The Consumer Protection Unit is one of the local consumer programs throughout the Commonwealth working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.
Consumer Protection staff are trained to mediate complaints through an informal process involving letters and telephone calls from the consumer and the business, in an effort to reach a mutually agreeable settlement. If Consumer Protection staff are unable to resolve your complaint, staff members will discuss the option of redress through small claims court, face-to-face mediation or a private attorney.
CONSUMER PROTECTION COMPLAINT FORM
Click HERE to fill out a Consumer Protection Complaint form.
Forms can be submitted using the following methods:
*Save the completed form to your computer and attach it to an email message and send it to:
*Print out the completed form, and any related documents and mail it to:
Northwestern District Attorney
Consumer Protection Unit
1 Gleason Plaza
Northampton MA 01060
*Or Fax to: 413-584-3635
If you have any difficulty filling out the form please contact us 413-586-9225 or email to NWD.CPU@MassMail.State.MA.US
Note: The Consumer Protection Unit does not provide legal advice or opinions.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 28, 2017
At One Year Anniversary of IKEA Recall
Safety Advocates Call on IKEA and CPSC to Take Stronger Action on Hazardous Tipping IKEA Furniture
Washington, D.C. — Today, the one year anniversary of the recall of 29 million units of IKEA dressers, Kids In Danger (KID), Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Shane’s Foundation, called on IKEA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to reinvest in the recall to remove more dangerous products from use.
In a letter to CPSC Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle, the groups urged the safety agency to take strong, immediate action to better protect children from the tip-over hazard posed by IKEA dressers, the MALM in particular.
“While we applauded last year’s recall of the MALM and other IKEA dressers after six deaths (a seventh death was announced after the recall), we have been repeatedly dismayed by the lack of preparation for the recall and the lack of action to encourage consumer participation with the recall,” the groups stated in the letter. “IKEA quickly moved on to simply sharing their anchoring message with consumers without highlighting the recalled products. In fact, recently MALM dressers and other recalled unit names returned to IKEA stores and are available for sale again – adding more confusion to the recall.”
It quickly became apparent after last year’s June 28 recall that IKEA had not adequately prepared for the recall – news reports of long waits, unresponsive store employees and no response came quickly – and continue. At least as recently as January 2017, twitter posts of unresolved recall issues were still appearing. As any marketing professional can tell you – many of those who called IKEA just after the recall was announced were frustrated by no response or a long wait, and never went back to complete the action – leaving dangerous tipping dressers in homes across the country.
The process has not been transparent. IKEA has withheld information about how effective the recall has been. The most recent data we have is from January 2017 and may only go through the end of 2016. But given that most recalls have larger responses soon after the recall announcement, it is unlikely that these response rates are significantly higher:
- 175,000 refunds were provided to consumers,
- 268,000 consumers received anchoring straps since the recall. And
- an additional 439,000 straps were sent out by IKEA prior to the recall, based on the July 2015 announcement by CPSC and IKEA of the deaths.
The letter to Acting Chairman Buerkle concluded, “We urge IKEA to put more resources and effort into retrieving the additional 28 million dressers involved in the recall. We ask the CPSC to review the corrective action plan to assure compliance, amend the CAP if inadequate, and work with IKEA to reach more consumers. These unsecured dressers are ticking time bombs in our children’s bedrooms and homes. Rather than move on with new versions of the tainted MALM name and sweep the recall under the rug, IKEA must do everything it can to retrieve its faulty dressers.”
Janet McGee, mother of Ted McGee whose death on February 14, 2016 led to the recall, joined the consumer groups and said, “Every day that goes by, children are in grave danger when an unanchored dresser lurks inside their seemingly safe bedroom."
From the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:
Rogue movers typically work like this: Without ever visiting your home or seeing the goods you want moved, they give a low estimate over the telephone or Internet. Once your goods are on their truck, they demand more money before they will deliver or unload them. They hold your goods hostage and force you to pay more — sometimes much more than you thought you had agreed to — if you want your possessions back. Your best defense is to recognize a rogue mover before they have your goods. From the FTC: An identity thief stole my phone!
Here are the “red flags” to look out for:
Rogue movers typically work like this: Without ever visiting your home or seeing the goods you want moved, they give a low estimate over the telephone or Internet. Once your goods are on their truck, they demand more money before they will deliver or unload them. They hold your goods hostage and force you to pay more — sometimes much more than you thought you had agreed to — if you want your possessions back.
Your best defense is to recognize a rogue mover before they have your goods.
From the FTC: An identity thief stole my phone!
June 8, 2017
Identity theft can happen to anyone. I’m a fraud investigator, and I’d like to tell you about my identity theft. Knowing how to respond will help you if you ever have to recover your identity.
My purse was stolen recently. Charges appeared on my credit cards before I even knew it was gone. I knew I had to act quickly to protect my identity, so I went to IdentityTheft.gov. It’s the site where you can file a report and get a personalized recovery plan. My plan involved putting alerts on my credit reports, notifying my bank, canceling all my credit cards, and getting a new driver’s license.
But the thief also got my phone, which had everything on it. Contacts, photos, other valuable (to me) data. The thief turned off my phone, so I couldn’t locate it using the “Find my Phone” feature. Even though I had a strong password to lock my phone, I didn’t want to risk the thief getting into it. I was able to send an erase command that will wipe the device clean, once the phone connects to the internet. If I’d done a backup recently (which you really should – in fact, go do it now), all of my data would have been safe. But I hadn’t, so I lost some photos and files that were important to me. Seriously: go back up your phone.
