Second Wave of Stimulus Checks Brings More Scams

The second wave of stimulus checks only started hitting checking accounts a few weeks ago, and the BBB  and the FTC are already warning of related scams.

According to the FTC, American taxpayers lost more than $211 million due to COVID-19 scams, with $20.9 million of that amount connected to the first round of stimulus checks.

Don’t get scammed! Protect yourself by learning all about these scams so you know when you’re being targeted.

How the scams play out

Stimulus check scams can take the form of phishing scams, in which a criminal asks victims to provide personal information to receive their check, and then instead uses that information to empty the victim’s account.

In other variants of the stimulus check scam, a victim receives an email prompting them to download an embedded link to receive their check.The link, of course, will infect the victim’s computer with malware.

In yet another stimulus check scam, a criminal impersonates an IRS official or a representative of another government office demanding a processing fee before the check can be sent.

Finally, there have been reports of taxpayers receiving checks that appear to be authentic stimulus checks, but are actually fraudulent. They deposit the check and, soon afterward, a scammer reaches out to them to inform them the check amount was incorrect and they must return some of the funds. Unfortunately, a few days later, the financial institution finds that the check is fake and it will not clear. The victim is now out the money they returned to the “IRS.”

Red flags

Unfortunately, technology has made it easy for scammers to spoof a Caller ID and to create bogus websites that look authentic. If you know what to look for, you can beat them at their game and recognize a scam before it gets past the first step.

Here are five red flags of stimulus check scams:

1. Unsolicited calls or emails

It’s best to avoid answering unsolicited calls and/or emails from unknown contacts to protect yourself from a stimulus check scam. Similarly, never click on a link in an unsolicited email or text message, as it may contain malware.

According to the BBB Scam Tracker, scammers have also been contacting people through robocalls and leaving messages about the stimulus checks and direct deposits. These calls should likewise be ignored.

2. Messages that ask you to verify or provide sensitive information

The BBB is warning of emails and text messages asking citizens to verify or supply information to receive their stimulus checks. Sometimes, the victim will receive an email instructing them to click on a link to receive their benefit payments. This, too, is a scam. The IRS will not call, text or email any taxpayer to verify their information.

3. High-pressure tactics

If a phone call or email demands immediate action on your part and uses a threat of losing your stimulus payment, you’re likely looking at a scam. There is no action you need to take to receive your check.

4. Fee solicitations

There is no processing fee or any other charge attached to the stimulus payments.

“If you do answer a call, and it’s about your stimulus payment, keep in mind that U.S. government agencies won’t ask you to pay anything up front to receive your funds. Anyone who does is a scammer,” cautions Jennifer Leach, associate director for the FTC’s division of consumer and business education.

There’s also no way to pay extra for receiving your stimulus payment earlier.

5. Inflated check amount

“We’ve seen a lot of scams involving bogus checks that look like government checks in the past year,” says Paige Schaffer, CEO of global identity and cyber protection services at Generali Global Assistance.

For the best way to protect yourself from this scam, the BBB recommends that all taxpayers receiving their stimulus payment via paper check verify that the check is authentic before depositing it in their checking account. Look up the agency or organization that allegedly sent the check to see if it really exists, and check the status of your payment to see if you actually should have received it.

Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a stimulus check scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
wwmt.com
marketwatch.com
cnbc.com
bbb.org

Don’t Get Caught in a Weight-Loss Scam!

January is prime time to get into shape.

This year in particular, many Americans are struggling to shed the “quarantine 15,” or the pounds packed on during all those months when life happened over Zoom and nobody saw what you were wearing below the waist. In fact, the snack company that brings us Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers reports that sales have increased  by more than 16% since 2019. And hard as it may be to believe, at some point in the future, it will no longer be socially acceptable to attend a business meeting, a friend’s formal dinner party or your sister’s wedding while wearing sweatpants.

Unfortunately, scammers know this as well as anyone, and they are out in full force, trying to scam consumers with bogus weight-loss products, miracle drugs and more. Gyms aren’t far behind, with many of them offering misleading contracts that are impossible to get out of once they’re signed.

Don’t get scammed! Lose the pounds you’re looking to shed this winter — not your money.

Here’s what you need to know about weight-loss scams and how to avoid them.

