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Keeping The Latest Scams Away From Your PFD

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Alaskans love this time of year. Dividend payout week. Box store parking lots jammed with cars like the sides of the New Seward highway after the first snowfall. Sales are everywhere. Our annual stimulus package suddenly turns those distant-beach-resort-vacation plans or flat-screen-Monday-Night-Football dreams into an achievable reality.
But the opportunity to make money is not restricted to established, reputable, and ethical business practitioners. The dividend payout also acts like blood in the water for criminals, hoping to scam their way into your wallet.
Anchorage could be the top target in the country. Schemers from every corner of the United States dream up new ways to take advantage of the state’s financial policies, which, despite our high cost of living offer the best opportunity for the accumulation of wealth among older middle-and-upper-class residents. No sales tax. No income tax. Property tax exemptions for our aging community. And an annual payout from the permanent fund. That creates a pretty lucrative pool to exploit.
Last week, Ed Sniffin Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General in the Commercial and Fair Business Section of the Alaska Department of Law (I believe that’s SAAGCFBSADL, for acronym fans), presented an update of scams to be wary of. It was part of the AARP’s Anchorage Fraud Summit, held at the Wilda Marston theater.
Sniffin painted a complex web of scams that outpace technology and embrace our willingness to trust, dream, or just plain hope that a too-good-to-be-true deal might swing our way this one time.
 
Travel Clubs:
Similar to the beloved American past time of timeshare presentations, Travel Clubs solicit seductive vacation deals. They tout “traditions of excellence” and “no hidden costs” and luxurious travel on a budget without blackout dates. Yet, somehow, no one you or I have ever met has lived to sing their praises. So, either they’re a front for a super secret blackout site for medical experimentation, or it’s a scam. Either way, probably a bad idea.
But many innocent Alaskans, flush with that new dividend check and building cabin fever that a Caribbean vacation would do wonders for, can’t resist.
Sniffin said that these deals often come with thousands of dollars in upfront fees, without any of the exotic vacations, timeshares, or travel benefits.
The best deals, he indicated, are generally going to come through individual research on deals through reputable companies like Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline. If a customer is greeted with an out-of-this world deal from a company they’ve never heard of, ask around. If no one else has heard of it either, chances are it’s a scam.
The biggest red flag is that at any of these presentations they will really hard sell you. ‘Buy it now. You don’t do it now, you’re done. It’ll never be available again….’ There’s no reason why, for any legitimate deal, you shouldn’t be able to walk away and just think about it for a little bit. Get a name, get a phone number.
Sniffin made clear that if the person trying to sell you the world’s greatest deal is unwilling to give you his or her contact information, “Guess what? There’s a problem.”
Oh, and that email that’s been circulating for years, offering a free American Airlines ticket? Sniffin cautioned: “We don’t anyone who’s actually been able to get a free airplane ticket from that deal.”
 
Wire Transfers.
Have you ever received a fake check, or cashier’s check, in the mail? It will come with a bold-lettered announcement informing you that you’ve won a lottery (that you’ve never heard of) or a sweepstakes (from an organization that doesn’t exist). All you have to do is cash the check. Or, some desperate former Nigerian official emails you. He desperately needs to funnel his dying uncle’s Scrooge McDuck gold coin vault to the United States and you are his only hope.
Fail to take that leap of faith.
“If you’re ever asked to wire transfer money it’s a scam,” Sniffin said. “No one has gotten a war chest of $30 million dollars…. Trust me, if they had it, they would get it here and they wouldn’t need your help.”
The wire tap scams are increasingly popping up with more and more familiar faces. On Facebook and Twitter, people often receive a private message from a friend saying they’re stuck in the Lower 48 and their wallet was stolen. In reality, their account was hacked and their friends list was spammed. We often have hundreds of people in our contact list. It only takes one kindhearted dupe to provide a thief a big payday.
Much more devious is this sort of predation on our elderly. Another common wire tap scam could involve that elderly relative. Imagine that grandmother you’ve fallen out of touch with. She receives a phone call one day from someone posing as you. You’ve fallen on hard times and are calling from jail. “Please, Grandma, this is my one phone call. I need you to wire me bail money.”
This very incident happened to Ed Sniffen. If it can happen to the Assistant Attorney General in the Commercial and Fair Business Section of the Alaska Department of Law, it could happen to anyone.
 
