Welcome to this scam roundup. I’m trying something new; a quick collection of scam stories that have come across my desk in the past week, along with follow ups on stories we’ve told at The Perfect Scam podcast, which I host for AARP. Seen a scam? Contact me here.
I hope many of you listened to the heartbreaking but important story about body brokers we told recently. Those who choose to donate their body to science after death are entering a world of barely-regulated, for-profit companies that sometimes do horrible things with the deceased. And in the story we told, a funeral home lied to families, selling bodies that were meant to be cremated. You can listen here.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only funeral home scam we’ve heard about recently. Anyone dealing with death and grief right now should know about this scam, reported by Louisiana TV station KTBS.
Scammers nationwide are searching through obituaries to target vulnerable families. They search the web for personal information including the phone number and addresses of those grieving next-of-kin.
The scammers will go on to search funeral homes, crematory or cemetery websites to find a name of a staff member. Fraudulently identifying themselves as a staff member, the scammer will call a grieving family member demanding credit card information in order to proceed with funeral services.
Criminals know how to find and attack people when they are vulnerable; that’s why people dealing with death are often targeted. When possible, try to let someone who is a bit of a distance away from the grief handle the details around end-of-life arrangements — a cousin, an in-law, a family friend.
Thanks to Perfect Scam researcher Sarah Binney (@wendingworlds) for sending it my way.
Speaking of attacking the vulnerable — I’ve been saying for some time now that poor customer service is a serious security vulnerability, and consumer advocate Chris Elliot recently wrote up a perfect example at his great “Elliot Report,” where he advocates for travelers’ rights. (Really, you should sign up for his newsletter.) A victim named Laurie Mannino, facing hours on hold with British Airways while attempting to change her flight, followed a Google link to a customer service phone number. Then this happened:
“I reached a man who said he was an agent for British Airways and he could make the change,” she says. “Thirty minutes later, another man who claimed to be his supervisor called me and said it would cost me to make the change.”
Mannino reluctantly agreed to allow Harold, a “British Airways supervisor,” to charge her credit card $3,184.
But later, when she phoned the real British Airways to verify the ticket change — you guessed it! — it said she didn’t have a record of a change request.
Her $3,184, charged to a mysterious company called Airticket World, was gone.
“I was the victim of a scam by two people claiming to be British Airways agents,” she told me.
Unfortunately, as Chris reports, the long-running “airline call center scam” is apparently back. Criminals who take money from people under false pretenses deserve the lion’s share of blame in these situations, of course, but British Airways and Google both drove Mannino into the arms of the person who took her money.
This is a structural problem. Many bank scams work because people don’t trust their banks, and because they know they can’t walk into a branch and get good advice, for example. Corporations make people vulnerable, so it’s no wonder they find themselves in all manner of bad situations, desperate to get help from somewhere. If we want to stem the epidemic of scams, large firms are going to have to start offering better customer service.
Typically, a debt relief scam begins with someone reaching out to you with a promise to reduce or settle your debt. They may even claim to be able to remove any negative information from your credit report. In exchange, you pay them an upfront fee for their services. These charges can sometimes be outrageously expensive. For example, in a 2022 lawsuit against a company called “ARCO Services” or “American Consumer Rights Organization”, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated that ARCO charged some consumers upfront fees as high as $18,000 falsely promising to eliminate their debt.
Fortunately there is a bright line to look for when detecting debt relief scams: Up front fees are illegal. That’s been true since 2010. (As an aside, I chuckle each time I hear a debt relief company advertise no up-front fees as ‘benefit’ of their program, since these firms opposed this rule kicking and screaming when it was put into place).
Again, someone desperate for help with debt is vulnerable and might be tempted to try something radical. Talk to your families and friends before taking signing up with any of these companies. Never pay up front fees.
Home improvement scams have been around since…there have been homes, I would think. But they have a new name I’d not heard before — “woodchucking,” says NBC Washington
Authorities are warning senior citizens who live alone in their homes to be aware that now is the peak time of the year for this kind of scam, referred to as “woodchucking.” The scammers, often people with little home repair experience, con victims into believing their houses need expensive emergency fixes which are either unnecessary or never done.
Prosecutors said (criminals) took the couple’s money for repairs that were ultimately never done.
The scam begins with a ‘limpia,’ which in the Latino and Hispanic community is a ‘spiritual cleansing’ that removes negative energy and replaces it with good feelings and more money. “They’re just randomly picking houses but using information like ‘your neighbor down the street told me to come to see you; I know so, and so they told me to come to see you,’” said Det. Richard Encinas with Mesa Police.
After gaining the trust of homeowners or renters, Encinas says they offer a ‘limpia.’ But instead, these suspects are taking advantage of spiritual people and have gotten away with $8,000 worth of money and jewelry. “They know this, and that is why they target these people specifically with the whole intent of robbing them,” Encinas said.