Thursday, October 24, 2013

When It Comes to E-Fraud, I Won’t Get Fooled Again

You’ve probably heard the expression, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Whoever said it was wisely precautious and I nearly found out how accurate that phrase is.
Someone with my fundamental awareness of ID theft tricks, telemarketing and sweepstakes scams and other forms of electronic exploitation, as well as a prior victimization, should never fall for a second scam. But, to paraphrase that insufferable pop song — oops, I almost did it again.
Nonetheless, anxiety, and an opportunity for supplemental income, almost led me into a fraudulent business relationship. Before I made any commitment or revealed too much personal information, I realized it was a rip off-in-progress, parallel to the notorious Nigerian money transfer scam. Ultimately, common sense, a little savvy and advice from a friend triggered internal red flags and taught me an indispensable lesson without any loss.
My identity theft was discovered after I E-filed my 2011 federal taxes, when I learned that my Social Security number had been used to file a bogus tax return.
An IRS representative informed me it would take “up to ninety days” to investigate. However, 90-days later the IRS Fraud Unit informed me it would take “several more months” to resolve my case and issue my refund.
After several more months passed, I contacted Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to see if they could expedite my delayed refund. Within a week, an IRS Taxpayer Advocate Unit counselor called to inform me my case was “still being researched.” She also revealed that a return with my stolen SSN had been filed and that a refund was direct-deposited into a bank account that was subsequently closed, which prolonged the probe.
Last November, the counselor told me my refund check would be issued by month’s end, almost eight months after I filed my return. It arrived just before Thanksgiving — with an additional $11.40 in interest that I had to claim it on my 2012 tax return.
My recent close encounter of the E-fraud kind resulted during my job search. I was receiving a handful of E-mails a week concerning potential employment. Most were incompatible with my experience or preferences, but, as frustration set in, one for a “personal job assistant vacancy” appeared in my mailbox a year ago. I previously ignored “easy money” work-from-home and similar schemes, in addition to reading dreadful stories regarding such arrangements, so I opened this one, albeit with misgivings.
The first of more than a dozen E-mails I received over a five-day period promised me “up to $1,000 weekly” to do personal errands such as “pay bills, shop for gifts, send packages via the US Postal Service and accept deliveries at home.” It stipulated I would not have to spend “a dime of my own money.” The sender said he would to meet me two months after our association was underway.
Many E-rip-offs I’ve heard about involve contributing a small amount of money, with the promise of earning a lot more, so when this one promised no contribution on my part, I thoughtlessly became more interested. I now realize that was the enticing “too good to be true” bait that should have warned me to stay away.
First, I questioned what items he would ask me to mail. (I wanted to be reassured I would not be sending anything illegal.) He said the items would be art materials, paintings and/or business and personal letters for which he would give me his UPS account number to charge for all shipping costs. He needed an assistant because he was “constantly out of town and owned an art gallery in London.”
The sender asked for my name, address, telephone number and a resume. Considering that information was not difficult to obtain, I sent it to him, except for the resume, which I promised to hand over at our first meeting. He supplied me with his cell phone number and his name.
I called him, but got a voice mail. He replied in an E-mail in which he wrote he would not be able to pay me for the first two weeks, which instantly added to my wariness.
I then did an Internet search but could not find the gallery he claimed he owned. While engaged in the search, he called and said I would have to comply with his rules because he was “not supposed to do this on his own.” Another red flag.
When I asked him how he found me, he claimed he found my name and information on ZoomInfo.com. When I checked, I discovered my name was not on the site, nor did the company have my name in their records when I contacted them by telephone.
He revealed his name and said he preferred to pay me by wiring funds into a joint checking account that he asked me to open, so he could “monitor” my spending his money. That also set off alarms because then he’d have access to any information I gave the financial institution to set up the account.
Consequently, after several phone and E-mail exchanges, I told him I was no longer interested.
I then called a friend who told me that she had received similar E-mails at her job and home and it looked like a scam to her, too.
I then received an E-mail in which he understood my reluctance, but pointed out that he was the one making the financial commitment and I “sounded desperate.”
He contacted me the next day and said he reconsidered and would deposit $2,000 into a joint account for his “errands,” plus another $500 for my first week’s salary to get things started.
I again told him of my reluctance and suggested he get someone who wasn’t so “desperate.”
When I informed him I was about to contact law enforcement, the E-mails stopped.
I contacted the Secret Service fraud unit, explained my experience and forwarded them the E-mails from the fraudster. When I called last summer to determine the stage of the investigation, an agent said it was among the thousands of similar complaints they had received in the last year.
Four days later, a new E-mail was in my inbox for another personal assistant job. I opened it to determine what it offered. It had the identical wording as the previous one and indicated it got my name from an “online recruitment center,” then deleted it.
Perhaps the most important warning sign of a potential scam is one’s own misgiving. Not only have I become more vigilant for potential scams and promptly delete dubious E-mails from strangers, but I’m also more conscientious about personal data and financial records, which I check almost daily. Even if you’ve never been an identity theft victim, that mind-set might prevent a criminal encounter of the E-kind.
Basically, there was nothing I could have done to prevent the SSN theft. An IRS agent said it was most likely a random choice. As for the second encounter, I should have ignored the job vacancy E-mail.
Here are some basic anti-ID theft tips I’ve learned in the course of my encounters: 1) Do not provide a Social Security number or date of birth to someone claiming they represent a legitimate organization. Contact the business or company to verify if they’re seeking such data.
 2) Do NOT keep your Social Security card in your wallet, because if it’s lost or stolen it may be used to access personal and financial records.
3) The AARP alerts members to protect Medicare cards, too, since it includes your SSN. The organization advises to only carry the card for planned medical checkups and suggests photocopying and carrying the copy, then black out all but the last four numbers of the nine-digit SSN.
Older Americans, according to the AARP, are conned out of about $3 billion annually. That figure is likely to increase as baby boomers with good credit ratings retire with modest nest eggs.
According to Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, from 2010-2012 his office received more than 1,000 complaints from individuals whose SSNs were fraudulently used to obtain tax refunds.
I hope to never utter “Oops, I did it again” concerning ID theft or an Internet scam. The next time something sounds too good to be true, I’ll stick to the notion from a classic rock song title and won’t get fooled again.