New Twists on 3 Old Tricks

Luring in a scam victim

Once again, scammers have developed new twists on some of the most popular frauds of years past. Although the original versions continue - especially preying on those over age 50 - here's what you should know about some revised rip-offs currently making the rounds.

The hostage scam: An offshoot of the notorious Grandparents Scam, it also feigns that a beloved relative is in trouble ... and needs quick cash to remedy the situation. But instead of phone calls from scammers posing as grandkids who were supposedly arrested or hospitalized (often abroad) - with accomplices pretending to be police or hospital officials - the new telephone trickery goes like this:

The conning caller claims that a grandchild or other relative has caused an automobile accident but won't pay for repairs. As a result, the victimized driver says the relative was taken hostage and is being held for ransom until damages are paid.

The actual name of the alleged kidnap victim may be used, likely gleaned from some online research. To make this ruse even more convincing, callers often claim they're members of organized crime rings. That may be the only truth, since this scam is often conducted by prison inmates, presumed to have accomplices on the outside with computer access.

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The same rule applies: Don't send money - often requested by wire transfer or prepaid debit card - without checking with the alleged victim or other family members.

Free gift cards: In the classic version of this con, scammers sent emails claiming you won a free gift card from a leading retailer such as Walmart or Target - a ruse to collect personal information or download malware onto your computer. Next, there were text messages to cellphones making the same false claims (with the same intent).

And now? Scammers are mailing postcards, in addition to making phone calls, often alleging the free gift is yours if you complete a brief survey.

The gotcha: You are asked for a credit card number to cover a $2 to $10 processing fee. (On the postcards, you're given a callback phone number for supposed Redemption Center.) If you provide your credit card information, scammers can make unauthorized charges on your account. So don't. Neither the spoofed retailers nor AARP actually promise to pay for your opinions in unsolicited at-home requests.

The tech support scam: These phony phone calls are still hot, with scammers claiming to be from Microsoft, computer security software providers or even "Windows Computers" (some scammers must figure people don't realize Windows is an operating system, not a type of computer). The claim is that they noticed a problem with your computer and are happy to fix it - for a price.

You pay in two ways: First, you're instructed to click on a provided link or take other steps that give scammers remote access to your computer - along with your files, passwords and other sensitive information. And then, you may be billed (credit card information is usually requested) for their fraudulent fixes, which can $300 or more. To add salt to the wounds, there was never a problem with your computer. Or if there was, the scammers certainly wouldn't know about it.

In truth, neither Microsoft nor makers of antivirus software ever make calls or send email warnings about infections or problems in a particular computer. When real threats are detected, the companies send software updates en masse over the Internet telling users to strengthen defenses on their computers.

Now, scammers are working the phones again - claiming that if you already paid for tech support services, they can get you a refund. The Federal Trade Commission says two popular reasons are being given by these callers:

  • To ask if you were happy with the fix-it service. If you say no, they say you're entitled to a refund.
  • To say that the company is going out of business and providing refunds to people who already paid.

Either way, it's a scam. Sometimes relying on shared "sucker lists" that detail past victims and the ruse(s) they fell for, the fraudsters claim they need your bank or credit card account information to process the refund. Guess what can happen?

You get nothing but more frustration and lost funds while they laugh all the way to the bank ... or rack up fraudulent charges on your plastic.

Photo: Kenneth Lu/Flickr

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You'll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and other fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement officials and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.

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