This led me to realize: there was a lot more I needed to do to protect my digital identity. Whether you’ve lost your device or you want to be prepared, here are some tips you can take to protect your digital identity:
- Lock your phone. Use at least a 6-digit passcode on your device, or use the pattern lock or fingerprint scanner. Set the device to lock when not in use. This is especially important if you use a mobile wallet or money transfer apps.
- Update it and back it up. Back up your device regularly and make sure automatic updates are turned on. Backing up your phone regularly and automatically makes sure that you’ll still have your stuff – if it disappears.
- Get help finding your phone. Install and turn on Find My iPhone (iOS) or Find My Device (Android). These apps could help you locate your device if you lose it. If your phone is stolen, these apps also let you remotely issue a command to erase your device – even if a thief turns it off.
- Alert your wireless provider if your phone is missing. Make the call as soon as you know your device is missing. They can permanently or temporarily disable the SIM card to stop someone from using the device for calls or the internet. It helps, too, if you have a record of your phone’s serial number or IMEI number (a unique identifier for your phone).
- Turn on two-factor authentication. That means you’ll give your password and a second way to prove that you’re you. This extra layer of security makes it much harder for thieves to get into your accounts and lock you out. Many providers give several options to authenticate your identity, so be sure you have a backup method (like one-time use codes or a backup email address) in case you don’t have access to your device to receive texts or phone calls.
- Know which devices have access to your accounts. Many social media sites and email providers, and some phone operating systems, let you view the logins for your devices from the settings menu. You can remove devices from the account, and log out of the site remotely using a computer or another device. That’s handy if ever you lose your phone, tablet, or laptop.
- Check your log-in and account notifications. Many email and social media accounts can notify you if a new device connects to your account, or if someone tried to change your passwords.
- When in doubt, change your passwords. If you’ve lost your device, change your passwords. Many of us set our devices to remember passwords – which could mean that someone who gets your phone could get access to your accounts and personal information. So: if you lose your phone, change your email, social media, online banking, shopping, and other passwords right away.
For more tips on what to do to protect yourself from identity thieves, check out ftc.gov/idtheft.
From the FTC: Student loan scam gets an F from the FTC
The costs of student loans and fees can be overwhelming. You might see online ads that promise to help lower your payments or get your loans forgiven. But be wary of companies that make those promises, and never pay an upfront fee. Today, the FTC announced it had filed charges against Strategic Student Solutions, Student Relief Center, and related companies for lying to consumers about providing student loan debt relief and charging illegal upfront fees.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Strategic Student Solutions promised consumers loan forgiveness or payment reduction and credit repair services, but they didn’t deliver. They told consumers that their monthly fees would be put toward their student loans. They also charged consumers illegal upfront fees of up to $1,200.
Consumers found out later that they had not been enrolled in forgiveness or repayment programs, that none of their payments had been put towards their student loans, and their credit had not been repaired. In fact, consumers often ended up farther behind on their payments than when they first signed up for the companies’ services.
If you have paid money to Strategic Student Solutions or Student Relief Center, contact your loan servicer immediately. Depending on the type of loans you have, you may want to discuss a repayment plan or other options for your situation.
Remember, you do not have to pay for help with your student loans. Never pay an upfront fee for the promise of debt relief. Learn how to spot a debt relief scheme.
To report a student loan debt relief scam, file a complaint with:
· the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint
· the CFPB at consumerfinance.gov/complaint
Operation Tech Trap Shuts Down Tech Scams
The FTC and federal, state and international law enforcement agencies brought 29 cases against operators of tech support scams. “Operation Tech Trap” went after companies that allegedly used pop-up ads that resembled security alerts from Microsoft, Apple or other technology companies, to trick people into believing their computers were infected with viruses and malware, and then charged them hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs. The FTC and its law enforcement partners filed complaints, entered into settlements, brought indictments, and secured guilty pleas against the entities running these scams.
Court Halts Scheme that Preyed on Spanish Speakers
A federal court stopped an operation that deceptively sold products for learning English to Spanish-speaking people. The FTC says the defendants pretended to be affiliated with the government, well-known companies, or a Spanish-language radio station — all to sell products that cost $200 to $800. If people refused the offer or canceled delivery, says the FTC, the telemarketers threatened to sue, arrest or jail consumers, or seize their homes. According to the FTC, in some cases, even after consumers paid, the telemarketers kept calling and making false claims and threats. The court froze the defendants’ assets pending resolution of the case.
FTC: Opiate Addiction Product Claims are Unbacked
The FTC reached a settlement agreement with Catlin Enterprises, Inc., and its owner — stopping them from misleading consumers with deceptive claims about their dietary supplements for opiate withdrawal. The company claimed its “Withdrawal Ease” and “Recovery Ease” products significantly helped alleviate symptoms of opiate withdrawal and increased the chances of overcoming dependency. However, the FTC says the company didn't have the required scientific evidence to back those claims. The settlement agreement bans the defendants from making claims that their products treat or cure any disease unless they have sufficient evidence.
Site Helps Small Businesses Avoid Scams, Hackers
At the direction of Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen, the FTC launched FTC.gov/SmallBusiness, to help small business owners avoid scams and protect their computers and networks from cyberattacks and other threats. The site offers articles, videos, and other information that small businesses can use to protect their networks and customer data. It also includes a Small Business Computer Security Basics guide, which helps employees of very small companies be mindful about sharing account information, using strong passwords and keeping their wireless networks protected.
