Fraud Watch: New year, new scams to look out for

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In 1961 (seems like yesterday), Neil Sedaka was on the charts with the song "Calendar Girl."

Not familiar? Sedaka sings about how his girlfriend is timeless and fits every month. While this might be a little bit of a stretch, con artists and frauds are timeless and find ways to fit into our lives every month. Here's what this month brings us:

Numerous reports from the Federal Trade Commission, the IRS, the FBI and the Better Business Bureau apply to the cyclical nature of scams related to the calendar. There has been an increase in the number of reported imposter phone calls claiming to be from the power company and threatening to disconnect service.

Generally, utility service cannot be stopped between November and April. Procedures are in place for disconnection and in no case will it take place as the result of a single threatening telephone call. Contact your utility using the number on your regular bill if you receive this call.

The start of the year brings a new IRS scam. Unlike threatening calls over unpaid taxes, these calls are congenial, asking you to verify tax information including Social Security numbers. The IRS will not call you to verify this information. Communications are made by U.S. mail and can be checked by calling the IRS directly. (The Federal Trade Commission is calling the week of Jan. 29-Feb. 2 Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week. Check out its website, ftc.gov/taxidtheft.)

The same approach is true for Social Security or Medicare. Calls for information are being made to recipients and many are receiving emails with links to "spoof" websites appearing to originate from the government. If you receive these notifications, do not respond to them as they are most likely scams. Contact the government agency using a verifiable number and report the situation.

Another reappearing scam involves "unclaimed funds." You may receive a call from the state treasurer's office informing you that there are unclaimed funds held by the state in your name.

The caller explains that you must forward a processing fee or pay a tax. While it is quite possible that you may be eligible for receipt of unclaimed funds, your state government will not contact you. Rather, you must go to a state website and search for any funds that are in your name and there are no fees applied to claiming the funds.

Along with the seasonal scams are scams involving travelers using the Airbnb website to rent an apartment or house. The advertising host instructs the renter to email him or her outside the website. After being informed that the property of interest is not available, the renter is directed to a property listed on a fraudulent or "spoof" website and prompted to wire money for the rental. Once that occurs, there is no further contact and the money is gone. The lessons are basic: Never wire money outside an official website, watch out for lookalike web addresses, and look for a "superhost," one that has consistently high reviews.

Finally this week, an alert from the FBI warning internet users about a death threat hoax using an alarming email. The message states "I will be short. I've got an order to kill you," and continues, with a demand for money.

It is a new spin on extortion, said FBI agent Laura Eimiller. "The chances are if you are online, you will be victimized not once, not twice, but multiple times," Eimiller said. Investigators said the emails are carefully crafted and even educated professionals can be lured in. As with all types of fraud, report the incident to the authorities. In this matter, it would be the FBI website, www.IC3.gov.

Keep in mind that reporting a scam is important and easy. Contact your Attorney General's Office. In Massachusetts, that's http://www.mass.gov/ago/consumer-resources or 617-727-8400; in New York, http://www.ag.ny.gov/bureau/consumer-frauds-bureau; or in Vermont, 802-656-3183 https://www.uvm.edu/consumer.

By the way, one calendar scam for February — ROMANCE!

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 617-727-8400.


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