1. Gym scams

Scams at the gym generally fall into the category of false advertising and misleading claims. The BBB https://www.bbb.org/article/tips/13250-bbb-tip-joining-a-gym urges consumers to take the following precautions before signing up for a gym membership:

  • Check the gym on BBB.org  to see what previous and current customers have to say about it.
  • Ask about a free trial so you can see what the gym is like before signing a contract.
  • Don’t feel pressured into signing a contract. A reputable gym will grant you the time and the discretion to review the contract and to make the decision at your own pace.
  • Calculate the true cost of a membership. Gyms often lure new members with low prices that are only valid for an “introductory period.” Can you afford to pay the full monthly membership when this period ends?
  • Understand the terms of the contract. If anything is vague or unclear, don’t hesitate to ask a salesperson to explain it to you.
  • Find out the gym’s cancellation policy. What happens if circumstances beyond your control make you unable to attend the gym?

Despite your best efforts, you may end up getting scammed by the gym. Perhaps the terms of your contract were ambiguous, or you failed to calculate the extra added expenses that were only tacked on after the first month. In other circumstances, gyms will automatically renew a membership at the end of a contract unless the member takes action. And some gyms tack on extra “maintenance fees” without being up front about it when the contract is signed.

If you believe your gym has acted in bad faith, you may have legal options. Several states, including California, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, have statutes for the health club industry. Facilities that fail to comply with these laws are subject to penalties and fines. If your gym fails to reimburse you for what you believe was a falsely advertised contract, it may be worthwhile to pursue legal action.

You can also file a complaint with the BBB at BBB.org.

2. Weight-loss product scams

Bogus diet products and programs are the most commonly reported health care scams to the FTC. These can range from miracle drugs promising instant weight loss, companies paying social media influencers to promote their unproven products and even phony websites filled with fake articles about celebrities who allegedly saw amazing results with these products.

Scammy weight-loss products can be ridiculously overpriced, may contain harmful or unregulated drugs or may offer a free trial that comes with hidden charges.

Here’s how to spot a weight-loss product scam:

  • Advertised products sound too good to be true, touted as “revolutionary” or a “miracle breakthrough.”
  • Product promises a specific amount of weight loss in a specific amount of time.
  • A search of the company on the BBB website brings up negative reviews and reports of scams.
  • As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to trust weight-loss products that offer you results without requiring you to change your eating habits or lifestyle. In addition, weight-loss body wraps, patches, creams, lotions or gadgets are always scams. The FTC cautions that nothing worn or applied to the skin can produce substantial weight loss.

If you’re looking to drop some of those pounds you packed on during quarantine, it’s best to go the old-fashioned route: Eat less and move more. Keep your money safe from weight-loss scams!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a weight loss scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
bbb.org
wnep.com
stories.avvo.com
aarp.org

Beware Back-to-School Tuition Scams

College age girl on bench reading book at schoolBack-to-school season means a flurry of shopping — and a flurry of scams. Scammers know that students and their parents are caught up in a frenzy of preparations and errands and are, therefore, more likely to fall victim to schemes. As you get ready for school, look out for these scams targeting college students and parents of private school students that tend to peak before the start of the school year.

The tuition fee scam
How it plays out: A college student, or the parent of a private school student, receives a phone call from a caller introducing themselves as a secretary or administrator at their school, or their child’s school. The caller claims the student or parent owes tuition fees and will not be allowed to return to school for the coming semester unless the fees are paid. They may explain that a tuition check has bounced or that a credit card payment didn’t clear. Alternatively, the caller claims the student’s grant or scholarship was abruptly canceled and the student is now being billed for the full tuition fee.

The caller insists on being paid the outstanding sum immediately or the student will lose their spot in the school. The “secretary” or “administrator” provides the victim with detailed information for wiring money or dropping off the cash at a private address. Of course, once the money is sent, it will never be seen again.

Protect yourself: This scam is easy to spot because most schools will not insist on immediate payment, or payment through a wire transfer. If you receive a call like the one described above, ask the caller detailed questions about the school, their position and the money owed. If it’s a scam, the caller will not be able to answer well. You can also explain that you need to see the actual bill before making any payments, and that you’d like to pick up the bill yourself from the school. Finally, you can insist on calling the school directly to make the payment.

