Police Info

Celebrity Names Deliver a Nasty, Costly Shock

Do you play the celebrity name game? You know, where you follow the activities and posts of famous people. Millions of us do. If so, you must be on your guard against a possible scam.

Why? Because people with ulterior motives know that celebrity names are powerful. They stimulate our curiosity, so we go in search of more information or photos. And for those who want to be "just like them," they're a potential gateway to a rip-off. In the latter case, one of the dangers is celebrity endorsement of products, from clothing to cosmetics to jewelry.

Celebrities are often paid vast sums of money to promote products, especially if they have millions of followers. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, provided we know they're being paid to make recommendations.

But, as we reported recently in our issue dealing with online "influencers" -- people whose opinions are respected by their impressionable followers -- the trouble is that they and some celebrities sometimes fail to disclose the money link.

For example, Truth in Advertising (TINA), a well-known campaigning organization, has recently published a whole list of complaints it has lodged against certain celebrity names, alleging they failed to make clear their financial connection with a product. The list contains top names such as members of the Kardashian family, singer/actress Selena Gomez, DJ Khaled, and athlete David Ortiz.

In most cases, TINA drew the celebrity's attention to their non-disclosure and the stars subsequently clarified that their posts were, in fact, advertisements. Products included well-known beverages and beauty products.

But there are possibly hundreds more who keep their true colors out of sight. It's impossibly hard to keep track of them. They're still out there waiting to snare you.

The Federal Trade Commission states that a social media post must "conspicuously" state when a post is an ad whenever the celebrity has a material connection with the brand or product being promoted.

Some celebrities fall foul of the FTC's rules by only making obscure references to the nature of their relationship -- for example by use hashtags like #spon (meaning sponsored) or #collab (meaning collaboration).

TINA says what they should be doing is prominently using the hashtag #ad: "That's a clear, simple solution to an ambiguous, complicated disclosure problem, and it will likely ensure that no matter what electronic gadget or gizmo a consumer is using they will be able to see the disclosure."

Malware Links

Sometimes, of course, a celebrity is an innocent and unwilling participant in a scam. This happens, for example, when scammers create fake news or links associated with a celebrity in hopes that they will lure victims into downloading malware onto their PCs.

The crooks might, for instance, suggest clicking a link will lead to revealing photos of a celeb, or to a scandalous news item about them.

This has led Internet security firm McAfee to publish an annual list of what they call the most dangerous celebrity names on the web -- meaning the names most likely to lead clickers into trouble.

McAfee's 2019 list has just been published, placing American actress Alexis Bledel in the top slot. She's followed by British chat show host James Corden. Other "dangerous celebrities" are Sophie Turner, Anna Kendrick, Lupita Nyong'o, Jimmy Fallon, Jackie Chan, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Tessa Thompson.

"Many users don't realize that simple internet searches of their favorite celebrities could potentially lead to malicious content, as cybercriminals often leverage these popular searches to entice users to click on dangerous links," said McAfee. "This year's study emphasizes that today's streaming culture doesn't exactly protect users from cybercriminals."

The security firm urges users to be cautious about clicking links, relying instead only on reputable sources.

Also, don't use illegal streaming sites, they say. Many of these are riddled with malware.

Celebrity Impostors

The other big celebrity name scam involves people impersonating them -- impostors.

A few weeks ago, entrepreneur Richard Branson said he was concerned that "more and more people are being scammed by fraudsters impersonating me." The scammers, he said, usually fake investment recommendations in his name, and target them at people who've commented on Branson's genuine posts on social media.

In one instance, the crooks invented an organization called "Virgin Group Worldwide," which they then invited victims to join. Of course, to do so, the victims had to provide their personal details, including financial information. Branson pointed out he never sends private messages to his followers, so if you get one it's a fake. And he never promotes get-rich-quick offers.

Echoing this, AARP, the organization representing older people, has warned that if you get a direct message that's supposed to be from any celebrity, it's almost certainly a fake.

Among many victims, the organization cites the case of a Bruce Springsteen fan who handed over $1,500 to a phony Springsteen. The scammer had asked for the money after exchanging multiple texts with the victim to gain trust and then eventually saying he had run out of immediate cash.

And country music star Trace Adkins, who's been a victim of impostors several times, recently told the CBS TV network that spotting and removing the fakers was like playing whack-a-mole. "You can't stop them," he said.

You may not be able to stop them, but being on your guard, with a heavy dose of skepticism, is your best line of defense. Start by taking whatever the celebrity says, or is supposed to have said, with a pinch of salt -- and work your way from there.

Alert of the Week

Christmas is the busiest time of year for scammers as well as the rest of us. And with more and more of us shopping online, you can be sure they've already set up a whole host of fake websites, adorned with fantastic bargains

Make sure you do your shopping either with established online retailers or with names that you've thoroughly checked out.