FTC, DoJ Urge Alaska to Repeal CON Laws
The FTC and the Department of Justice urged Alaska lawmakers to repeal certificate-of-need (CON) laws, which require healthcare providers to obtain state approval before expanding, building new facilities, or making large capital expenditures. The agencies suggest that CON laws can restrict entry and expansion, limit consumer choice, and stifle innovation. In addition, incumbent firms can exploit the CON process by thwarting or delaying entry by new competitors, and obstructing efforts to restore competition lost due to an anticompetitive merger. The agencies suggest the state consider whether its existing CON program best serves the needs of its citizens.
From the FTC: Ransomware worries? Keep up to date.
You’ve probably heard about the ransomware attack affecting organizations’ computer systems around the world. It seems to affect server software on organizations’ networked computers. But ransomware can attack anybody’s computer, so now is a good time to update your own operating system and other software. And then keep them up-to-date.
The ransomware in the news now is known as WannaCry or WannaCrypt. It locks users out of their systems until they pay the crooks who installed it. This ransomware takes advantage of a security hole in Windows server software that can be closed by an update from Microsoft. Many of the organizations affected by the ransomware had not installed the software update.
Even if you only have one computer, download security updates as soon as they’re available – no matter what operating system you use. Hackers are constantly looking for security gaps, and companies try to close those gaps as soon as they are discovered. So it’s important to download updates right away. Most operating systems have a setting to download and install security updates automatically. Use it. And install updates for your other software, including apps.
If you use old software that doesn’t update automatically, set up a regular schedule to go to the company’s website and download and install updates yourself. It’s wise to check at least weekly.
In addition to keeping software up to date, here are a couple of other things you can do to prepare for a ransomware attack:
- Back up your important files. From tax forms to family photos, make it part of your routine to back up files often on your computers and mobile devices. When you’re done, log out of the cloud and unplug external hard drives so hackers can’t encrypt and lock your back-ups, too.
- Think twice before clicking on links or downloading attachments and apps. Ransomware often is downloaded through phishing emails. You also can get ransomware from visiting a compromised site or through malicious online ads.
IRS Imposter Scams:
You get a call from someone who says she’s from the IRS. She says that you owe back taxes. She threatens to sue you, arrest or deport you, or revoke your license if you don’t pay right away. She tells you to put money on a prepaid debit card and give her the card numbers. The caller may know part of your Social Security number. And your caller ID might show a Washington, DC area code. But is it really the IRS calling?
No. The real IRS won’t ask you to pay with prepaid debit cards or wire transfers. They also won’t ask for a credit card over the phone. And when the IRS first contacts you about unpaid taxes, they do it by mail, not by phone. And caller IDs can be faked.
Here’s what you can do:
- Stop. Don’t wire money or pay with a prepaid debit card. Once you send it, the money is gone. If you have tax questions, go to irs.gov or call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
- Pass this information on to a friend. You may not have gotten one of these calls, but the chances are you know someone who has.
If you spot a scam, please report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Report a scam online or call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or TTY 1-866-653-4261. Your complaint can help protect other people. By filing a complaint, you can help the FTC’s investigators identify the imposters and stop them before they can get someone’s hard-earned money. It really makes a difference.
From the IRS: Private Collection of Some Overdue Federal Taxes Starts in April; Those Affected Will Hear First From IRS; IRS Will Still Handle Most Tax Debts
Taxpayers: Watch Out for Scam Calls
IR-2017-74, April 4, 2017 Español
WASHINGTON — Starting this month, the Internal Revenue Service will begin sending letters to a relatively small group of taxpayers whose overdue federal tax accounts are being assigned to one of four private-sector collection agencies.
The new program, authorized under a federal law enacted by Congress in December 2015, enables these designated contractors to collect, on the government’s behalf, unpaid tax debts. Usually, these are unpaid individual tax obligations that are not currently being worked by IRS collection employees and often were assessed by the tax agency several years ago.
Taxpayers being assigned to a private firm would have had multiple contacts from the IRS in previous years and still have an unpaid tax bill.
“The IRS is taking steps throughout this effort to ensure that the private collection firms work responsibly and respect taxpayer rights,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “The IRS also urges taxpayers to be on the lookout for scammers who might use this program as a cover to trick people. In reality, those taxpayers whose accounts are assigned as part of the private collection effort know they have a tax debt.”
The program will begin this week with a few hundred taxpayers receiving mailings and subsequent phone calls, with the program growing to thousands a week later in the spring and summer. Taxpayers with overdue taxes will always receive multiple contacts, letters and phone calls, first from the IRS, not private debt collectors.
How the New Program Works
The IRS will always notify a taxpayer before transferring their account to a private collection agency (PCA). First, the IRS will send a letter to the taxpayer and their tax representative informing them that their account is being assigned to a PCA and giving the name and contact information for the PCA. This mailing will include a copy of Publication 4518, What You Can Expect When the IRS Assigns Your Account to a Private Collection Agency.
Only four private groups are participating in this program: CBE Group of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Conserve of Fairport, N.Y.; Performant of Livermore, Calif.; and Pioneer of Horseheads, N.Y. The taxpayer’s account will only be assigned to one of these agencies, never to all four. No other private group is authorized to represent the IRS.
