Agencies warn of fraud, scams

Millions of people fall victim to scams every year in a variety of ways, be it online, over the phone or in person.

Some lose thousands of dollars to scammers, who employ a variety of tactics to obtain financial information or cash transfers. During tax season, scammers pretending to be Internal Revenue Service officials often intimidate people into losing thousands of dollars as well, according to the IRS. Other types of scams include emails asking for someone’s help transferring money to a U.S. account, donations to a false charity or robocalls, pre-recorded messages that can lead to scams.

Scams and fraud are growing in the U.S. The IRS reported a 400 percent increase in electronic tax scams in early 2016, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a sharp increase in business e-mail scams between 2013 and 2016. Alaskans called in 2,917 reports of fraud and other theft in 2015 — approximately 396.2 complaints per 100,000 residents, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s 2015 data. That’s not even close to the top-ranked state, though, according to the FTC report — Floridians reported 1,510.2 complaints per 100,000 residents in 2015.

The Better Business Bureau of the Northwest, which includes Alaska, received more tax scam complaints than any other type in 2016, with 7,500 reports, according to a Jan. 23 news release.

“BBB serving the Northwest is urging consumers to be wary of unsolicited phone calls, emails or letters purported to be from the IRS or any official-sounding government agency,” the release states.

Utility companies around the state and country have reported an increase in fraudulent calls as well. Golden Valley Electric, which serves the Fairbanks area, warned customers in February 2016 that the company had received a number of reports of scammers calling and threatening to disconnect power if the person does not immediately pay a fee with a prepaid debit card or credit card number.

“Regrettably, members have lost significant sums of money when they’ve com[lid with these scammers’ requests,” the company’s Feb. 8, 2016 news release states. “Once those card numbers are turned over to the scammers, utilities can do nothing to recover those funds, except recommend filing a police report.”

Grace Salazar, chief of the Consumer Protection and Information Section of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, said utility members have been taking increased numbers of reports of scam calls.

“According to information from the Better Business Bureau and the (Federal Communications Commission), they are targeting elderly and perhaps people who might have limited English,” she said.

The RCA’s Consumer Protection and Information Section is partnering with state and federal consumer protection agencies to stop scammers by educating consumers, Salazar wrote in an email. For example, consumers should note that scammers will sometimes provide a phone number they claim will verify the bill, but actually leads back to the scammer. Other scammers may send an email or text with an attachment that will download a malware, so consumers should never click on links or call numbers that appear in unexpected emails or texts, she wrote.

“It’s important to note that, if a consumer receives a call from someone threatening to disconnect their utility service, or asking for account information, they need to make sure they are dealing with the utility company before paying any amount or providing any account information,” she wrote.

Utility bill scams are so common that the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a group representing rural utility companies nationally, is working with cooperatives to communicate with customers about scams. The campaign, called Utilities United Against Scams, encouraged consumers to spread the messages as well, according to a Nov. 15, 2016 announcement from the NRECA.

The Federal Communications Commission will host a free webinar Feb. 16 for anyone who wants to learn how to prevent robocalls. The FTC has seen a significant increase in the number of illegal sales calls, particularly robocalls, because advances in technology have made it easier for scammers to avoid blocks and do-not-call lists. The agency encourages people to look into call blocking solutions and be aware of scammers’ tactics, some of which will be discussed on the webinar. Participants can register from fcc.gov or email robocallswebinar@fcc.gov for more information.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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