Remember, you won't just lose your money, you could also lose your identity once these crooks have your credit card details.

Small Firms Lose Thousands to Business Website Fraudsters

If you’re self-employed, you probably either have a business website or have been convinced that you need one to help promote your service or product

True. But where do you go to get a good website that makes the right statement about you and your business?

If you’re lucky, you already have enough basic skills to tackle it yourself, especially as there are now so many templates and simple software programs to help.

But if that’s not you, or you don’t have the time, you’ll likely turn to professionals to do the job for you. And there are plenty of them out there.

But beware. There are also a lot of scam artists claiming to be website designers and developers who generally don’t know the first thing about creating a site. They just want your money.

The National Consumers League (NCL) recently reported receiving dozens of complaints from people -- individuals and businesses -- who have fallen victim to this kind of website fraud.

For example, the owner of a small clothing business in Texas said they’d paid $5,000 upfront for a website, complete with online shopping, to be built within seven days. That’s a pretty tight timetable for a complete, functional e-commerce site.

And so it proved. One month later, the business owner was still waiting. After unsuccessfully trying to contact the so-called developer both by email and phone, the owner realized they had lost their money.

“Sadly, we have received dozens of complaints detail(ing) similar stories with small business owners reporting losses from $2,500 to as much as $50,000,” says NCL.

Avoidance Actions

However, applying a little common sense can help most would-be site owners from falling victim to this scam:

For a start, the old adage that says, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” is the first rule to apply. That might apply to the Texas example we mentioned, where the crook promised to deliver in an incredibly short time. It’s also common to come across a scammer who’s promising to provide a fantastic site for a knock-down price. By doing some research and comparing prices and times, you should be able to identify these crooks. If you go for low and fast, you’re probably heading into a scam.

You can also find out what others are saying about the firms you’re considering. If they don’t have any reviews, be extremely wary. You can ask the potential provider for client references but be sure those references are genuine.

Check the firm’s own website. Does it look good? Are there spelling and grammar mistakes? And what contact information does it provide? There should be a genuine street address and phone number that you can try before you buy.

There are now several websites and organizations that also produce scores and complaint details about all types of creatives -- for example: TrustPilot.com or the Better Business Bureau.

Of course, applying all of these measures doesn’t guarantee you won’t get caught out. If that happens to you, you can report it to the NCL, via their Fraud.org website. The organization will then share your complaint with more than 90 law enforcement and consumer protection organizations.

Another Angle on Website Fraud

Genuine website designers and developers are also, themselves, potential victims of scams.

For instance, Austin, Texas, designer Alex Wright recently reported receiving multiple potential orders that, he says, had enough weird similarities to trigger alarm bells.

These come-ons often conceal advance fee scams (sometimes called third-party payout scams), which frequently target creative professionals.

The typical pattern is to receive a work order, followed by a fake check, part of which has to be forwarded as a money transfer to a supposed third party. In other cases, the crook uses a stolen credit card to make the payment, with the same request for a money transfer to someone such as a project manager, who is really the scammer.

Either way, the victim ends up out of pocket, sometimes to the tune of several thousand dollars.

The money-wiring request is the first, well-known sign of a scam. You should never wire money to someone you don’t know because where it ends up is untraceable.

A second red flag, says Wright, is that the scammer may mention a budget upfront. This is highly unusual, he says, because clients normally play their budget cards pretty close to their chests.

And a third warning sign is if the supposed client provides too much detail in the first request. In this case, they’re trying to make their request much more legitimate by going into great detail.

Usually they copy and paste descriptions from other legitimate work-commissioning sites. In one case, a scammer actually sent Wright a sitemap of how he wanted his website to be structured.

Red flag number 4 is the usual one about poor English, often lacking punctuation and using the wrong tenses for verbs -- or containing misspellings.

Other potential warning signs are:

The potential client claims to be running a business but uses a generic email address such as those from Gmail or Yahoo.

You receive several similar requests, using the same kind of language and providing very similar amounts of information.

If you submit a bid, it is enthusiastically accepted without any negotiation or requests for further clarification or time scales.

You can read Wright’s full report here: https://alexwright.net/blog/web-design/avoid-web-design-scams/. It includes a whole host of examples of the type of messages the scammers use.

So, whether you want a business website or you design them, be very wary before committing any of your time and money.

Alert of the Week

Do you have an account with the ride-sharing service Uber? If so, watch out for a call asking you to verify your log-in credentials.

It’s a straightforward ID theft phishing scam. The crooks may even send a message by text with a link to a phony sign-on page.

Uber never requests account verification by phone. And if the sign-on page isn’t at this address -- https://www.uber.com/global/en/sign-in/ -- then it’s a scam.