Common Law - The FindLaw Consumer Protection Law Blog

March 2014 Archives

IRS Phone Scam Is Biggest Ever: $1M Lost, 20K Victims

The largest-ever IRS phone scam is making the rounds. Thousands of victims have been conned out of more than $1 million by fraudsters posing as IRS agents demanding tax payments.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) says it has received more than 20,000 complaints from people, including recent immigrants, about the scam, Reuters reports.

How does the massive tax scam work, and what should consumers watch out for?

IRS Tax Scam

The IRS phone scam begins with a call from someone posing as an IRS agent, telling intended victims they owe taxes and must pay using a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The fraudsters threaten those who refuse to pay with arrest, deportation or loss of a business or driver's license, Reuters reports.

To make the scam seem more legitimate, the scammers often know the last four digits of the taxpayer's Social Security number. Don't rely on your caller ID to identify the scam -- the scammers can manipulate a victim's caller ID to display a local IRS office number.

In many cases, taxpayers -- particularly those who hang up on the call -- will get follow-up calls that appear to be from their state motor vehicle agency or the police. The scammers also send follow-up emails that mimic the IRS insignia and even appear to be signed by real IRS officials.

IRS Tax Scam Red Flags

The IRS contacts taxpayers by U.S. mail. The IRS will never do any of the following things:

  • Ask for payment via debit card or wire transfer;
  • Ask you to provide a credit card number over the phone;
  • Request personal or financial information by e-mail, text or social media;
  • Use threatening language if you don't pay immediately.

What to Do If You Get a Call

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and he or she is asking for payment, here's what to do about the consumer scam:

  • If you owe (or think you owe) federal taxes, hang up and call the IRS directly via a toll-free number, (800) 829-1040.
  • If you don't owe taxes, call and report the incident to the Treasury inspector general of tax administration at (800) 366-4484.
  • If you'd like, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments in your complaint.

Also, don't open emails that are purportedly from the IRS (and definitely don't open attachments or click on links in the email). Forward it to phishing@irs.gov.

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Bitcoin Phishing Email Alert: 3 Red Flags It's a Scam

If you receive an email announcing you've received Bitcoins, you may be at risk for a phishing scam.

Emails purporting to be from Coinbase, a San Francisco-based tech company that provides virtual "wallets" for the virtual Bitcoin currency, are the key to scammers gaining access to your data and personal information.

How can you avoid Bitcoin phishing attacks? Look for these three red flags:

1. An Email Beginning With 'Hi.'

As Slate reported on Friday, their office received a number of these Bitcoin emails which all began with "Hi," but were not addressed to anyone.

One sign of a malicious email is that it is unsolicited and has a very general subject. Phishing emails work by being sent en-masse to individuals, claiming to be from a trusted source. Although it would be mighty friendly to receive unsolicited hi's and hello's from our banks and government agencies, it's more likely that a general message like this is a phishing attempt.

2. Strange Email Addresses.

Another red flag that an email is a phishing attempt is that it came from a strange email address. Email addresses should generally match the person claiming to be the sender, but these phishing emails often have unfamiliar accounts listed as the sender.

Don't feel bad if you didn't look for this detail before, phishing attacks have even brought down The Associated Press.

3. Links to Who-Knows-Where.

This is a good practice to avoid all types of online scams: Phishing emails will often ask the recipient to "click this link" to receive information or funds. In the Coinbase Bitcoin phishing scam, the sender asks the recipient to click a link in order to receive some unclaimed amount of Bitcoins.

If you receive a link claiming to be from a person or entity you trust, contact that person first to verify the email came from that source.

Coinbase noted this security breach in January and has since updated its security to attempt to prevent future phishing attacks. But by keeping alert to these three red flags, you should be prepared.

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GM Recalls 1.2M SUVs; Honda Recalls 900K Minivans

A GM SUV recall and a Honda minivan recall are in full swing, adding to the staggering number of vehicles being recalled as of late.

General Motors has had a tough time with recalls lately. The U.S. Department of Justice recently launched a formal investigation into GM for allegedly failing to address dangerous safety problems for years before issuing a separate recall affecting compact cars.

What are the GM and Honda recalls about this time around?

GM Midsize Crossover SUV Recall

Roughly 1.18 million GM midsize crossover SUVs are being recalled because their side air bags, front center air bags, and seat belt pretensioners might not deploy if drivers ignore an air bag warning light on their dashboard, The Associated Press reports.