The student tax scam
How it plays out: In this scam, someone allegedly representing the IRS calls a college student at a public university and claims they neglected to pay their student tax. The caller explains that the student tax helps fund the university and that failure to pay this tax can result in disqualification from class and possible imprisonment. They will insist on immediate payment via prepaid gift card or wire transfer.

Protect yourself: You can spot this scam by remembering that the IRS will always first contact people by mail. Also, the IRS won’t insist on being paid through gift card or wire transfer.

The scholarship scam
How it plays out: A scammer reaches out to a college student telling them they’ve been guaranteed approval for a scholarship or grant. The only catch is that the student must pay a hefty fee to receive it. Unfortunately, the scholarship is bogus and, if the victim falls for the scam, they will never see that money again.

In a similar scam, a victim is instructed to pay a fee to a company that will allegedly file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form in their name. Of course, no FAFSA form will be filed, and the money paid for this “service” will go directly into the scammer’s pockets.

Protect yourself: Student scholarships and grants are designed to help students and their parents pay for education; they don’t charge for eligibility. If an alleged scholarship claims to charge a fee before granting approval, it is most certainly a scam. Also, no company will guarantee approval for a scholarship or grant; there is always a vetting process of some kind before eligibility is determined. Finally, there is no reason to pay to have a FAFSA form filed; it can be completed easily online here. For additional help, college students can contact the financial aid office at their university.

Scammers are out in full force before the start of the school year. Don’t let them make the grade! Stay alert and stay safe.

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a back-to-school scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
scam-detector.com
mysuncoast.com
fraud.org

Bitcoin Theft

The FBI is warning of a rise in Bitcoin ransom scams in which scammers use scare tactics and extortion to squeeze money out of victims in the form of Bitcoin payments.

“Fraudsters are leveraging increased fear and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic to steal your money and launder it through the complex cryptocurrency ecosystem,” the FBI warns.

a gold coin etched with the Bitcoin "Capital B with vertical strokes" and circuit traces in the background

Unfortunately, the cryptocurrency payment leaves no room for reclaiming the lost funds. Here’s all you need to know about these scams and how to best protect yourself.

How the scams play out
In some Bitcoin ransom scams, scammers hijack an email address associated with a business website and contact a client of the business. The email informs the victim that a hacker has found a vulnerability in the company’s website and is holding the victim’s data hostage until a Bitcoin payment is made for its release. The victim, fearing monetary loss, may comply with the scammer and make the payment. In reality, though, the scammer has only hacked into the company’s email database. They have no access to the customer’s sensitive information.
While the scammer can hijack any website that has access to clients’ sensitive information, financial institutions like Advantage One Credit Union, are especially vulnerable to this scam. We utilize strict protective measures, like encryption and updated security software to protect our members’ information, but fraudsters may still try to scam members by persuading them that their data is at risk of being exposed.

In another variation of the Bitcoin ransom scam, scammers use “sextortion” to take the victims for money. They’ll claim to have evidence of the victim engaging in questionable internet usage and threaten to share this information with the victim’s contacts unless a ransom payment is made immediately. Some criminals have taken this scam a step further during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the threat of releasing the information they supposedly have on the victim, they’ll also promise to infect the victim and their family with the coronavirus unless a payment is sent to a Bitcoin wallet.

Protect yourself
Fortunately, ransom scams are easy to spot. If you receive an email allegedly sent from a business you use, and it contains a message similar to what’s described above, do not respond. You can contact the company yourself to ask if there has been a data breach. You will likely learn there has not been any sort of breach within the company.

Similarly, if you receive an email threatening to expose your internet usage history and/or to infect you or your family with the coronavirus, do not respond. Mark the email as spam and delete it promptly.

If you’ve been scammed
Unfortunately, cryptocurrency transactions pose an extra risk by being absolutely final. There’s no way to cancel a cryptocurrency payment, back out of a purchase or trace the Bitcoin wallet to its owner.

However, if you believe you’ve been targeted by a Bitcoin ransom scam, you can help prevent others from falling victim by reaching out to the appropriate authorities.

If the scammer posed as representatives of Advantage One Credit Union, be sure to let us know! We’ll send out a warning to all of our members and caution them not to respond to any emails claiming to have hacked our database or to have accessed our members’ sensitive information. If the scammer is posing as a representative of a different company, it’s a good idea to let them know about it, too.