Once the IRS letter is sent, the designated private firm will send its own letter to the taxpayer and their representative confirming the account transfer. To protect the taxpayer’s privacy and security, both the IRS letter and the collection firm’s letter will contain information that will help taxpayers identify the tax amount owed and assure taxpayers that future collection agency calls they may receive are legitimate.
The private collectors will be able to identify themselves as contractors of the IRS collecting taxes. Employees of these collection agencies must follow the provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and like IRS employees, must be courteous and must respect taxpayer rights.
The private firms are authorized to discuss payment options, including setting up payment agreements with taxpayers. But as with cases assigned to IRS employees, any tax payment must be made, either electronically or by check, to the IRS. A payment should never be sent to the private firm or anyone besides the IRS or the U.S. Treasury. Checks should only be made payable to the United States Treasury. To find out more about available payment options, visit IRS.gov/Payments.
Private firms are not authorized to take enforcement actions against taxpayers. Only IRS employees can take these actions, such as filing a notice of Federal Tax Lien or issuing a levy. To learn more about the new private debt collection program, visit the Private Debt Collection page on IRS.gov.
Watch out for Phone Scams
The IRS reminds taxpayers to be on the lookout for scammers posing as private collection firms. The IRS will be watching for these schemes as the collection program begins, and this effort will include working with partners in the tax community and law enforcement about emerging scams.
People should remember that these private collection firms will only be calling about a tax debt the person has had – and has been aware of – for years and had been contacted about previously in the past by the IRS.
“Here’s a simple rule to keep in mind. You won’t get a call from a private collection firm unless you have unpaid tax debts going back several years and you’ve already heard from the IRS multiple times,” Koskinen said. “The people included in the private collection program typically already know they have a tax issue. If you get a call from someone saying they’re from one of these groups and you’ve paid your taxes, that’s a sure sign of a scam.”
If taxpayers are unsure if they have an unpaid tax debt from a previous year – which is what the private collection firms will handle – they can go to IRS.gov and check their account balance: www.irs.gov/balancedue. If the account balance says zero, that means nothing is due, and you typically wouldn’t be getting a contact from the IRS or the private firm.
Whether or not a taxpayer’s account is assigned to a private collection agency, the IRS warns taxpayers to beware of scammers pretending to be from the IRS or an IRS contractor. Here are some things the scammers often do but the IRS and its contractors will never do.
- Call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS will first mail a bill to any taxpayer who owes taxes, and if a case is assigned to a PCA, both the IRS and the authorized collection agency will send the taxpayer a letter. Payment will always be to the United States Treasury.
- Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have the taxpayer arrested for not paying.
- Demand that taxes be paid without giving the taxpayer the opportunity to question or appeal the amount owed.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
“Unexpected and threatening calls out of the blue from someone saying they’re representing the IRS to collect a tax debt is a warning sign people should watch out for,” Koskinen said.
For more information, visit the “Tax Scams and Consumer Alerts” page on IRS.gov.
Don’t Wait to Hear from the IRS or a Contractor
As always, the IRS encourages taxpayers behind on their tax obligations to come forward and either pay what they owe or set up a suitable payment plan. This means there’s no need to wait for a phone call or letter from the IRS or any of its contractors.
Frequently, taxpayers qualify for one of several payment options, and taking advantage of them is often easier than many people think. These include the following:
- Most people can set up a payment agreement with the IRS online in a matter of minutes. Those who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest can use the Online Payment Agreement to set up a monthly payment agreement for up to 72 months. Taxpayers can choose this option even if they have not yet received a bill or notice from the IRS. With the Online Payment Agreement, no paperwork is required, there is no need to call, write or visit the IRS and qualified taxpayers can avoid the filing of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien if one was not previously filed. Alternatively, taxpayers can request a payment agreement by filing Form 9465. This form can be downloaded from IRS.gov and mailed along with a tax return, bill or notice.
- Some struggling taxpayers may qualify for an offer-in-compromise. This is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. The IRS looks at the taxpayer’s income and assets to make a determination regarding the taxpayer’s ability to pay. To help determine eligibility, use the Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier, a free online tool available on IRS.gov.
“If people have a problem paying their tax bill, we encourage them to reach out to us,” Koskinen said. “We have many programs designed to help people who are having trouble meeting their tax obligations. It’s better to reach out to us sooner rather than later for help, because interest and penalties on unpaid taxes can add up quickly.”
From the FTC: 10 Things You Can Do to Avoid Fraud
Crooks use clever schemes to defraud millions of people every year. They often combine new technology with old tricks to get people to send money or give out personal information. Here are some practical tips to help you stay a step ahead.
- Spot imposters. Scammers often pretend to be someone you trust, like a government official, a family member, a charity, or a company you do business with. Don’t send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request — whether it comes as a text, a phone call, or an email.
- Do online searches. Type a company or product name into your favorite search engine with words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” Or search for a phrase that describes your situation, like “IRS call.” You can even search for phone numbers to see if other people have reported them as scams.
- Don’t believe your caller ID. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information, so the name and number you see aren’t always real. If someone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. If you think the caller might be telling the truth, call back to a number you know is genuine.
- Don’t pay upfront for a promise. Someone might ask you to pay in advance for things like debt relief, credit and loan offers, mortgage assistance, or a job. They might even say you’ve won a prize, but first you have to pay taxes or fees. If you do, they will probably take the money and disappear.
- Consider how you pay. Credit cards have significant fraud protection built in, but some payment methods don’t. Wiring money through services like Western Union or MoneyGram is risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back. That’s also true for reloadable cards like MoneyPak, Reloadit or Vanilla. Government offices and honest companies won’t require you to use these payment methods.