This GM SUV recall affects the following vehicles:

  • Buick Enclaves and GMC Acadias from model years 2008 to 2013;
  • Chevrolet Traverses from model years 2009 to 2013; and
  • Saturn Outlooks from model years 2008 to 2010.

GM says it has received no reports of injuries related to any of the recalls, but that contradicts publicly available complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If people have in fact suffered injuries from the air bag defect, they could likely be successful in a lawsuit against the car manufacturer for injuries caused by the defect.

Honda Minivan Recall

Honda's recall includes nearly 900,000 Odyssey minivans from model years 2005 to 2010 that could catch fire. More specifically, the affected vehicles have a fuel-pump part that could crack and cause a fuel leak, increasing the risk of fire, Reuters reports.

Thus far, there have been no reported injuries from the Honda minivans under recall. Car owners who haven't sustained an injury are still entitled to recall remedies.

Honda has three options for correcting the defect: repair, replacement, or refund. The company has opted to replace the fuel-pump part. However, because of the sheer number of vehicles involved -- 886,815 Odyssey vans, to be exact -- the replacement parts won't be ready until summer. Meantime, the company will provide "interim" parts to customers, who will be notified beginning in April.

Car owners who have a problem with a recall repair may want to contact an experienced motor vehicle defects attorney to explore possible legal options.

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Spring Break Travel: Know Your Rights at the Airport

Spring breakers dealing with air travel will want to know their rights at the airport.

Whether it's going through airport security or knowing how to deal with airlines if your flight is delayed or cancelled, travelers should be aware of the limitations of the law.

So here's what you should know regarding your rights at the airport:

Airport Security

Before you can hop on a plane, you need to go through a TSA security check. Most airports still utilize body scanners or walk-through metal detectors. Although controversial, TSA body scanners are lawful, but if you're uncomfortable with the process, you can opt for a pat-down instead.

According to the TSA, pat downs are performed by an officer of the same gender. Passengers can request a private screening at any time, but it should be offered if a TSA agent must pat down a sensitive area.

If you have any sensitive areas or have difficulty raising your arms or remaining in the requested position, you should inform the officer. Finally, passengers shouldn't be asked to remove or lift up clothing to reveal any sensitive body parts during the pat down.

If you feel a pat-down has gone too far, there is a procedure in place for complaints.

Permitted Items

While travelers are still limited to the "3-1-1" liquids rule for carry-ons, the TSA has relaxed some of its other carry-on policies to allow previously banned items onto planes. Some of the items now allowed to be carried on include:

  • Small pocket knives with non-locking blades that measure 2.36 inches (6 centimeters) or less,
  • Golf clubs,
  • Small novelty bats and toy bats,
  • Ski poles,
  • Lacrosse sticks,
  • Hockey sticks, and
  • Billiard cues.

Items like razor blades and box cutters are still prohibited. However, you can still place many prohibited carry-on items in your checked baggage. (If you're only traveling with carry-ons, then you might want to consider mailing some items to your final destination or give it a friend who drops you off at the airport.)

Knowing your rights at the airport will help make Spring Break travel more relaxing, and you won't have to worry as much about making it through airport security.

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Life is full of unexpected roadblocks and sometimes those roadblocks require you to cancel your Spring Break trip. If this happens to you, can you get your money back?

Depending on your hotel and/or airline's policies, you may be able to get a refund if you cancel weeks in advance. However, if you need to cancel at the last minute, you may be out of luck unless you have travel insurance or are willing to reschedule.

Hotel Cancellation Policies

Whether you can get your money back after you cancel your hotel reservation depends on the hotel or travel agency's policies. Some hotels will allow you to get a full refund if you cancel up to 24 hours in advance. However, some online travel agencies may require you to pay the entire cost of your stay even if you don't show up. Be sure to read your hotel's cancellation policy very carefully, so you know exactly what will happen in the event of a cancellation and how you can get your money back.

Your best bet to getting your money back is if you cancel several weeks in advance. If you purchased trip insurance when planning your vacation, you may be reimbursed for your hotel costs if you need to cancel last minute. However, travel insurance policies usually only cover unforeseen circumstances, so you may be prevented from recovering due to chronic illnesses or pregnancy. Some policies also exclude political unrest and terrorism. Others may cover your hotel cancellation due to natural disasters or a sudden death in the family.

Airline Cancellation Policies

Like hotel contracts, you sign a contract with an airline when you purchase your ticket. So the terms of the contract will tell you how they handle cancellations and if you can get your money back.