It’s equally important to alert law enforcement agencies about every scam attempt. The FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division has a team that’s dedicated to preventing and fighting cryptocurrency laundering and fraud. If you are the victim of a cryptocurrency scam or you’ve been targeted by one, be sure to contact your local FBI field office or visit the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center . You can also alert the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov.

Many people are struggling with financial hardships due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Unfortunately, scammers are trying to make a difficult time even harder by extorting victims for money. Stay alert and stay safe!

Your Turn:
Have you been targeted by a Bitcoin ransom scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
consumer.ftc.gov
bitcoin.com
fbi.gov

 

Beware of Zoom-bombers

Young man on laptop interrupting a video conferenceWith social distancing mandates in order until at least the end of April, and three out of every four Americans under statewide lock-down, huge parts of normal life have now moved into the virtual world.

Social visits, executive meetings, classes and more happen over videoconferencing apps, with Zoom being the most popular. The app was downloaded 62 million times during the third week of March, and 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies are now using Zoom.

Zoom’s simplicity is likely the driving factor behind its popularity — and its vulnerability. The FBI is warning of a new kind of scam in which criminals join Zoom meetings with malicious intent.

As they explain it, without protective measures, like passwords and screen-share locks, anyone can join and disrupt a Zoom conference. “Zoom-bombing” is happening more and more often, with hackers hurling racial slurs or displaying graphic content in the middle of classrooms and business meetings.

Some criminals take it one step further by creating bogus domains that impersonate Zoom. When video conferences are set up on these domains, the hackers will use the opportunity to steal personal information from meeting participants, which they then go on to sell or use for criminal purposes.

The bureau recommends that Zoom users take the following precautions to protect their conferences from being Zoom-bombed:

  • Make meetings private by requiring a password or using the waiting room feature, which controls admittance of guests.
  • Share teleconference links directly with participants instead of posting them in a public forum, like a social media page.
  • Control screen-sharing by choosing “Host Only” in the screen-sharing options.
  • Make sure all participants are using updated software

Videoconferencing apps like Zoom are helping millions of Americans maintain a semblance of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow the FBI’s guidelines for secure videoconferencing to avoid getting Zoom-bombed. Stay safe!

COVID-19 Texting Scam

Cartoon of a touchscreen phone with COVID-19 graphicThe coronavirus pandemic has been raging on American shores for several months, but scammers are still finding new ways to exploit the panic, fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus to con people out of their money. The latest in a string of coronavirus scams involves a simple text message with criminal intent.

Here’s all you need to know about the coronavirus text scam.

The scam starts out with the victim receiving an alarming text message informing them that someone they’ve recently been in contact with is infected with COVID-19. They are then told to self-quarantine and to get tested for the virus.

Here is the actual text from one of these scams:
“Someone who came in contact with you tested positive or has shown symptoms for COVID-19 & recommends you self-isolate/get tested.”

The text also includes a link for the recipient to click for more information. Many unsuspecting people who read these messages innocently click on the link and play right into the scammers’ hands. The link provides the scammer with access to the victim’s device. The scammer can then scrape the victim’s personal information off the phone and use it to empty the victim’s accounts, open lines of credit in their name or even steal their identity.

If you receive a text message like the one described above, do not respond or click on any embedded links. Report the text to local law enforcement agencies, place the number associated with the message on your phone’s “block number” list and delete the message. You can also warn your friends about the circulating scam to keep them from falling victim.

Stay vigilant and stay safe!

Your Turn:
Have you been targeted by a coronavirus texting scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
fox29.com
katu.com
consumer.ftc.gov

Why You Should Never Abbreviate 2020

Business person handing pen over for viewer to signIt may be a new year and a new decade, but scammers are still looking to con you out of your money. In fact, experts are warning of a new scam that is as simple as changing the date on a personal check, financial document, or another important paper.
Here’s what you can do to protect yourself:

The 2020 scam
The newest scam of the decade involves the dates on important documents. Most of us are accustomed to abbreviating the date by using the last two digits anytime we need to write it. For example, if we were dating a document for March 2, 2019, we might write it out as 3/2/19.

