Don't fall for the top scams of 2014.

Top 10 scams of 2014 and how to avoid them

If you have a credit card, January probably made you paranoid.

There was the Target data breach, first reported in December as affecting up to 40 million customers’ personal and financial information. But last month, that number jumped to 70 million, and then 110 million – just a bit off for a company whose logo is a bull’s-eye.

Then we found out Neiman Marcus was also hacked. And then independent cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs warned of fraudulent $9.84 charges popping up everywhere. Scary times, but here’s something scarier: Your credit card statement isn’t the only thing you need to be watching.

Every year, the Federal Trade Commission publishes a list of complaints it receives from consumers, often about how they were ripped off. And yes, identity theft has been the top complaint for 13 years in a row. It accounted for 18 percent of all complaints on last year’s list.

But there are tens of thousands of angry consumers complaining in many other categories every year, citing problems with everything from debt collectors to fake lotteries. The Better Business Bureau likewise posts a list of Top 10 scams from the previous year.

Based on those lists and recent news stories, Debt.com has compiled a list of rip-offs we predict will dominate 2014 – and how you can make it to 2015 unscathed…

1. Impostor collectors

The scam: Consumers are receiving threatening letters and phone calls from criminals posing as law firms and court officials, the FTC warned this month. They threaten legal action or jail time for unpaid debts, and may demand you wire money or use a re-loadable money card to pay them. The FTC calls it “a new twist on an old scam,” which leads us to believe this one will be around for a while till more folks catch on.

What to do: The payment method should be your first clue something is off. And while it’s conceivable scammers could dig up actual information on your debts, it’s more likely they’re just making up one you’ve never heard of. The solution is the same either way: Take whatever contact information you get and check it in your favorite search engine. It should only take a few seconds to see if a name or number is real and accurate.

2. The one ring

The scam: People across the country are getting calls that show on their cell phones as unknown numbers. After one ring, the BBB says, the dialer hangs up without leaving a message.

What to do: Ignore it. It’s a kind of scam called phone cramming, where scammers bill you for a weird, $20 “premium service” if you answer or call back. There are also charges for international calls, since they’re coming from the Caribbean.

3. Phishing expeditions

The scam: Nothing new about this one, but it still works well enough for scammers to keep doing it. Phishing is like fishing – and you’re the fish. Scammers pose as businesses and authority figures and scare you into giving up personal information. Here are a few example phishing messages you might see through email or text message, courtesy of the FTC

“We suspect an unauthorized transaction on your account. To ensure that your account is not compromised, please click the link below and confirm your identity.”

“During our regular verification of accounts, we couldn’t verify your information. Please click here to update and verify your information.”

“Our records indicate that your account was overcharged. You must call us within 7 days to receive your refund.”

These messages can look very official, imitating the name, logo, and layout of whoever the scammer is posing as.

What to do: Stay calm and ask yourself: Isn’t this information they should already have? Why do they need it? Don’t submit anything through the channel you’re told to, and don’t click on any links or attachments in the message. Instead, find an independent way to contact the company and ask about the message, either by manually typing in the correct web address or looking up the phone number.

4. The Bitcoin bait

The scam: Many people see the trendy high-tech currency called Bitcoin as an investment opportunity. So do scammers. It’s primarily digital, and money transfers are as simple and quick as sending email. Also like email, there’s no way to put the horse back in the barn. There’s no banking middle man, and the federal government is still grappling with how to categorize and regulate Bitcoin.

One recent ripoff involved a Bitcoin user from Wisconsin who lost $150,000 when he tried to trade for physical tokens representing Bitcoins, according to The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.

What to do: If you’re going to get involved in the crazy world of cryptocurrency, do your homework and minimize trading with people and businesses you don’t know or have reason to trust. Treat Bitcoin like cash.

5. Fake tech support

The scam: You get a cold call from someone warning about a virus or serious problem with your computer. The scammer tries to talk you through granting remote access to your computer or getting your personal information, and then charges you for fixing a problem that doesn’t exist.

Then they might come back and explain it as a mistake and try to offer you a refund – in exchange for more personal information like banking or credit card details, which they use to rob you further.

What to do: The FTC’s advice is to hang up on unsolicited callers, especially if they ask for financial details or want to walk you through setting up a Western Union account.

6. Obamacare fears

The scam: The best tools of the scammer are ignorance and fear. That makes any major government operation a great target, but especially a relatively new one like the Affordable Care Act. This may have started last year, but it will be one of the worst scams of 2014.

Forbes contributor Richard Eisenberg identified five distinct Obamacare scams last October, including people posing as government employees, creating fake insurance cards, and advertising fake insurance exchange websites.

What to do: All the information you need about the healthcare law is available at Healthcare.gov, including the number to call if you run into something that seems suspicious or wrong: 1-800-318-2596.

7. Work from home

The scam: This kind of scam never dies, because who doesn’t want to make money sitting on their couch?

A recent example noted by the FTC targeted Spanish-speaking women, “offering  the chance to buy brand-name clothing, purses, and perfumes at below market prices for resale to friends, family and their communities for a profit.”

Telemarketers take orders, then send a package cash-on-delivery, which means victims can’t see the goods until they pay for them. And, of course, there’s nothing but junk inside. Those who refuse to pay or complain are threatened with lawsuits, arrest, or deportation.

What to do: As usual, hang up on cold callers. Ignore any offer that sounds too good to be true – like one that pays $25 an hour to work from home with no particular skills. Research companies and the kinds of positions these work-from-home offers discuss. Get an official place of business and make sure it exists under the proper name. And report to the FTC anybody who threatens to sue, arrest, or deport you for not paying them.

8. Advance-fee credit repair and loan brokers

The scam: This one made the BBB’s top scams list for 2013.  For the Chicago-area bureau, it made up nearly half of scam complaints for the year. These scammer can have very professional websites, but they want to charge fees before providing loans or credit services.

What to do: Avoid businesses that want you to wire money before giving you a loan or credit guidance, and laugh at anybody who promises they can automatically remove negative marks on your credit history. Research accredited companies before signing up with anyone.

9. Home improvement

The scam: These guys never go away, either, and they often pop up after disaster strikes.

They like to pose as traveling independent contractors, according to the BBB, and might suggest they have leftover materials they can use for your place at a discounted rate.

What to do: Work with companies you can research, and people who you can verify work for them.

10. Sweepstakes

The scam: You’ve won! Wait, did you enter? There are many variants of this, many involving supposed foreign lottery or government officials, but all requiring “fees” or personal information to process your prize. We don’t need a crystal ball to predict this will stay in the Top 10 of 2014 scams.

What to do: When you win something, you shouldn’t have to pay to get it. And any taxes you owe are your responsibility, not the prize-giver’s. So don’t buy into any demands for money, especially for a sweepstakes you’ve never heard of. You can’t even play foreign lotteries – it’s illegal, according to the FTC.

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