Scamlines 42: New Scams Uncovered as ID Theft Toll Soars to 10m

Real estate and identity theft cons snare more victims, state falls for $2.5m trick

Real estate and identify theft scams provide the main focus for our new round-up of the scam headlines.

We have the latest figures on the scale of ID theft in the US and news of a sneaky trick using parking tickets to try to steal people’s personal details. Phony jobs are also back on the scene, again as a route to getting hold of private information.

Among our real estate stories, we have a report of a scam that used forged home ownership documents to prey on victims and a worthless circular that supposedly details a free land giveaway.

In addition, there’s a new tax refund trick about, a letter that tries to get parents to pay a fee for a student aid application, and the embarrassing story of how one state handed over $2.5m to scammers.

1. ID theft toll hits almost 10 million, costs $48 billion

The scams: Although identify theft is a very difficult thing to measure, one new study from research outfit Javelin Strategy says that ID theft claimed 9.9 million victims in the US in 2008, costing $48 billion dollars.

Crooks also speed up the time it takes from theft to cashing in on it with stolen cards and other information. 71% of incidents take place within a week, up from just 33% previously.

“Crimes of opportunity, such as information from lost wallets, still comprise the vast majority of incidents,” says Javelin president James Van Dyke.

The solution: Van Dyke says we’re actually getting somewhat better at taking steps to protect ourselves from ID theft. Visit Scambusters’ Identity Theft Information Center for more help.

2. Fake parking tickets lead to malware download

The scam: Drivers in Grand Forks, ND, discover parking tickets on their windshields, claiming some sort of violation. The “citations” detail a website that car owners are supposed to visit for more details and to pay the fine.

At the website, victims are told they need to install a toolbar to enable the incident to be processed. In fact, it downloads a Trojan horse virus that opens the way to identity theft.

The solution: This is a new one on us. Sneaky! Even though the scam starts out in the real world of a parking lot, it still leads to an online ruse to get you to download a virus.

Security software should alert you to this malware. But, anyway, don’t download and install programs from people and organizations you don’t know.

The “tickets” should have been checked out with law enforcement, or property owners if they were on private property.

3. Euro job scams seek ID info for loan applications

The scam: With unemployment on the rise worldwide, fake job ads are cropping up everywhere. In Ireland, a newspaper ad for a job at Dublin Airport turns out to be bogus, but not before several applicants hand over personal details.

Same goes for an online ad for charity workers for the United Nations in Geneva.

In both cases, communication is by email. Police think the motive is to get personal info and employment to use in a loan application.

The solution: Verify the identity and authenticity of an employment advertiser before giving them information about yourself. Don’t email it to someone you don’t know.

Work-at-home job scams are also on the rise. Read more about them here.

4. Free land deal ended 33 years ago

The scam: Mailers and online ads claim the Government is disposing of land for free and homes at super-bargain prices. They offer to sell you a list of inside information, giving you first dibs on what’s available.

In fact, there’s no free land; the Homesteading Act which gave away land to settlers in Western states, was scrapped 33 years ago. And lists of state-owned foreclosed homes are publicly available for free.

The solution: “Inside” information often turns out to be the opposite where scams are concerned. The idea of getting land for nothing is nearly as crazy as buying lots on the moon — which people really have also done. 😉

For free information on Government land sales (which are always at market prices), contact the Bureau of Land Management and for details of Government owned houses (sold by competitive tender) contact the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

5. Gang dupes victims with forged home ownership docs

The scam: A gang of crooks create bogus ownership documents for more than 80 abandoned or vacant homes in poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia, PA. The homes are then “sold” to non-English-speaking locals.

Some of the victims subsequently pay more money to get repairs done, only to later discover they don’t own the buildings.

The solution: It’s hard to protect individuals in these circumstances until law enforcement catches up with the crooks, which took four years in this case.

Fifteen people have now been charged in connection with the scam.

Scammers also try to rent out homes they don’t own. See this article on homes listed on Craig’s List for more info.

6. Property tax reassessment — for $179

The scam: Residents of Lake County and other parts of Southern California receive what appear to be official letters saying their property values have been over-assessed. They can be reassessed for a fee of $179, to be mailed to a PO Box in Los Angeles.

“It’s just strictly a scam,” says Lake County deputy assessor Jim Campbell.

The solution: While not strictly illegal to offer to review someone’s property tax assessment, it’s totally unnecessary and cannot be enforced — if that’s what the writer of this letter ever intended to do.

You can ask questions or seek a reassessment direct from your County Assessor’s office.

7. Student aid letter misleads parents

The scam: Another phony fee scam hits parents of Wisconsin students — a letter asking for $49 so they can apply for financial aid.

It includes a “Student Aid Profile” form and looks the business, with an “official” seal. But the fine print suggests it’s really a scholarship-search program or a competition, though the prize is not specified. It’s definitely not part of the financial aid application process.

The solution: Again, this may not be an illegal communication but it clearly is intended to mislead parents into thinking it’s part of the college aid application process.

Don’t take documents at face value. Study them, including logos and the fine print, carefully. Addresses should tie in with those of the relevant funding authorities — double check them in the phone book or online.

Student financial aid forms can also create a route for identity theft. Don’t get caught out — check out this article, which is part of our identity theft advice for college students.

8. Tax tricksters nab $600 refunds

The scam: Unscrupulous tax form preparers tell customers that if they’re due a refund of more than $600 they have to repay the stimulus money they received last year. Not true. But they deduct the money before handing over your refund.

The solution: Use only reputable firms and individuals for your tax returns. Don’t be lured to others by low fees or promises of big refunds.

Check out today’s Scambusters issue for an update on IRS tax scams, as well as this article on other IRS scams.

9. Scammers clean up on Australia fire disaster

The scam: The terrible bush fires sweeping through Australia bring out the scammers in force, making bogus charity collections and selling fake raffle tickets supposedly to help victims.

The solution: Unless you know for sure who the collector is, send your donations directly to the Red Cross or other established relief charities.

Learn more about charity scams here.

10. State hands $2.5m to scammers

The scam: The State of Utah makes payments of $2.5m into a phony bank account set up by crooks.

The scammers use information stolen via a key-logging program, and forge signatures to change the bank account of the University of Utah design department.

They invoice the state for non-existent work and the state pays $2.5m into the bogus account. Alert bankers spot something is going on and manage to freeze $1.8m of the haul.

The solution: There’s a whole chain of trouble here, starting with whoever downloaded the malicious key-logging program at an insurance company. Security procedures apparently have been tightened up all around.

Our final story in this week’s roundup provides proof that even savvy people and organizations can become scam victims. It’s a pity people have to wait until they get their fingers burned before clamping down on security.