While it was fine to do so in the past, continuing this practice in 2020 can be problematic. With the two sets of digits that make up the new year being identical, abbreviating the date on important documents opens us up to all sorts of scams. It only takes a few seconds for a scammer to change the “20” on a document to “2021” or to “2019.” This can lead to multiple problems for the document signer.

What kind of damage can be caused by this scam?
There are endless ways that date modification can be employed in a scam.
First, let’s take a look at what happens if the date is changed to an earlier year. If a scammer gets their hands on a check that was made out to you and decides to backdate it, the check may no longer be valid. Similarly, if you signed a legal document or a contract this year and a scammer adds “19” to the end of the “20” that you wrote to indicate the year, it now looks like you signed this document in 2019. As a result, your contract may no longer be valid. If this scam is pulled off on paperwork for an outstanding debt, your debt will now appear to be overdue. Thanks to this ruse, you might be charged late fees for a loan that is not yet due, or you may be charged a monthly fee for a time when you did not yet owe any payments.

The other way this scam can be executed is for the date to be changed to a future year. To pull this off, criminals will use the “20” you scrawled for the year, and change it to “2021” or later. If someone signed a document agreeing to start paying you for services you rendered in 2020, they can make it appear as if they don’t owe you any money until next year. Also, if you’ve neglected to pay a debt that is already past the statute of limitations, a scammer can modify the year on the relevant documents to make it appear as if you are still accountable for the debt.

While this scam is as new as the new year, and it’s still too early to know what kind of damage it can cause, financial experts agree that the threat is very real and precautions should be taken.

Avoiding this scam
As scams go, the 2020 scam is fairly easy to prevent. As you work on breaking free of bad habits and making improvements, add this to your list of New Year’s resolutions: Don’t abbreviate the year. Train yourself to write out “2020” in its entirety anytime you need to date a check, financial document or important paperwork of any kind. This simple precaution will keep you from falling victim to a date manipulation scam. It’s also a good idea to write out the full month when dating an important document, especially in January and February, since “1” and “2” can easily be changed to look like you wrote 10, 11, or 12 as the month. The stroke of a pen can push off the date on your document by nine full months or more.

Remember, the habit that was harmless in 2019 could make you vulnerable to fraud in 2020.

Your Turn:
Can you think of any other ways scammers can manipulate a date to their benefit? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
usatoday.com
mentalfloss.com
clark.com

Beware Car-Wrap Scams!

Two auto-body techs apply a vinyl wrap to a car fenderScammers never stop dreaming up new ways to con you out of your money-and reinventing old tricks that work. The fake-check scam is a tried-and-true scheme with dozens of variations. One such variation, the car-wrap scam, has recently become more widespread and successful.

Here’s all you need to know about the car-wrap scam and how you can protect yourself from becoming the next victim.

In this scam, well-known “brands” post ads or send mass emails promising consumers generous compensation for allowing the company to use their car as advertising space. The consumer simply needs to have their vehicle shrink-wrapped with an ad for the company to get paid, usually, around $500 a week.

Unfortunately, the ad is bogus and does not really represent the promoted company. When the victim is awarded their first “paycheck,” it will be made out for an amount that’s far larger than what was promised. Alternatively, the victim will be supplied with the funds to pay the car-wrapper; only the amount on the check is a lot larger than necessary. In both scenarios, the victim will be instructed to cash the check and mail back the surplus to the sender. You can probably guess the ending: The check will not clear and the victim will never see that money again.

Like every successful scam, this one tries to bait its victims with the promise of easy money. Luckily, there are loads of red flags to alert you to the fact that you’re looking at a scam.

First, the ad will be written poorly and riddled with typos and spelling errors.
Here is the actual text used in one of these scams:

Bull light are currently seeking to employ car owners world wide. You will need to carry this promotional advert on the exterior of your car and you will be compensated with $500 per week which is essentially a “rental” payment for letting our company use the space of your car, no application fees required from you. We would be paying you by check and would want you to get back to us with your Name: Street Address: City: and cell phone State: Zip code: to send you the check and also send your Age: Current Occupation: Make of car/ year:. We will contact you immediately we receive this information Note: We take full responsibility for placing and remove decal on your car and it will not resort to any damage. Thanks.

A brief look at the ad should clue you in to its shady intent. Legitimate brands know their spelling and grammar.

