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Free goodies from Amazon aren’t what they seem

It might seem like a good problem to have: boxes of Amazon items arriving at your doorstop, unsolicited and free of charge.

But the goodies might be part of what’s called a “brushing scam” involving identity theft that’s involved strange deliveries arriving at homes in the U.S. and, in several cases, to student dormitories in Canada. The ploy is used by third-party retailers seeking to write their own five-star reviews in order to boost their online sales, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Because sellers aren’t allowed to review their own products, what they’re doing instead is this: establishing a phony email address and then setting up fake Amazon accounts so they appear to be independent customers. They then purchase their own merchandise with an untraceable gift card and send it to any random person, according to the Boston Globe.

Once the item is shipped – it doesn’t really matter where – the seller who is controlling the “buyer’s” email account can write a review of the product, thus becoming a “verified buyer” writing a “verified review,” according to the Globe. That’s important because Amazon highlights verified reviews and gives better display to products that have a greater number of verified reviews.

The scam “looks a lot less like a potentially harmful crime and a whole lot more like a generous friend or family member, but it could be a sign of trouble,” the ID Theft Resource Center said.

That’s because it means someone has gained access to your name, mailing address and “potentially other information,” the resource center said. “Depending on how they accessed your information, they could be privy to a lot more of your personally identifiable information than you realize.”

A likely source of the stolen personal information is one of the many data breaches that have hit retailers.

The resource center recommends contacting Amazon about unwanted packages and changing passwords on online accounts to protect them against hacking.

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An ever-growing number of people are turning to peer-to-peer payment sites, such as Venmo – the figure is estimated to be 78.7 million users in the U.S. this year, rising to more than 110 million by 2021.

Here’s how it works: When consumers download the Venmo app, they create an account connected to their bank account or credit or debit card. The app allows them to transfer or receive money from other Venmo users and transfer some or all of their Venmo balance to their bank account.

As with almost everything conducted online, it’s important to protect against identity theft and other kinds of fraud.

Here are some tips, courtesy of the Federal Trade Commission:

• Peer-to-peer payment systems require access to your financial information, so check your account settings for additional security measures that aren’t on by default. Consider turning on multi-factor authentication, requiring a PIN, or using fingerprint recognition like Touch ID.

• Some systems or apps might share transaction details on social media. Check social media settings to ensure you’re not sharing personal information by default. Adjust settings based on what you’re comfortable exposing.

• “Scammers try to get you to pay them in many different ways – including by sending money online – so make sure you know who you’re sending money to.” The FTC suggests that if you’re receiving money from someone you don’t know – “maybe as payment for tickets to a concert or a game, or for an item you’re selling” – transfer the money to your bank account and make sure it’s there before sending any goods.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at emarks@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division at 1-844-255-9210, toll-free.

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