- Talk to someone. Before you give up your money or personal information, talk to someone you trust. Con artists want you to make decisions in a hurry. They might even threaten you. Slow down, check out the story, do an online search, consult an expert — or just tell a friend.
- Hang up on robocalls. If you answer the phone and hear a recorded sales pitch, hang up and report it to the FTC. These calls are illegal, and often the products are bogus. Don’t press 1 to speak to a person or to be taken off the list. That could lead to more calls.
- Be skeptical about free trial offers. Some companies use free trials to sign you up for products and bill you every month until you cancel. Before you agree to a free trial, research the company and read the cancellation policy. And always review your monthly statements for charges you don’t recognize.
- Don’t deposit a check and wire money back. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. If a check you deposit turns out to be a fake, you’re responsible for repaying the bank.
- Sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams. Get the latest tips and advice about scams sent right to your inbox.
For information on the Cuisinart food processor recall, Click HERE
Online shopping for the holidays? Check this list from the Federal Trade Commission:
In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it pays to slow down and take some precautions when shopping online. You see, the FTC has recently seen a spike of complaints about online retailers who didn’t deliver goods when they said they would, or didn’t deliver them at all. Late or no-show deliveries can make for less-than-jolly holidays. So here are a few tips to help make your online shopping merry and bright.
- Do your research. Use search engines to find out more about a product, brand or seller. Type the name into a search engine with words like “review” “complaint” or “scam.”
- Read reviews from other people, experts and columnists. They can give you an idea of how a product performs. Don’t put all your trust in any one review. Some reviews are based on testing by independent experts, others are from people who purchased the product. Both types can be useful.
- Check the terms of the deal, including delivery dates and refund policies. Can you return the item for a full refund if you’re not satisfied? Who pays the shipping costs or restocking fees? When will you get your order? Can you pay extra for faster delivery? Federal law requires sellers to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised. Many sites offer tracking options that let you see where your purchase is in the delivery chain, and when you can expect it to arrive.
- Look for contact information. Several sites that generated complaints to the FTC had little or no information on how to get in touch with the company. If you don’t see a phone number or email address, consider it a red flag and take your business elsewhere.
For more tips, visit our online shopping page.
IRS Wraps Up the "Dirty Dozen" List of Tax Scams for 2016
IR-2016-29, Feb. 19, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service today wrapped up its annual "Dirty Dozen" list of tax scams with identity theft topping this year's list but with phone scams and phishing schemes also deserving special mention. Taxpayers need to guard against any ploys to steal their personal information, scam them out of money or talk them into engaging in questionable behavior with their taxes.
During the past year, as part of the Security Summit initiative, the IRS partnered with states and the tax industry to enhance coordination and create a more secure system for taxpayers. Participants now regularly share details of fraudulent schemes detected so both industry and government can provide increased protection. Many enhancements are invisible to taxpayers.
"We are working hard to protect taxpayers from identity theft and other scams this filing season," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "Taxpayers have rights and should not be frightened into providing personal information or money to someone over the phone or in an email. We urge taxpayers to help protect themselves from scams — old and new."
This is the second year the IRS has highlighted its Dirty Dozen list in separate releases over 12 business days. Taxpayers are encouraged to review the list in a special section on IRS.gov and be on the lookout for these scams. Many of these con games peak during filing season as people prepare their tax returns or hire someone to do so.
The IRS this week also renewed a consumer alert for e-mail schemes after seeing an approximate 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents so far this tax season. (IR-2016-28)
Perpetrators of illegal scams can face significant penalties and interest and possible criminal prosecution. IRS Criminal Investigation works closely with the Department of Justice to shut down scams and prosecute the criminals behind them. Taxpayers should remember that they are legally responsible for what is on their tax return even if it is prepared by someone else. Be sure the preparer is up to the task. For more see the Choosing a Tax Professional page.
