They want to lower your interest rate, consolidate your debt, offer you a free home-energy audit or even take care of that outstanding arrest warrant. You know — the one you didn't realize you had.
There's a wide world of fraud out there, and Florida's at the epicenter. For 2013, the Federal Trade Commission has ranked the Sunshine State first nationally in both fraud and identity-theft complaints.
"Being a victim of fraud doesn't have anything to do with intelligence or education," said Carlos Morales, a supervisor of investigations at the Orange County Consumer Fraud Unit, which handled nearly 800 complaints last year. "I've had attorneys, police officers, a judge, architects, engineers and doctors come to us for help. I had a cardiologist scammed out of $240,000. That man was in tears."
You may know better than to let some fly-by-night paving company coat your driveway on the spot with "left-over materials from a job around the corner" — an old but enduring scam that charges a premium for what is typically cheap paint or even water. But fraudsters are forever cooking up new schemes.
In recent months, investigators say, these scams have proliferated. Some examples:
•Rachel from Cardholder Services (aka Bridget from Cardholder Services). A recorded female voice will ask you to press 1 to learn more about how you can lower your high-interest credit-card rate. If you do, you'll get a live sales pitch about opening a new interest-free account. In actuality, the introductory interest rate quickly balloons to more than 25 percent. Or you're charged a hefty fee for a service never delivered.
•The arrest warrant. You get a recorded call saying you've violated the law, and there is a warrant pending for your arrest. To resolve the issue immediately, you should press 1, which connects you to someone who takes your financial information to collect the fine — purportedly dismissing the warrant.
"Mine said I had violated banking regulations," said Amy Topol, who happens to be the assistant director of Florida's Division of Consumer Services, the state's clearinghouse for consumer complaints, information and protection, who was personally targeted just last week. "When you're a decent, law-abiding citizen … it can really throw you."
If you really don't know whether such a warrant exists, call your local law-enforcement agency. Any agency can access a database to check.
•The power company. You're overdue on your power bill, the caller says, and if you don't make an immediate payment, your electricity and/or water supply will be shut off. Sometimes the caller will name a specific company — Tampa Electric customers were recently hit — or simply claim to be from "your local power company." You're asked for bank-account information or told to buy a prepaid debit card to cover the charge.
"And when you do that, your money is gone, and so are they," said Holly Salmons, vice president of the Better Business Bureau Serving Central Florida.
•The home-energy audit. "We've noticed that your home-energy costs are higher than those of your neighbors," says the caller from the Florida Office of Consumer Energy Conservation — or some similarly bogus but official-sounding agency. "We'd like to come out and see where you may be wasting energy. There's absolutely no cost to you."
You agree, set up an appointment, and someone with a clipboard and assembly of purported energy meters shows up, plugging the meters into your electrical outlets and checking your major appliances — before pitching you a $40,000 (or so) solar-energy package that will supposedly pay for itself in a few years.
"Except most older homeowners won't live long enough to recoup that savings," Salmons said. "Maybe, maybe, your grandkids will benefit."
By the time you have second thoughts, your check has been cashed, and either the seller has disappeared or you have overpriced, questionably installed solar panels.
•The warning from "Microsoft." Though this has been around for several years, a company spokesman said the scammers were growing bolder in recent months. Callers, or sometimes emailers, pose as support technicians, allegedly from Microsoft, and claim to have detected a virus on your computer that makes any personal information vulnerable. Fraudsters may charge for a worthless "fix" or install malware on your machine that, ironically, gives them access to your stored account data, credit-card numbers or passwords they can then use to steal from you.
•The seller from Craigslist, eBay, etc. It's typically a big-ticket item — a boat, horse trailer, heavy equipment or RV — shown in an attractive photo and priced at a bargain. But the seller is out of state and wants you to use a third-party site to pay, typically one you've never heard of. Consumers pay but never receive the item, which probably never existed.
"The BBB suggests that you see the item in person if at all possible," Salmons said. "Do not authorize payment unless you are absolutely confident in the payment site and the seller."
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