Flip Rowen of Albuquerque lost $400 to an internet scam, but he considers it a “cheap lesson” because it could have been much worse.
Rowen ordered ammunition from a company he found online that appeared to be based near Lansing, Michigan. He used the payment app Zelle to pay $400 for the merchandise and for shipping.
Rowen says he had never heard of the company he ordered from, although he has purchased camping and fishing items from a variety of other online outlets in the past.
What happened this time was that Rowen got a text from a supposed company representative saying that U.S. customs officials needed an extra $200 “retainer” to ensure privacy. The money would later be refunded, the text message said.
Rowen says he knew at that point that he was dealing with scammers because the products were supposedly made in the U.S. and shouldn’t need to go through customs. Also, he says, it would be unusual for a customs payment to be reimbursed.
But he was out the $400 because the Zelle app does not provide a protection program for consumers who use its service.
Mobile payments are convenient and generally safe when used to transfer money among people you know, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
However, scammers also use these types of services “to trick people into sending money or merchandise without holding up their end of the deal,” the bureau says.
That appears to be what happened to Rowen. But the reverse can happen, as well: An imposter might purchase an item from you, appear to send a payment, but then cancel it before it hits your bank account.
“Using mobile payment services with family, friends and others you know and trust is the safest way to protect your money,” the bureau says.
As for fake retail websites, such as the one that ensnared Rowen, they can be a phony reproduction of a legitimate company or completely made up.
A red flag is a site that claims to have deep discounts. Be especially wary of discounts that exceed 55%, advises Norton, the internet security firm. Make sure to do comparison shopping among numerous retailers to evaluate what kinds of markdowns are realistic.
Also be wary of retail sites that have suspicious or limited contact options, according to AARP.
That includes retailers that offer only a fill-in form to make contact or those with a customer service email address from a Yahoo or Gmail account, and not a corporate one.
Other tips, courtesy of AARP:
• Use trusted sites, rather than shopping with a search engine. “Scammers can game search results to lead you astray,” AARP says.
• Research an unfamiliar product or brand by looking for reviews and searching for the name, along with the words “scam” or “complaints.”
• Read carefully the delivery, exchange and refund policies. Don’t do business with a company whose policies are vague or nonexistent.
• Don’t assume a website is safe just because it is encrypted. Scam sites often carry addresses with a padlock icon or “https://” in front of the URL to fool consumers.
• Look twice at URLs and app names. “Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway, but easy to miss.”
Contact Ellen Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 toll-free at 1-888-255-9210 or file a complaint at www.nmag.gov/file-a-complaint.aspx