David C. Henley: Scammers are out in full force

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During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I warned readers of this column to be alert for scammers utilizing the Internet, telephone and mail to fleece us of our hard-earned salaries, pensions and savings.

Targeting our health-related concerns during the spread of the pandemic, which caused an estimated 600,000 deaths in the United States, the scammers reaped nearly $4 billion peddling, for example, fake virus cures and the illegal selling of vaccines, according to a recent report released by the Federal Trade Commission.

Sadly, Nevada is among the top five states per capita that reported frauds during the pandemic, the FTC noted.

Today, with the pandemic waning, the con artists are adopting new deceptive practices as we emerge back into the sunlight from one of the darkest, most wretched and significant eras in American history.

According to consumer protection organizations such as the Better Business Bureau of Northern Nevada, many of the post-pandemic frauds are focusing on identity theft, so-called “catfish” romance or dating schemes and, as Americans begin to return to automobile and air travel, scams involving the purchase of airplane tickets, car rentals and the booking of hotel, apartment, bed and breakfast and rooms in private homes.

Tim Johnston, who heads the Northern Nevada BBB, sent me a notice earlier this month that also warns against falling for ruses perpetrated upon family members of deceased COVID-19 victims. This scam, which is particularly wicked and cruel, is foisted by imposters posing as “government officials” who notify the grieving families that they are required by law to inform the imposters of the deceased’s full name, Social Security number, birth date and sensitive personal and financial information before “the government” can provide monetary assistance for funeral and burial expenses. This, of course, leads to identity theft, Johnston said.

Concerning the “catfish” scam, this targets lonely people who had been cooped up at home during the pandemic. Hoping to resume their social lives, they fall for the wiles of phony romantic partners who say they want to date them and, eventually, even marry them. But the love interests tell their victims that they must pay for airplane transportation, hotel expenses and new clothes before they meet in person. Of course, once the money is paid up front, the phony romantic partner cuts off communication with the victim who fell for the scam. It’s difficult for many of us to understand how victims can be so gullible in these situations, but most of us are desperate for companionship, love and physical human contact.

Because many Americans, who self-quarantined at home during the 15-month pandemic, are eager to get back on the road or airplane, a host of what are described as “travel scams” also are being foisted on potential travelers to, for example, national parks and to friends and family across the country.

Overseas destinations, which had been closed to tourists during the pandemic, are rapidly reopening, and they, too, are becoming popular again with globetrotters. But the scammers, alas, also understand our zest for travel, and they have slithered out from under rocks to cheat the traveler left and right. An example of how a would-be traveler was fleeced is described in this month’s AARP Bulletin. The wayfarer was a 78-year-old woman from a small town in Wyoming who purchased a round-trip $395 airplane ticket from Rapid City, South Dakota, to St. George, Utah, to visit a friend who also had quarantined at home during the pandemic. But the Wyoming woman, according to the AARP article, bought the ticket from a travel agency she discovered while trolling the Internet. When she arrived at the Rapid City airport for her flight to Utah, she was told that there was no such flight and that she had been duped by the travel agency, which had a terrible reputation with the BBB.

Fortunately, the victim had paid for the ticket by credit card, and the credit card company refunded her money.

My message here is always pay for expensive purchases by credit card, not by cash, money order, check or pre-paid gift card. You have a better chance to get your money back if you had paid for a fraudulent item or service by credit card, I have learned from personal experiences.
Vacation rental scams capitalize on our desires to travel, relax and sightsee. The scammers, realizing the popularity of vacation properties rented out online by legitimate sites such as Airbnb and VRBN (Vacation Rentals by Owner), have used names and logos similar to those of the real sites when offering properties that don’t even exist or don’t belong to them or “don’t measure up to the gorgeous photos,” the AARP reported. To avoid these scams, preserve all of your interactions with the property’s legitimate owners on the website of the legitimate company. Make sure you are dealing with the real, legit company! Also, if the rental property has few reviews or appears to be too good to be true, search the property’s address online. A good site to use here is Zillow. You can also check out the property on Google Maps. Be careful when renting vacation properties. Tales of travelers who paid for vacations in nonexistent or filthy and rundown rentals are legion.

Fake rental car scams also are growing, and rental car rates have, in many cases, doubled or tripled. The car scams are much like the fake vacation property scams because they involve the scammers’ use of names and logos that are similar to legitimate sites. When you make an online or telephone reservation with the fake agency, they demand you pay up front. When you arrive at your airport destination, you quickly learn that the rental car agency you paid doesn’t exist, and you’ve been cheated big time. The rental car rates of the legitimate rental companies are zooming into the stratosphere because of a nationwide scarcity of rental cars caused by a worldwide shortage of microchips that power the galaxy of computers and electronics on late model automobiles and pickup trucks. In some cases, budget cars that rented for $35 a day now rent for $150 a day, particularly at popular destinations such as Hawaii and several Caribbean islands.

Remember my warning: There are bad folks out there ready to cheat and scam you 24/7. Be alert to any offer that seems too good to be true. Double check the reputation of travel agencies and vacation rental sites and other firms you are dealing with. The BBB is an excellent source. Make sure the people you are dealing with have a legitimate, physical address and telephone number. And always pay by credit card.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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