Scams offering seniors “free” medical alert equipment and fraudsters posing on the phone as computer virus repair technicians were among the newest types of swindles reported by local consumer protection agencies nationwide last year, according to a survey from the Consumer Federation of America.
The annual report from the Washington, D.C.-based association of nonprofit consumer groups offers a snapshot of common ways people are being ripped off.
In all, the 40 agencies in 23 states that participated in this year’s survey received some 268,000 consumer complaints last year.
In what’s known as the tech alert scam — which many agencies cited as new or the fastest growing problem in 2013 — con artists call pretending to be from Microsoft, an Internet service provider or a technology repair service, claiming a customer’s computer was infected with a virus or other malicious software.
Victims are directed to a “repair” website, where malware is downloaded onto their computer, enabling thieves to steal passwords, account numbers and other personal information. Sometimes the scammers demand payment to remove the malware.
The consumer federation recommended that consumers visit the Federal Trade Commission website, www.onlineonguard.gov, to learn how to spot the tech alert scam and other Internet dangers.
In the case of the medical alert scam, thieves persuade senior citizens to provide Social Security numbers and other personal information purportedly to obtain free monitors that call for help in an emergency.
Overall, the agencies said they considered scams against the elderly to be the most egregious.
“These are outrageous situations where scammers may take people’s last dimes,” the federation’s director of consumer protection, Susan Grant, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “These con artists are skillful at what they do.”
Some local agencies also expressed concern about scammers using increasingly aggressive tactics, especially toward seniors, by threatening to visit their homes or have them arrested if they didn’t comply with payment demands.
Thieves increasingly are exploiting cash reload cards used to load funds onto prepaid debit cards, Ms. Grant said. In a typical scenario, the scammer cons someone into paying for something by providing the serial number from the reload card. The number is then used to move the money onto a prepaid card, which is cashed out at an ATM.
Ms. Grant praised one of the leading prepaid card operators, Green Dot Corp., for deciding recently to phase out the ability to reload cards online or over the phone. Instead, Green Dot is switching to a swipe-at-the-register method that requires the cardholder to be present.
The top 10 consumer complaints in 2013 were similar to those cited in previous reports, with complaints involving automobiles again topping the list.
Complaints about home improvement/construction work placed second, followed by credit/debt complaints (billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications, mortgage fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, and illegal or abusive debt collection tactics).
The survey cited violations of do-not-call rights and other telemarketing abuses as the fastest growing complaint category in 2013. The federation said technology was a major factor in the increase by making calls cheap to place and hard to trace.
The survey also sought to highlight the role of state and local consumer agencies in protecting the public, many of which have been scaling back in recent years or in some cases shutting down because of budget cuts.
Unlike most federal agencies, local agencies usually mediate individual complaints. Figures from 35 agencies in the survey showed they saved or recovered roughly $140 million for consumers through complaint mediation, administrative procedures and enforcement actions.
To view the full 51-page report, which includes a section on how consumers can help protect themselves, scroll below or click here.
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.