The farther in advance you cancel your flight, the better chances you have of getting a refund. But what happens if your flight is cancelled due to weather? Airlines don't guarantee the time or date you're entitled to fly, but they should make every effort to rebook or reroute you as soon as possible.

If you get sick right before your flight, airlines may not give you your money back, but will likely allow you to reschedule. In extenuating circumstances, like a terrorist attack or jury duty, airlines will likely provide a refund, though you may need to provide proof of those circumstances, according to USA Today.

While some Spring Break cancellations are non-refundable, you might be able to get some of your money back or receive a travel voucher if you choose to reschedule your trip rather than cancel it all together.

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A Netflix phishing scam is making the rounds. The tech support scam begins when you're logging in to Netflix.

If you follow the instructions contained in the pop-up "security message," you'll interact with fake Microsoft tech support reps and wind up having your personal computer files stolen, Malwarebytes Unpacked reports.

Here are three warning signs of the Netflix phishing scam:

  1. Pop-up message. When you try logging in to your Netflix account, a screen unexpectedly pops up saying that your username was suspended due to “unusual activity” on your account and you are told to contact “Member Services” in order to regain access. It will include an error code.
  2. Fake customer support number. In order to fix this security issue, you are then urged to call “Netflix” at a toll-free 800 number. However, if you type that number into a search engine like Google, you will find out this is not the official Netflix hotline. Something should smell "phishy" if you're given a so-called "Netflix phone number" that's actually an unaffiliated number.
  3. "NetFlix Support Software." Once you call the number, the fake Netflix support representative will have you download some "NetFlix Support Software." (Note the capital "F" in the fake "NetFlix" software link, which should be another red flag.) This is how the scammers can potentially gain access to your computer files.
  4. Fake scan and Microsoft technician. Next, the rep will tell you that a hacker has infiltrated your computer and you need to take further measures to fix the problem. This will include letting a Microsoft Certified Technician fix your computer.
  5. Picture ID and credit card. Finally, the scammers might request proof of your identity, including a photo ID and a photo of your credit card. They might even activate your webcam remotely so you can show them these items.

If you notice any of these warning signs, do not engage the message or any of the following instructions.

Stolen Personal Files

Of course, while the fake "support reps" are "assisting" you with a hacking attempt, they are actually accessing and uploading your personal files, leading to identity theft.

If you fall victim to the scam and give the fake support people access to your computer, the scammers will not only steal sensitive files from your computer, but swindle you out of $400 to “fix” your hacking problem.

In such a case, you'll want to take identity theft recovery steps.

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FDA Proposes Food Label Changes, Seeks Public Comment

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed changes to those "Nutrition Facts" labels for packaged foods that will reflect the latest scientific information.

The purpose behind the proposed changes is to incorporate information that research has revealed about the connection between the food Americans consume and the development of serious chronic diseases, according to the FDA.

But before the new labeling rules can take effect, the public gets 90 days to comment.

The Proposed Changes

According to the FDA, some of the proposed label changes include:

  • Making information about the amount of "added sugars" mandatory on label, so Americans can better manage their intake;
  • Having "dual column" labels that'll reflect "per serving" and "per package" calorie and nutrition information for larger packages;
  • Updating serving size requirements, so they're on par with the amount people actually eat (serving sizes on current labels reflect the amount people should be eating in 1994. The FDA's proposed change would reflect more realistic amounts); and
  • Removing the "Calories From Fat" category, because the FDA says it's more important to show the different types of fat in a product. So "Total Fat", "Saturated Fat", and "Trans Fat" amounts will still be on the label.

These are just some of the proposed changes. To read all of the proposed rules, visit the Federal Register online. That's also where you can submit formal comments about the proposal.

Public Comment and the FDA Rulemaking Process

The first step in the FDA rulemaking process is to issue a proposed rule, explaining the scientific and policy reasons behind it. The next step is to ask for public comment.

After public comments have been received and evaluated, the FDA may decide to revise and issue a new proposed rule or issue a final rule. If the agency is ready to officially enact the final rule, other parts of the federal government may review it before it's published in the Federal Register, according to the FDA.

Once the other government agencies get a chance to review the final rule and no further changes are needed, the new rules get published in the Federal Register with the date upon which the rule becomes effective and enforceable.

The FDA is accepting public comments on the proposed changes until June 2, 2014. Comments can be submitted online, by mail, or in person.

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