Gone Phishing.
So imagine this scenario. The phone rings. You pick up. A voice that could easily belong to McGruff the Crime Dog speaks: “I’m officer Jones, from the Anchorage Police Department. You’re wanted in the questioning of a crime that occurred in downtown Anchorage last weekend. Can you come down to the station in Anchorage?”
Well, that’s not a pleasant phone call at all. Can we go back to the scam where Nigeria wants to make me rich? You got the wrong guy, officer! I didn’t even leave the house last weekend!
Sniffin explains how “Officer Jones” tends to respond in this scenario: “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give me your social security number so I can verify you are who you are.”
When scammers assume a position of authority, it takes phone scam predation to a new level. All of a sudden, we feel like we may be in legal trouble; we’re put on defense. Similar calls claim to come from the jury clerk’s office, accusing you of missing jury duty. The “clerk” informs you that a warrant has been issued for your arrest and you can expect the police to come pluck you from your doorstep.
…Unless you’d like to pay the fine over the phone right now. What’s your credit card number?
Stop. Breathe. Hang up. Do you honestly think the government, at this point, needs to call and ask politely for your credit card number?
“No one from the government, or your financial institutions, is ever going to call you and ask you for personal information,” Sniffin explained. “Those kinds of scams are called phishing scams… trying to phish for your personal information to try to commit identity theft.”
 
Door to Door.
A decade ago, I was living in Martinez, California, renting a house with a girlfriend. My landlord called one day in early June and mentioned that a handyman would be coming by with a work crew to replace the roof. I woke up to a steady stream of hammering and thumping the next morning, the morning after that, and then everything grew strangely quiet. Surveying the scene, there were tarps where my roof had once been, and a couple ladders and some shingling strewn about. But no workers.
After about a week, I called my landlord. Turns out, he had decided to fix the roof after a door to door handyman sold him on a cheap deal. He paid him half up front. So, the handy man banged around on the roof for a couple days, got bored, and skipped out. It was a cash payment, so there was no way to trace it. And the landlord was now cash-strapped.
So, that was the summer I didn’t have a roof.
Today, the upfront payments often are put on a credit card, or you’re offered a deal if you sign up for “auto-billing” to pay the remainder. We see this often in Anchorage with alarm companies. It’s a safe lesson to teach children not to talk to strangers on your doorstep. Adults should heed a similar lesson, where we don’t give them our credit card information.
When dealing with the salesman at the door, tread carefully. Sometimes it’s a steal. Other times, it’s actually a steal. In Alaska, there is a five day cooling off period for contracts. “You’ve got five days to cancel that contract for any reason you want,” Sniffin informed the audience. “And if somebody doesn’t give you that opportunity… be very, very suspicious.”
 
Don’t Buy It.
The most important thing for a consumer to do is weigh desires against practicality. Does it make sense to trust someone who inexplicably wants to give you money or a free trip? Generally speaking no. It doesn’t matter how badly you want what they’re promising. Step back and fact check. Break with “trust but verify” and slap on a thick coat of skepticism, if not outright doubt. Scammers spend a lot of time refining their sales pitch; honing the language so that it comes across as everything you want to hear, said perfectly, at the perfect time.
Ed Sniffin concluded: “If it’s too good to be true, it is. Not just most likely. It is.”
The dividend payout is like a dinner rush for scammers. They have a very slim window of opportunity, from the time you receive your check and the time you spend it (though, please remember that you don’t have to), to figure out a way to intercept the cash. Don’t become a statistic.

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