Here is a recap of this year's "Dirty Dozen" scams:
Identity Theft: Taxpayers need to watch out for identity theft especially around tax time. The IRS continues to aggressively pursue the criminals that file fraudulent returns using someone else’s Social Security number. Though the agency is making progress on this front, taxpayers still need to be extremely careful and do everything they can to avoid being victimized. (IR-2016-12)
Phone Scams: Phone calls from criminals impersonating IRS agents remain an ongoing threat to taxpayers. The IRS has seen a surge of these phone scams in recent years as scam artists threaten taxpayers with police arrest, deportation and license revocation, among other things. (IR-2016-14)
Phishing: Taxpayers need to be on guard against fake emails or websites looking to steal personal information. The IRS will never send taxpayers an email about a bill or refund out of the blue. Don’t click on one claiming to be from the IRS.Be wary of strange emails and websites that may be nothing more than scams to steal personal information. (IR-2016-15)
Return Preparer Fraud: Be on the lookout for unscrupulous return preparers. The vast majority of tax professionals provide honest high-quality service. But there are some dishonest preparers who set up shop each filing season to perpetrate refund fraud, identity theft and other scams that hurt taxpayers. Legitimate tax professionals are a vital part of the U.S. tax system. (IR-2016-16)
Offshore Tax Avoidance: The recent string of successful enforcement actions against offshore tax cheats and the financial organizations that help them shows that it’s a bad bet to hide money and income offshore. Taxpayers are best served by coming in voluntarily and getting caught up on their tax-filing responsibilities. The IRS offers the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) to enable people catch up on their filing and tax obligations. (IR-2016-17)
Inflated Refund Claims: Taxpayers need to be on the lookout for anyone promising inflated refunds. Be wary of anyone who asks taxpayers to sign a blank return, promises a big refund before looking at their records, or charges fees based on a percentage of the refund. Scam artists use flyers, advertisements, phony store fronts and word of mouth via community groups where trust is high to find victims. (IR-2016-18)
Fake Charities: Be on guard against groups masquerading as charitable organizations to attract donations from unsuspecting contributors. Be wary of charities with names similar to familiar or nationally-known organizations. Contributors should take a few extra minutes to ensure their hard-earned money goes to legitimate and currently eligible charities. IRS.gov has the tools taxpayers need to check out the status of charitable organizations. (IR-2016-20)
Falsely Padding Deductions on Returns: Taxpayers should avoid the temptation of falsely inflating deductions or expenses on their returns to under pay what they owe or possibly receive larger refunds. Think twice before overstating deductions such as charitable contributions and business expenses or improperly claiming such credits as the Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit. (IR-2016-21)
Excessive Claims for Business Credits: Avoid improperly claiming the fuel tax credit, a tax benefit generally not available to most taxpayers. The credit is generally limited to off-highway business use, including use in farming. Taxpayers should also avoid misuse of the research credit. Improper claims generally involve failures to participate in or substantiate qualified research activities and/or satisfy the requirements related to qualified research expenses. (IR-2016-22)
Falsifying Income to Claim Credits: Don’t invent income to erroneously qualify for tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Taxpayers are sometimes talked into doing this by scam artists. Taxpayers are best served by filing the most-accurate return possible because they are legally responsible for what is on their return. This scam can lead to taxpayers facing big bills to pay back taxes, interest and penalties. In some cases, they may even face criminal prosecution. (IR-2016-23)
Abusive Tax Shelters: Don’t use abusive tax structures to avoid paying taxes. The IRS is committed to stopping complex tax avoidance schemes and the people who create and sell them. The vast majority of taxpayers pay their fair share, and everyone should be on the lookout for people peddling tax shelters that sound too good to be true. When in doubt, taxpayers should seek an independent opinion regarding complex products they are offered. (IR-2016-25)
Frivolous Tax Arguments: Don’t use frivolous tax arguments in an effort to avoid paying tax. Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims Even though they are wrong and have been repeatedly thrown out of court. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law or disregard their responsibility to pay taxes. The penalty for filing a frivolous tax return is $5,000. (IR-2016-27)
Additional information about tax scams is available on IRS social media sites, including YouTube http://www.youtube.com/irsvideos and Tumblr http://internalrevenueservice.tumblr.com, where people can search “scam” to find all the scam-related posts.
CONSUMER ALERT: UTILITIES CALL SCAM
Beware of Callers Posing as Utility Employees Demanding Immediate Payment
WASHINGTON, November 15, 2016 – The Federal Communications Commission is alerting consumers to be on the lookout for callers pretending to be utility company employees demanding immediate payment, often by prepaid debit cards, credit cards, or gift cards. As American consumers prepare for winter months when many people would be endangered by an interruption to heating fuel, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau wanted to make consumers aware of this scam and prepared to protect themselves.
Key Consumer Tip: If consumers receive a call warning them of a balance they do not believe they owe their utility, they should hang up, independently look up their utility company’s phone number on a recent statement or legitimate website, and call that number to verify the legitimacy of the call.
In this scam, the caller typically poses as a representative of the consumer’s actual local utility, stating that immediate payment will ensure that the consumer’s heating service will not be disconnected. The scammers are known to spoof utility company telephone numbers so the caller ID makes it appear to be a call from the utility company. These scammers often use automated interactive voice response calling systems that mimic legitimate providers’ calls. After consumers, many of whom are older adults, follow instructions via interactive prompts, they are connected to a live “customer service representative” who asks for the access code for a credit, debit, or gift card. This information allows the scammer to cash out the card or sell it to a third party.
Anyone who believes they have been targeted by this scam should immediately report the incident to their actual utility company, to local police, to the Federal Trade Commission’s Complaint Assistant, and to the FCC’s Consumer Help Center.
Consumers should always be on alert for this scam and others. The following tips can help ward off unwanted calls and scams:
- Do not answer calls from unknown numbers. Let them go to voicemail.
- If you are unclear if a caller is legitimate, hang up, look up the company’s phone number independently on your recent bill or their legitimate website, and contact them through an official number, web form or email address to see if they called you. By initiating the communication yourself, you can verify that the request for payment is legitimate
- If you answer and the caller (often a recording) asks you to hit a button to stop getting the calls, just hang up. Scammers often use these tricks to identify – and then target – live respondents.
- If you receive a scam call, write down the number and file a complaint with the FCC and other appropriate authorities so we can help identify and take appropriate action to help consumers targeted by illegal callers.
- Ask your phone service provider if it offers a robocall blocking service that allows subscribers to block unwanted calls. If not, encourage your provider to start offering a blocking service. You can also visit the FCC’s website on “Web Resources for Blocking Robocalls” for information and resources on available robocall blocking tools to help you reduce unwanted calls.
- Legitimate utility companies will not demand payment via gift cards.
As the agency that implements and enforces the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, the FCC reviews all consumer complaints and will continue, when appropriate, to issue consumer alerts based on those complaints and other public information related to possible scams and frauds. This is part of a new, standing series of consumer alerts from the FCC in hopes of informing, protecting, and empowering consumers.
