Consumer Corner with Anita Wilson: Tips to spot a scam


Published: 9/22/2022 4:18:03 PM
Modified: 9/22/2022 4:17:24 PM

The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office Consumer Protection Unit recently took a call from a consumer who reported losing money to what she later learned was a scam. Her caller identified himself as a law enforcement officer and told her she was in trouble because she had not reported for jury duty. He claimed she’d be arrested unless she paid a fine.

As instructed, she purchased gift cards and gave the numbers to the caller. And then she regretted it. She called our office to report the incident and see if there was a way to recover her money. We suggested she notify the gift card company to file a claim.

Another recent caller alerted us to a scam involving a message through Facebook giving information about a government grant program. The message promised a grant of $15,000 to anyone who applied and met the criteria. This consumer spotted the scam when the caller asked for bank account information. She took no action.

These two local examples of scams and fraud are part of a multibillion-dollar problem for consumers each year. According to the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks these reports, there have been more than 2.4 million cases reported this year alone, costing consumers $3.56 billion. Those are just the cases reported to the Federal Trade Commission by consumers and law enforcement agencies; many go unreported.

Our unit fields calls each week from consumers who want to discuss suspicious phone calls, emails or text messages they’ve received. Sometimes callers spotted the scam before it was too late, but in other cases, they reported losing money.

We welcome these calls. We want to help consumers who are confused or angry about a scam or attempted scam. And we believe no one should feel bad if they fall for a scammer — sometimes they are quite clever!

The stories and level of sophistication of these would-be scammers vary, but their motivation is the same — to steal money or personal information.

Here are some red flags that might clue you in if you receive an unexpected phone call or message and you are not sure it’s legitimate.

STORY: The caller tells you a story, saying they are from an organization or business you know. They might claim to be from the IRS, Social Security, law enforcement, a bank or computer company. They tell you there’s a problem — you owe money, there’s a virus on your computer, your grandchild is in trouble, there are suspicious charges and your account has been frozen.

They offer solutions to help you fix the problem. They might tell you that you’ve won a lottery or a prize. Know that the IRS or other government agencies will not call telling you a story and asking for a payment to solve a problem. They communicate by mail.

PAYMENT: The caller asks for payment in the form of a money transfer from your account to theirs. They tell you to withdraw money from the bank, buy gift cards and tell them the numbers on the back of the cards.

They sometimes say the need is urgent and that you should send cash by overnight delivery. A twist on this trend is cybercurrency. Scammers are telling the victim to transfer money using a cryptocurrency ATM, providing step-by-step instruction on how to insert money and convert it to cryptocurrency. They’ll often provide a QR code to scan, which directs the payment right into their digital wallet.

One thing these forms of payment have in common is that once the money is sent, it is very difficult or impossible to get back. Anyone legitimately looking for payment would not be asking for it in the form of a gift card.

EMOTIONS: The stories they tell play on emotions, particularly fear or urgency. They might pressure you to act immediately so that you don’t miss out. (You need to pay right now or your electricity will be turned off or your benefits stopped!)

They don’t give you time to think or verify the information. They might threaten arrest unless you act immediately. We’ve heard of cases where the scammer keeps the victim on the phone for hours as they withdraw money from the bank and buy gift cards. One consumer told me the caller made her feel like she couldn’t say no.

Your best action is to hang up. Do not pick up the phone if they call back. You might also talk it over with someone you trust.

My advice to protect yourself against scams is:

■Screen phone calls. Don’t pick up right away.

■Block unwanted calls and text messages. Your phone provider can show you how.

■Don’t give out personal or financial information over the phone, through email or text message.

■Don’t open attachments or click on links in emails or messages.

■Resist pressure to act quickly. Talk it over with a friend or family member.

■Verify any information you are given by looking up the information and contacting the company directly.

■If someone asks for payment by wiring money, gift cards or cybercurrency, it’s a scam.

■If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

For more information or to report suspected scams, call the Consumer Protection Unit in Greenfield at 413-774-3186 or Northampton at 413-586-9225.

Anita Wilson is the director of the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office Consumer Protection Unit, which is a Local Consumer Program working in cooperation with the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General.


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