Time to stop local fraud

What You Need to Know About Local Fraud

This year, National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) is February 28-March 6. It is the time that all consumer agencies focus their attentions on educating consumers about their rights and about making well-informed decisions about money. This year, Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) wants to highlight the top 10 reported scams in Maryland for 2020 and provide tips on how to avoid being defrauded. Below is a chart produced by the Federal Trade Commission’s “Explore Data” platform for the Washington D.C. metro area:

Top fraud categories chart

While these areas of fraud and complaints are perennial, they have been materially impacted, and escalated, by the pandemic. Of the above 10 complaint categories, here’s how the pandemic increased complaint rates in five key areas.

1. Imposter Scams come in many forms, but ultimately the scammer is pretending to be someone you trust to convince you to send money or disclose personal information. The imposter could pose as law enforcement, your bank, a government agency, a new love interest or employer, tech support, good Samaritan helping in a family emergency, etc. The pandemic has ratcheted up imposter scams, since in the case of romance scams, debt collectors or family emergencies, you’re more likely to accept virtual contacts and communications.

2. Telephone and Mobile Services Advertising includes complaints about mobile plans, rates or coverage areas; unsolicited text or fax messages; problems with mobile applications; unauthorized charges or switching of the consumers’ service provider (known as slamming); misleading prepaid phone card offers; VoIP service problems; and electronic consumer products such as smart watches and connected-home (IoT) devices. During the pandemic, consumers have increasingly relied on mobile technology and scammers have increased their use of mobile applications to perpetrate scams.

3. Online Shopping and Negative Reviews: Consumers complained of undisclosed costs, failure to deliver on time, if at all, and refusal to honor a guarantee on purchases made online (not including auction sales), as well as businesses trying to prevent people from giving honest reviews about products or servichased. With the pandemic, consumers have been pushed to online sales like never before. Reviews have become an integral tool for comparison shopping, yet sellers use paid-for reviews and bots to create a false sense of reliability. This is a form of advertising fraud also called “opinion spam.

4. Internet Services Problems complaints were raised on many issues including websites that offer content for a fee or advertise products and services; difficulty canceling an ISP or online account; malware and computer exploits; issues with online payment services, social networking services, internet gaming and virtual reality; website design and promotion services; and problems with broadband internet services and content, including the truthfulness of cost, access and speed disclosures.

5. Debt Collection: Complaints here involve creditor initiated and third-party debt collection practices. With the pandemic and unemployment rates, complaints involving sharp debt collection practices are expected to rise. In Maryland, a debt collector must be licensed by the state’s Collection Agency Licensing Board. When entering a settlement agreement with a collector, be wary of confessed judgment clauses which remove all defenses to the underlying debt. In Maryland, such clauses are illegal in consumer transactions.

If you are looking to protect yourself from fraud, identity theft and scams, or maybe wondering about the best way to use credit, how to shop for a used car or maximize your security online, the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection has many resources available to you at montgomerycountymd.gov/ocp (click on Consumer Advice A to Z). For NCPW, the OCP is also providing webinars on issues ranging from debt collection to safe use of e-payment apps, and internet safety.

Government Consumer Protection Resources in Our Area

Montgomery County, Md.: Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (click on Consumer Advice A to Z). For National Consumer Protection Week, the OCP is also providing webinars on issues ranging from debt collection to safe use of e-payment apps, and internet safety: go to montgomerycountymd.gov/ocp/calendar.html. For more help contact OCP at consumer@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Prince George’s County, Md.: Visit Maryland Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division for consumer alerts, a great variety of consumer publications on many topics, a comprehensive guide to identity theft and more. 301-386-6200.

Washington, D.C.: Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia’s Office of Consumer Protection has a great set of consumer resources on its website including protecting yourself from telemarketing, charity, sweepstakes and lottery scams. Call their Consumer Protection Hotline at 202-442-9828 or email consumer.protection@dc.gov.

Fairfax County, Va.: Fairfax County Consumer Services Division, Consumer Affairs Branch, 703-222-8435. The site has a link to programming for National Consumer Protection Week. In addition to resources on its website, the branch publishes The Informed Consumer eNewsletter quarterly. To have it delivered to your inbox, or for other assistance, email consumer@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Arlington County, Va.: Arlington County has a Consumer Protection Clearinghouse of information and resources for residents from scam tips to identity theft. Call 703-228-3120 or email consumer@arlingtonva.us.

Other Va.: For consumer protection assistance for Loudoun County, City of Alexandria or other Northern Virginia counties or municipalities, visit the Virginia Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit. You can also subscribe to their Scam Alerts or Consumer Protection newsletter.