Another clue is the ridiculously high compensation being offered for essentially renting out your vehicle for an alleged company to use as advertising space. You know what they say about things that are too good to be true …

Also, if the offer actually was legitimate, the company would likely be bombarded with hopeful applicants instead of sending out mass emails begging people to consider this lucrative, no-sweat opportunity.

If you fall for the scam and sign up to have your car shrink-wrapped, you can still pull out when you get your first paycheck or funding to be used for the car wrap. Legitimate companies do not mistakenly “overpay” you and then ask you to refund the change.

“If you get a message urging you to deposit a check and wire money back, it’s a scam,” says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “Every time. No matter the story.”

If you receive a check that matches this description, rip it up and cut off all contact with the sender.

It’s equally important to note that many of these car-wrap scams are being pulled off in the name of well-known beverage companies like Monster Energy, Pepsi, Bud Light and Red Bull. Most of these companies have confirmed that they do not run any programs like the one promoted in the scam.

If you come across a car-wrap offer that sounds legitimate, a quick online search of the company that’s allegedly associated with the job can help you determine whether it is truly authentic. If it turns out to be a scam, be sure to warn your friends and to file a complaint with the FTC at ftc.gov.

Always be on the alert for possible scams and keep yourself informed of the latest schemes. A little education and a lot of common sense can go a long way toward keeping you safe from scams.

Your Turn:
Have you spotted a car-wrap scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
consumer.ftc.gov
latimes.com
consumeraffairs.com

Don’t Get Scammed At The Gym!

Personal trainer in a gym reviews the exercise & diet with her clientAs soon as the calendar hits Jan. 2, the gyms are packed with people who are eager to make good on their New Year’s resolutions. If you’re one of the thousands of newbies making your way to fitness centers this month, beware of these five subtle scams that can end up thinning your wallet more than your physique.

The free trial
Free trials at fitness centers are super-popular right after the holidays. It sounds like a no-brainer: no money, and you get to try out the gym for free! Unfortunately, though, free trials can ultimately end up costing you a pretty penny. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns against sharing your credit card information with a gym that’s offering a free trial because many will start automatically charging you a monthly fee unless you remember to cancel your “membership” by a certain timeframe. You may even find yourself committed to a full year!

The fix: Read the fine print carefully on any free trial offer. If possible, only take advantage of a free trial offered without asking for any financial information.

The no-cancellation policy
Gyms depend on strong membership numbers. This can sometimes translate into high-pressure sales tactics-or worse. Lots of fitness centers will not let you out of a contract until a full year is up, no matter what. You’ll be stuck paying that membership all year even if you find the gym is not the right fit for you, if you develop a medical condition that makes use of the gym impossible or you end up moving out of town.

The fix: Before signing up for a gym membership, ask about their cancellation policy. If it’s too rigid, look for another gym.

“Certified” personal trainers
Another way gyms get you is by charging you extra for the service of an on-staff personal trainer. The catch? Lots of these “trainers” have not completed their certification process, or may even be completely untrained! This means you’re essentially paying through the roof to have a glorified coach help you work out. You can also end up getting injured if the trainer puts you through a workout that is overly strenuous for your personal capacity.

The fix: Before signing up to work with a personal trainer, ask to see their certification. Look for NSCA, ACSM, NASM and ACE.

No health-history form
In our litigation-happy society, every business and service provider is deathly afraid of being sued. Gyms are no exception. To help them avoid getting dragged to court for injuries incurred while using their machines, many fitness centers have stopped making new members fill out a health-history form and/or a PAR-Q-a standard questionnaire for exercise readiness. This way, instead of reviewing members’ health histories and lifestyle details so they can direct them toward appropriate machines and workouts, gyms have effectively absolved themselves from exercise-related injuries.

The fix: Be wary of signing up at gyms that don’t ask any questions about your medical history or personal lifestyle.

Equipment-maintenance fees
Many fitness centers have started charging members a quarterly or monthly equipment-maintenance fee on top of their membership dues. This practice begs the question: If you’re paying a fee for the upkeep of the exercise equipment, why are you also paying a membership fee?

The fix: Ask about any additional fees before signing up for a gym membership.