News from the Department of Justice:
Dozens of Individuals Indicted in Multimillion-Dollar Indian Call Center Scam Targeting U.S. Victims
Today, an indictment was unsealed charging a total of 61 individuals and entities for their alleged involvement in a transnational criminal organization that has victimized tens of thousands of persons in the United States through fraudulent schemes that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. In connection with the scheme, 20 individuals were arrested today in the United States and 32 individuals and five call centers in India were charged for their alleged involvement. An additional U.S.-based defendant is currently in the custody of immigration authorities.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas, Executive Associate Director Peter T. Edge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Inspector General J. Russell George of the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) and Inspector General John Roth of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) made the announcement today.
“The indictment we unsealed and the arrests we made today demonstrate the Justice Department’s commitment to identifying and prosecuting the individuals behind these impersonation and telefraud schemes, who seek to profit by exploiting some of the most vulnerable members of our communities,”said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “This is a transnational problem, and demonstrates that modern criminals target Americans both from inside our borders and from abroad. Only by working tirelessly to gather evidence, build cases and working closely with foreign law enforcement partners to ensure there are no safe havens can we effectively address these threats.”
“This indictment will serve to not only seek the conviction of those involved, but will send a message around the world that no one is safe from prosecution for participating in such pervasive transnational fraud schemes,” said U.S. Attorney Magidson. “We are extremely vigilant when the names of U.S. government agencies are used to perpetuate fraud for the purpose of victimizing so many innocent American citizens.”
“Today’s actions will not only bring a sense of justice to the victims in this case, but this significant investigation will also help increase awareness of this type of fraud,” said Executive Associate Director Edge. “To potential victims, our message today is simple: U.S. government agencies do not make these types of calls, and if you receive one, contact law enforcement to report the suspected scam before you make a payment.”
“All agencies involved in today’s announcement are to be congratulated and commended on their outstanding efforts,” said Inspector General George. “This indictment is the result of countless hours of solid investigative work and excellent cross-governmental collaboration concerning massive amounts of fraud that individuals have allegedly perpetrated on the American people.”
“This multi-agency, three year investigation illustrates the ability of federal, state and local agencies to successfully leverage resources, communicate and work together to achieve justice,” said Inspector General Roth. “We commend the victims for overcoming any possible embarrassment or fear and coming forward and report this to the authorities.”
The indictment was returned by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Oct. 19, 2016, and charges the defendants with conspiracy to commit identity theft, false personation of an officer of the United States, wire fraud and money laundering. One of the defendants is separately charged with passport fraud.
The indictment alleges that the defendants were involved in a sophisticated fraudulent scheme organized by conspirators in India, including a network of call centers in Ahmedabad, India. Using information obtained from data brokers and other sources, call center operators allegedly called potential victims while impersonating officials from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. According to the indictment, the call center operators then threatened potential victims with arrest, imprisonment, fines or deportation if they did not pay taxes or penalties to the government. If the victims agreed to pay, the call centers would then immediately turn to a network of U.S.-based co-conspirators to liquidate and launder the extorted funds as quickly as possible by purchasing prepaid debit cards or through wire transfers. The prepaid debit cards were often registered using misappropriated personal identifying information of thousands of identity theft victims, and the wire transfers were directed by the criminal associates using fake names and fraudulent identifications.
The co-conspirators allegedly used “hawalas,” in which money is transferred internationally outside of the formal banking system, to direct the extorted funds to accounts belonging to U.S.-based individuals. According to the indictment, these individuals were expecting the hawala transfers but were not aware of the illicit nature of the funds. The co-conspirators also allegedly kept a percentage of the proceeds for themselves.
According to the indictment, one of the call centers extorted $12,300 from an 85-year-old victim from San Diego, California, after threatening her with arrest if she did not pay fictitious tax violations. On the same day that she was extorted, one of the U.S.-based defendants allegedly used a reloadable debit card funded with the victim’s money to purchase money orders in Frisco, Texas.
The indictment also alleges that the defendants extorted $136,000 from a victim in Hayward, California, who they called multiple times over a period of 20 days, fraudulently purporting to be IRS agents and demanding payment for alleged tax violations. The victim was then directed to purchase 276 stored value cards which the defendants then transferred to reloadable debit cards. Some of the victim’s money ended up on cards which were activated using stolen personal identifying information from U.S.- based victims.
The conspirators would at times allegedly use alternative fraudulent schemes in which the call center operators would offer the victims small short-term loans or advise them that they were eligible for grants. The indictment alleges that the conspirators would then request a good-faith deposit to show the victims’ ability to pay back the loan, or payment of a fee to process the grant. The victims of the alleged scam never received any money after making the requested payment.
An indictment is merely an allegation and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
DHS OIG, HSI and TIGTA led the investigation. The Ft. Bend, Texas, County Sheriff’s Department; the Hoffman Estates, Illinois, Police Department; the Leonia, New Jersey, Police Department; the Naperville, Illinois, Police Department; the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office Family Protection/Elder Abuse Unit; the U.S. Secret Service; U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Inspector General; IOC-2; INTERPOL Washington; and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices of the Northern District of Alabama, District of Arizona, Central District of California, Northern District of California, District of Colorado, Northern District of Florida, Middle District of Florida, Northern District of Illinois, Northern District of Indiana, District of Nevada and District of New Jersey provided significant support in this case. The Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau provided assistance in TIGTA’s investigation.
