ITHACA, N.Y. — Scams are an ever-evolving concern. They can come in the form of call saying your grandchild urgently needs money or they may say they are a government agency collecting money and threaten arrest warrants. They can also be in person, such as incidents last year when people showed up at local doors posing as utility workers.

Fraud efforts are frequent and take many forms. Locally, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and area police departments have warned about “college tax” scams, forged solicitor permits, credit card skimmers at gas pumps, fake fundraisers and various phone scams.

It’s National Consumer Protection Week, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has released the top 10 consumer fraud complaints his office received in 2017 so that people can look out for them in the future.

“The best weapon against fraud is an informed consumer,” Schneiderman said in a news release. “Fraudsters will always look for new ways to line their pockets at the expense of unsuspecting consumers. I encourage New Yorkers to educate themselves – and to continue reporting scams to my office, so that we can continue to crack down on scammers seeking to take advantage of New York consumers.”

Internet-related complaints were the most common, followed by automobile and consumer-related services, the attorney general’s office said.

Lt. Dan Donahue, public information office for the sheriff’s office, said the attorney general’s list of fraud complaints is in line with what the deal with.

In October, the sheriff’s office warned local residents of scammers calling from local numbers falsely saying they were members of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. The callers would ask for payment for bail or jury summons not returned. A big red flag in this case, as well as many scams like them, is the caller asking for funds to be transferred, given via gift card or meeting at a specific location.

Probably the most common scam, and a timely one, is the IRS phone scam. Scammers will call and say the person owes federal or New York State taxes or are overdue on student loan payments. The callers usually say they are working for the IRS and sometimes will threaten arrest warrants if the person does not pay. However, the IRS will not contact anyone and request payment over the phone.

If anyone has a concern that something may be scam, contact the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office at 607-257-1345, or the non-emergency line to Dispatch at 607-272-2444. The sheriff’s office also puts out warnings about scams on their Facebook page as they come up. Residents are also encouraged to contact Attorney General Schneiderman’s office by filing a complaint with the Consumer Bureau Online Complaint Form or calling 1-800-771-7755.

Below is information from the attorney general’s office listing the top scams reported along with ways to avoid scams.

CATEGORY                                                            NUMBER OF COMPLAINTS 

1. Internet                                                                                                           5,153
(internet services & service providers; data privacy & security; child safety; consumer frauds)

2. Automobile                                                                                                   3,188
(buying; leasing; repair; service contracts; rentals)

3. Consumer-Related Services                                                                   2,463
(security systems; restaurant/catering services; tech repairs)

4. Landlord/Tenant Disputes                                                                      1,961
(security deposit releases; tenant harassment)

5. Utilities                                                                                                            1,827
(wireless and residential phones; energy services & suppliers; cable and satellite)

6. Credit                                                                                                                1,436
(debt collection; credit card billing;  debt settlement; credit repair; credit reporting agencies; identity theft)

7Retail Sales                                                                                                     1,285
(any sale of goods for personal household use: food, clothing; rent-to-own)

8Home Repair/Construction                                                                       982
(home improvement services not delivered or done poorly)

9Mail Order                                                                                                         850
(purchases made online or from a catalog)

10Mortgage                                                                                                           799
(mortgage modifications; mortgage and loan broker fraud; foreclosures)

The Attorney General also offered a list of tips all consumers should use to protect themselves and their families:

  1. Internet: It’s important to ask the right questions when choosing an Internet plan that’s appropriate for your needs and to ensure you are getting the Internet speeds you were promised. If you are not receiving the speed you are paying for, call your Internet service provider to find out why. Remember to refrain from conducting any transactions that involve personal, financial, or credit card information while using an open and unsecured Wi-Fi connection – identity thieves often stake out open networks seeking victims. Scammers also use variants of a known company’s Internet address to try and lure users into visiting fake websites. Learn more about common online scams here.
  2. Automobile: New York’s New and Used Car Lemon Laws provide a legal remedy for buyers or lessees of new cars that turn out to be lemons. You may be entitled to a full refund if your car does not conform to the terms of the written warranty and the manufacturer or its authorized dealer is unable to repair the car after a reasonable number of attempts. The law allows consumers to shop around for the best deal when leasing a car, set limits on early termination, and gives the Attorney General’s Office jurisdiction to resolve excess wear-and-tear disputes. To file a new or used car “lemon law” complaint, click here and here.
  3. Consumer-Related Services: We rely on a range of services in our day-to-day living, from home repair to snow-removal to party planning. Make sure to use a written contract for all services that clearly defines restrictions and obligations of both the consumer and service-provider. Consumers should shop around, get estimates from at least three vendors, and check with the Better Business Bureau and other references to confirm the company is reliable and reputable. File a complaint online here.
  4. Landlord/Tenant Disputes: The Attorney General’s Tenant Harassment Task Force investigates situations where landlords and management companies are suspected of using construction as a means to harass tenants. Incidents of harassment include: landlords operating without proper permits; construction projects operating in violation of stop work orders; and landlords who openly ignore requirements for tenant protection plans in order to contain the spread of lead and/or asbestos which may be exposed during renovation. Tenants may lodge complaints by completing and submitting a Tenant Rights Complaint Form or calling 1-800-771-7755Learn more about housing issues here.
  5. Utilities/Wireless and Residential Phone Service: A common complaint with long-term wireless service contracts involves the sometimes hefty price for cancellation. If you are unsure exactly what plan best fits your calling habits – and want to avoid paying a large termination fee – it might be best to avoid an extended contract. Regardless of the length of your contract, remember to carefully read and understand all terms before signing it. File a complaint online here.
  6. Credit: Debt collection is the most common type of credit fraud, and consumers must know their rights. Debt collectors may not harass or abuse consumers, nor provide misleading information – for instance, claiming to represent a government agency. Debt collectors cannot sue on debts outside the applicable statute of limitations, the time frame established for the enforcement of legal rights. Consumers have the right to demand verification of the debt. Anyone with credit problems should contact credit counseling agencies licensed by the New York State Department of Financial Services for assistance in managing the situation and avoiding collection scams. Learn more here.
  7. Retail Sales: Check return and refund policiesThe law requires all merchants to post their refund policies. A store that fails to do so must give consumers 30 days to get a refund in the manner that the purchase was made. Be especially vigilant of “final sales” or “cash-only – final sale” notices, as you will have little or no recourse if the merchandise proves to be defective. Some stores require the original packaging and charge a hefty restocking fee for returned items. Learn more here.
  8. Home Repair/Construction: Before entering into a contract, shop around for estimates, check in with the Better Business Bureau, banks, suppliers, and neighbors for references. Insist on a written contract that includes the price and description of the work needed and negotiate a payment schedule tied to the completion of specific stages of the jobs. Never pay the full price up front. You have three days after signing a home improvement contract to cancel it. Learn more here.
  9. Mail Order: Whether ordering online or from a catalog, make sure the company has an operating customer service line and lists a real street address. Companies operating on a ‘fly-by-night’ basis often have no working customer service number and list only a P.O. Box.Learn more here.
  10. Mortgage: Mortgage rescue scams prey on homeowners in their greatest time of need. Look out for offers that claim to stop or delay foreclosure payments for an upfront fee or make payments on your behalf. Beware of companies that suggest a government affiliation or claim to be with the government, or those that work with attorneys but do not provide legal services. The Attorney General’s Homeowner Protection Program (HOPP) funds a network of more than 85 trusted partners dedicated to providing homeowners with free, qualified mortgage assistance relief services across New York. To find a nearby HOPP provider, call the Attorney General’s hotline at 1-855-HOME-456 or visit www.agscamhelp.com.

Tips for other common scams

Although not in the top ten, the Attorney General’s office continues to receive consumer complaints about two common phone schemes known as the IRS scam and the Grandparent scam.

IRS scams

In the IRS scam, the caller poses as a U.S. Treasury Department, IRS, or other government official, demanding payment for unpaid taxes and threatening consumers with arrest if they do not pay up. These scammers often use fake government logos in their email and caller ID spoofing so that the victim’s caller ID box says “Internal Revenue Service” or displays the phone number of the Internal Revenue Service. 

Beware of scammers posing as government officials via phone calls or emails. The IRS will never demand immediate payment or payment information over the phone. Do not engage this type of caller or provide any personal information and report the call to our office by submitting a complaint here or calling our consumer hotline at 1-800-771-7755. Scams should also be reported to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.

Grandparent scam

In the Grandparent scam, a grandparent receives a call from someone posing as a grandchild claiming that he or she is traveling and facing an urgent need for money – to make bail, pay a fine, or pay for automobile repairs or medical expenses. The caller begs the grandparent not to tell their parents. The victims are then given instructions to send funds to the scammers. Scam artists are now instructing grandparents to buy certain gift cards and then provide the scammer with the information on the back of the card so they cannot be traced.

Be suspicious of anyone who calls claiming to be your grandchild and asks you to immediately wire money or buy large dollar amounts of gift cards. Grandparents should verify any supposed emergency by calling friends and family before wiring money or buying gift cards. Learn more about common scams targeting senior citizens here.

Student Debt: 

Beware of phony student debt relief companies that claim to lower or eliminate student loan debt. Do not pay up-front fees. Scammers often use official sounding names to make it sound like they are a government agency, and, in many cases, fail to provide promised services or merely submit paperwork for a free debt relief program offered by the federal government. Students should contact their loan servicer themselves to see if any relief is available. For federal student loans such as Stafford or PLUS loans, students should ask if they are eligible for an income-based payment plan or if they qualify for deferment or forbearance.

Health Care Fraud: The Attorney General will soon be releasing a separate report about health care fraud complaints that it received in 2017. In 2017, the Health Care Bureau Helpline received 5,565 complaints. Of these complaints, the Helpline investigated and resolved 2,515 individual consumer cases and provided another 3,050 consumers with information or referrals to the agency most appropriate for the inquiry. Along with other consumer relief discussed in the report for 2017, the Helpline secured approximately $1,936,997 for consumers in restitution and savings resulting from (i) incorrect medical billing; (ii) wrongful rejection of health insurance claims; and (iii) health plans’ failures to properly process insurance claims. 

Attorney General Schneiderman reminds New Yorkers that in addition to being vigilant consumers, they should also report instances of fraud to his office. Consumers are encouraged to file complaints to the Attorney General’s office by submitting a Consumer Bureau Online Complaint Form or calling 1-800-771-7755.

Featured image: Photo illustration by Mike Blaney/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.