REGION – An advertising jingle often heard on TV in August: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” No, it’s not early holiday sales; parents rejoice! An office supply vendor is heralding back-to-school sales. It’s also one of the most wonderful times of the year for con-artists and criminals, as panic mode sets in for many families. Back-to-school often means last minute shopping for supplies and clothes. For high school and college seniors, it may mean registering for admission test preparation programs. For others, it means shopping for credit cards and apartments.
Online shopping can be overwhelming. While bargains can be found, some sites, particularly those posting on social media, clearly offer deals that are “too good to be true.” Double check vendors before providing personal or financial information. It may be easy to identify some scam sites, but criminals are turning to imposter websites to scam shoppers. A network of security bloggers, Blog-Bolster AI, identified over 6,000 fraudulent websites for brand-name vendors and products, including Columbia Sportswear, Converse, Fossil, Guess, North Face, Nike, and Puma. My own research uncovered over 40 such imposters just for Puma. Recognizing the scams is often easy. The product or vendor name should appear as the name, immediately followed by “.com.” For example, Puma’s official website displays “www.puma.com,” with nothing appearing between “Puma” and “.com.” The imposter websites add words to the address: www.pumashoes.com, www.pumasneakers.com, www.pumaoutlet.com, etc.
Beware of “free shopping spree” offers. These offers arrive as emails or text messages offering great discounts and opportunities. All you need to do is register by providing your name, email address, physical address, or phone number. Suddenly, you are swamped with marketing emails and phone calls. Shopping spree offers are very rare, and would most likely be available from vendors with which you have an existing relationship. Before providing any information, conduct an online search of the company name, and include the words “shopping spree.” If you find no information, delete the email or text message you received.
Admissions test preparation scams frequently target students entering their senior year of high school or college. The criminals contact students and parents with messages promising high test scores on the ACT, SAT, or GRE admissions tests, which will guarantee admission to select, competitive colleges and universities. In some cases, parents are informed that there is an unpaid bill for test materials ordered by the student, which can be paid by credit card. Avoid this scam by taking a couple of basic steps: never provide credit card information to a company contacting you by phone, text, or email unless you have an existing relationship with the company and are absolutely certain that the contact is legitimate.
Housing scams appear annually for college students seeking apartments. Whether the school is in a large or small community, off-campus housing can be scarce and expensive. In recent years, students attending schools in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as other states, have lost money and become victims of identity theft. Criminal activity has been reported in locations such as Hanover, N.H., Burlington and Middlebury, Vt., and Northampton and Williamstown, Mass. Once again, take time to do some basic research. Contact the college for information about landlords. Verify the ownership of the property (most communities publish an online property grand list including property owners). Then, confirm rental availability and terms, including such details as security deposit, payment method, and due date.
As students head to school, there may be a need to obtain a credit card. Credit card offers frequently appear on social media platforms, and should be viewed with skepticism. While credit card offers are commonplace, terms of usage and fees can vary widely. Research the offer before providing any personal and financial information. Several organizations such as Consumers Union (Consumer Reports) offer detailed reviews of credit cards.
Finally, if you are a victim of a scam, report it to your state watchdog: in Vermont, call 800-649-2424; in New Hampshire, call 888-468-4454.
If you have questions, contact Elliott Greenblott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer”, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt., www.gnat-tv.org.