Get fit without the gym
If you’re looking to shed some pounds and build muscles this year, you don’t need a gym. You can download some great workout tutorials online, invite some friends over and exercise at home! There are also lots of exercises you can do without any expensive equipment, like squats, lunges, T-handle swings, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, stretches and more. For an aerobics workout, you can bundle up and go for a walk, sprint or jog outdoors instead of running nowhere on a treadmill in a noisy gym. You can get fit without paying a small fortune!

If you need the commitment to working out that a gym membership can give you, go for it, but proceed with caution. Avoid getting scammed at the gym by looking out for the less-than-savory business practices, and by doing extensive research on any fitness center you might want to join.

Best of luck on your fitness quest in 2020 from all of us here at Advantage One Credit Union!

Your Turn:
Have you had an unsatisfactory business relationship with a fitness center? Share it with us in the comments.

Learn More:
joe-cannon.com
nattyornot.com
witn.com

Don’t Get Scammed By Santa!

Close-up of Santa's face and glove as he peeks into the mailbox that you are in.Someone’s been naughty this year-and we’re not talking about you! Those awful scammers don’t take time out for the holidays, and if you don’t know what to expect you can be their next victim.

One of the oldest holiday scams, which is even more prevalent in the age of the internet, is the letter-from-Santa scam. Here’s all you need to know about this Christmas-themed scheme.

How it plays out
In this ruse, scammers set up bogus websites where parents can order legitimate-looking letters from Santa for their children. The cost is less than $30. All they need to do is share some details about their child along with their credit card information, and the letter is supposedly as good as mailed.

Except that it’s not. Unfortunately, anyone who follows the instructions detailed on the site has just fallen prey to a scam. They’ll never see that promised letter, or the money they paid for the privilege of receiving a note from Santa. Worse, the ring of scammers now has the children’s information and their parent’s credit card details.

This set of circumstances can have all sorts of unhappy endings, from identity theft to emptied accounts. Sometimes, the scammers will go after the child’s credit, which will likely go unchecked for years. When the children are grown and try to open a credit card or take out a loan, they may find that their credit score has been destroyed by these scammers over the years, all without their knowledge.

Some sites will even offer to send the letter at no cost. All you need to do is share some details about your child, like their full legal name, date of birth and home address. Of course, this is also the work of scammers looking to steal your child’s identity.

How can I tell it’s a scam?
There are legitimate websites where you can order a letter from Santa for your child at no risk of identity theft or a ruined credit history. But how can you weed out the phony sites from the authentic services?

We’ve made it simple. Look for the following red flags, which should alert you to the fact that a site is created by scammers:

  • The fraudster reaches out to you repeatedly
    Promotional emails and ads are one thing; targeted marketing that is so aggressive it borders on harassment is another thing entirely. If a company doesn’t stop sending you emails or alerts about its services, you may be dealing with a scam.
  • The site is not secure
    As always, check for the lock icon and the ‘s’ after the ‘http’ in the URL; both indicate a site’s security. Also, look for security badges on the bottom of the webpage and click on them to see if they’re actual links to the security company they allegedly represent. Scammers often post static images of well-known security badges, which do fool people into thinking the site is safe.
  • You need to answer too many questions
    Yes, a service sending your child a letter from Santa will need to know your child’s name and mailing address. They may even ask your child’s age so they can send an age-appropriate letter. But there’s no need for them to be privy to your child’s exact date of birth, and certainly not their Social Security number. If the questions in an online form are making you uncomfortable, opt out.
  • You can’t reach a representative by phone
    Most websites will have the company’s toll-free contact number on the site’s homepage. If you suspect fraud, try the number. If the company is bogus, the number will likely be a fake.
  • You can’t find any positive reviews about the company online
    An online search on a legitimate service should bring up basic information and some positive reviews about the service. If a search turns up empty, and of course, if it turns up any reports of past scams, the “company” is run by crooks.

If you’ve recognized a company as a scam, be sure not to click on any links that are embedded in their emails. Flag their emails as spam, and delete every email, message and alert it sends you.

You can still send your child a letter from Santa. Try a legitimate site like Portable North Pole or or better yet, create and send one yourself!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a letter-from-Santa scam? Share your experience with us in the comments.

Learn More:
consumeraffairs.com
news.yahoo.com
aarp.org