In a 2011 survey conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), characteristics of fraud victims included consumers who were more willing to take risks, experienced a serious negative life event or had limited numeric skills. In terms of demographic, those between ages 55 and 74 had the greatest chance of becoming victims of fraud. Whether through phony TV and radio ads, snail-mail or phone calls from ‘distant grandchildren,’ it seems the elderly are most likely to buy into the sales pitch. Some argue it’s a lack of technological expertise and others even claim it’s a cognitive change in the aging brain. Either way, as a retirement-based community, our agency’s efforts in crime prevention focus heavily on fraud and opportunities for public education. Later this week, we’ll dive into the most common types of schemes and what you can do to avoid them.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pizza Scam Dishes Up Malware, Not Deal

An email offering free pizza in honor of Pizza Hut's 55th anniversary is making the rounds of inboxes. The email looks valid at first glance and even carries a copyright notice in the bottom corner. But there's no free pizza, it's not even Pizza Hut's anniversary. And if you click the link for the coupon you get nothing but malware. Read all about it here.

Scammers are quite crafty at sending out emails that appear legitimate, but a little research can reduce your chance of problems. Always be suspicious and check for scams. For more cyber security tips visit

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween Safety Tips

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office wants all children to enjoy Halloween festivities this week.

Motorists should use extreme caution and drive slowly to avoid accidents with children who might be distracted by the festivities. Citizens should keep doors locked, even if you are just "out front" handing out candy, to prevent burglars from taking advantage of the holiday. 

Here are some additional reminders to help keep trick-or-treaters safe:
  • Try to trick-or-treat in groups. 
  • Never allow small children to visit a door without a trusted adult. 
  • Parents should always accompany trick-or-treaters, no matter how old the children are.
  • Only approach well-lit homes where porch or exterior lights are ON. 
  • Look both ways before crossing streets and use sidewalks whenever possible.
  • Avoid shortcuts through back yards, alleys or parks. 
  • Eat only factory-wrapped treats and never eat anything homemade from strangers.
  • Examine all candy for choking hazards and tampering. 
  • Be cautious around pets and other animals. 
  • Keep costumes short to prevent tripping/falling. 
  • Make sure masks or head coverings do not hinder eyesight. 
  • Wear light-colored costumes or add reflective tape to dark clothing. 
  • Have children carry glow sticks or flashlights to help them see and be seen. 
  • Report any and all suspicious activity to law enforcement immediately. 
Another way to ensure the safety of trick-or-treaters is to attend public, organized events. Instead of visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods consider Halloween festivities at malls, churches or events sponsored by local businesses.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Another day... another data breach, along with some helpful tips.

Some 76 million households were affected by a cyberattack against JPMorgan Chase, the nation's largest bank. Whether you're a customer of theirs or not, no doubt you have seen the stories of significant data breaches for major retailers on an almost weekly basis. So how do you protect yourself? Industry experts explain what scams you might expect to see and some tips about how to handle them.

  1. Don't click on email links. After big data breaches, scammers start sending out emails. The emails may mention Chase or past breaches. Never click on any links. Malware could be downloaded to your computer and steal account passwords and other sensitive information.
  2. Watch your mailbox. Thieves could also send letters. Some might claim you've won a tablet, vacation or other valuable prize and give you a phone number to call. Don't do it - it might be a way to get more personal information from you.
  3. Hang u the phone and ignore texts that aren't from people you know. Since phone numbers of Chase customers were stolen, be wary of calls asking for account numbers. Crooks are sending texts now too so don't click any links from numbers you don't know.
  4. Don't overlook small charges. Criminals will charge smaller amounts to your credit card, usually under $10, to see if you notice, then charge a larger amount later. It's best to check online statements for suspicious activity once a week.