Office of Consumer Protection Offers Scam Protection Tips as Part of Consumer Protection Week

During National Consumer Protection Week, Attorney General Tim Fox urges Montanans to contact his Office of Consumer Protection if they think they are, or may be, victims of a scam.

In 2016, more than half of the callers who contacted the Office of Consumer Protection at the Montana Department of Justice were concerned about scams or potential scams.  Elderly persons, and their friends and family members, especially need to be on the alert for these scammers because scammers target our senior citizens.

“Our Office of Consumer Protection fielded nearly 3,000 calls to report scams last year, about 500 more than in 2015,” Attorney General Tim Fox said.  “I think this 20% increase in calls is a sign of two things: First, scammers are unfortunately more active than ever and show no signs of slowing down.  And second, that Montana consumers are becoming more aware of red flags that may indicate they are being targeted in an attempted scam.  While we wish there was no need for it, we are glad to see our efforts to educate consumers in our state are having a positive impact, and helping people keep their identities and money secure.  But the fact remains that we can never do enough to protect consumers, particularly our senior citizens, from these scams. Consequently, I have directed our dedicated staff at my Office of Consumer Protection to redouble their efforts to protect Montanans from these crooks.”

Attorney General Fox encourages all Montanans to keep learning about common scams, and offers these consumer protection tips:

1. Don’t agree to deposit a check and wire money back.   By law, banks have to make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks.  You are responsible for the checks you deposit.  If a check turns out to be a fake, you are responsible for paying back the bank.  No matter how convincing the story, someone who overpays with a check is almost certainly a scam artist.

2. Don’t send money to someone you do not know, including someone you have only met online and over the phone.  While real relationships are increasingly being started through online dating sites and mobile apps, unfortunately it is extremely easy for scammers to set up a fake profile in order to connect with genuine users of the matchmaking services and then exploit the person’s feelings for the fake profile.

If you think you have found a good deal, but you are not familiar with the company, check it out.  Type the company or product name into your favorite search engine with terms like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam.”  See what comes up.

Never pay fees first for the promise of a big pay-off later — whether it is for a loan, a job, a grant, or a so-called “prize.”

3. Don’t send money to a “government” agent who calls and threatens to arrest you.  Thieves call taxpayers and claim to be IRS or law enforcement officials.  They misrepresent that you owe taxes or other debts.  They threaten to arrest you unless you immediately pay your “taxes” through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer.  They often alter telephone caller ID to make it look like the IRS or a law enforcement agency is calling. The callers use IRS titles and fake badge numbers to appear legitimate. They may use your name, address, and other personal information to make the call sound official.

Remember that the IRS will not:

• Call you to demand immediate payment.
• Call you if you owe taxes without first sending you a bill in the mail.
• Demand that you pay taxes and not allow you to question or appeal the amount you owe.
• Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For instance, require that you pay with a prepaid debit card.
• Ask for your credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
• Threaten to bring in police or other agencies to arrest you for not paying.

4.  Always read the fine print on a “free trial” offer for any product or service.  Often if the sign-up process requires you to enter your credit or debit card information, the “free trial” may not be so free after all.  You may be charged for shipping, or be enrolled in an automatic-shipment program where you are charged for periodic shipments of the company’s products until you contact them to “opt out” of the program.

5.  Read your monthly statements.  Scammers steal account information and then run up charges or commit crimes in your name.  Dishonest merchants bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services without your authorization.  If you see charges you do not recognize or you did not make, contact your bank, card issuer, or other creditor immediately.

6.  Know that wiring money is like sending cash.  Scammers often insist that people wire money, especially overseas, because it is nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money.  Do not wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment, or to anyone who claims to be a relative or friend in an emergency and wants to keep the request a secret.

7.  Remember that there is no sure thing in investing.  If someone contacts you with low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, just say no.  When you hear pitches that insist you act now, that guarantee big profits, that promise little or no financial risk, or that demand that you send cash immediately, report them to the Office of Consumer Protection by calling 800-481-6896.

8.  Don’t reply to messages asking for personal or financial information.  Con artists use emails, phone calls, text messages, and advertisements.  Do not click on links or call phone numbers included in the messages.  The con artists behind these messages are trying to trick you into revealing sensitive information.  If you got a message like this and you are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card – or your statement – and check on it.

9.  Talk to your doctor before you buy health products or treatments.  Ask about research that supports a product’s claims.  Ask about possible risks and side effects.  In addition, buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies.  Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired, or mislabeled.

10.  In the aftermath of a disaster, give to an established charity, rather than one that has sprung up overnight.  Pop-up charities probably do not have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity.

To report an attempted scam, use OCP’s convenient online reporting form here.  You can also call to speak with an OCP investigator at (800) 481-6896 or (406) 444-4500, visit OCP’s homepage at https://dojmt.gov/consumer/, or call your local law enforcement agency.  To get updates on the latest scams and identity theft attempts affecting Montanans, sign up for Consumer Alerts through the Office of Consumer Protection. Finally, OCP has developed a laminated flyer of helpful “Simple Tips to Avoid Scammers.”  This flier can be placed by your phone or computer as a convenient reminder of how to avoid getting scammed. If you would like to receive one of these flyers, call or email OCP.