Senior Trial Attorney Hope Olds and Trial Attorney Michael Sheckels of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, Trial Attorney Robert Stapleton of the Criminal Division’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys S. Mark McIntyre and Craig Feazel of the Southern District of Texas are prosecuting the case.
A Department of Justice website has been established to provide information about the case to already identified and potential victims, and the public. Anyone who believes they may be a victim of fraud or identity theft in relation to this investigation or other telefraud scam phone calls may contact the FTC via this website.
Anyone who wants additional information about telefraud scams generally, or preventing identity theft or fraudulent use of their identity information, may obtain helpful information on the IRS tax scams website, the FTC phone scam website and the FTC identity theft website.
News from the IRS:
Scam Phone Calls Continue; IRS Identifies Five Easy Ways to Spot Suspicious Calls
Update September 2016 — To file a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant, choose “Scams and Rip-Offs” and then “Impostor Scams.”
IR-2014-84, Aug. 28, 2014
WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service issued a consumer alert today providing taxpayers with additional tips to protect themselves from telephone scam artists calling and pretending to be with the IRS.
These callers may demand money or may say you have a refund due and try to trick you into sharing private information. These con artists can sound convincing when they call. They may know a lot about you, and they usually alter the caller ID to make it look like the IRS is calling. They use fake names and bogus IRS identification badge numbers. If you don’t answer, they often leave an “urgent” callback request.
“These telephone scams are being seen in every part of the country, and we urge people not to be deceived by these threatening phone calls,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “We have formal processes in place for people with tax issues. The IRS respects taxpayer rights, and these angry, shake-down calls are not how we do business.”
The IRS reminds people that they can know pretty easily when a supposed IRS caller is a fake. Here are five things the scammers often do but the IRS will not do. Any one of these five things is a tell-tale sign of a scam. The IRS will never:
- Call to demand immediate payment, nor will we call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill..
- Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
- Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
- Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and asking for money, here’s what you should do:
- If you know you owe taxes or think you might owe, call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040. The IRS workers can help you with a payment issue.
- If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to believe that you do, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1.800.366.4484 or at www.tigta.gov.
- You can file a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant; choose “Other” and then “Impostor Scams.” If the complaint involves someone impersonating the IRS, include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes. [See update at top of page.]
Remember, too, the IRS does not use unsolicited email, text messages or any social media to discuss your personal tax issue. For more information on reporting tax scams, go to www.irs.gov and type “scam” in the search box.
Page Last Reviewed or Updated: 07-Oct-2016
Tip from the Federal Trade Commission:
DON'T BE FOOLED BY SCAM CALLERS PURPORTING TO BE FROM THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE. DA SULLIVAN EXPLAINS.
From the FTC:
Helping Victims of the Flooding in Louisiana — Make Sure Your Donations Count
It’s heartbreaking to see people lose their lives, homes, and businesses to the ongoing flooding in Louisiana. But it’s despicable when scammers exploit such tragedies to appeal to your sense of generosity.
If you’re looking for a way to give, the FTC urges you to be cautious of potential charity scams. Do some research to ensure that your donation will go to a reputable organization that will use the money as promised.
Consider these tips when asked to give:
• Donate to charities you know and trust with a proven track record with dealing with disasters.
• Be alert for charities that seem to have sprung up overnight in connection with current events. Check out the charity with the Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, orGuideStar.
• Designate the disaster so you can ensure your funds are going to disaster relief, rather than a general fund.
• Never click on links or open attachments in e-mails unless you know who sent it. You could unknowingly install malware on your computer.
• Don’t assume that charity messages posted on social media are legitimate. Research the organization yourself.
• When texting to donate, confirm the number with the source before you donate. The charge will show up on your mobile phone bill, but donations are not immediate. It can take as long as 90 days for the charity to receive the funds.
• Find out if the charity or fundraiser must be registered in your state by contacting the National Association of State Charity Officials. If they should be registered, but they're not, consider donating through another charity.
To learn more, go to Charity Scams. For tips to help you prepare for, deal with, and recover from a severe weather event, visitDealing with Weather Emergencies. And watch this space tomorrow morning to learn how to tell if the car you're interested in buying may have been damaged in a flood.
MONEY WIRING SCAMS
Money wiring scams continue to hurt our consumers in Western Massachusetts. The scam shows up in many different forms, but they all have one thing in common: the consumer is asked to use a money wiring service to send cash for one reason or another.
Lottery, Sweepstakes, Job applications, Overpayment, Relationship, Mystery shopper, Online auction sales, Apartment rentals, Advance Fee loans, Family emergency or a Friend in Need
SCAMMERS may ask you to send money in order to receive a big cash prize & even give you a Cashier’s Check to cover your “taxes” and “fees."
-You might apply for a job online, and your new “employer,” who you haven’t met, sends you a check to set up your new office, asking you to deposit the money into your private account and wire money to the “main office supply company” to have your office supplies sent to you.
-Some consumers have received a frightening call in the middle of the night from someone posing as their grandchild who’s in trouble and needs money wired to them right away.
The bottom line is once you deposit the check into your personal bank account, take cash out and wire the money to someone, somewhere-you are responsible for the cash you took out of your account, even if you fell for a scam.
SCAMMERS like to get paid using money wiring services because it’s fast; the money is usually picked up in cash and in person making it hard to recover.
The Office of the Attorney General issued the following press release on the Grandparent Scam
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