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In honor of my Caught Dead in Wyoming mystery series, my assistant Kay Coyte is writing for my newsletter and blog a series of consumer tips inspired by TV reporter Elizabeth Danniher.


In the never-ending effort to combat scams and consumer fraud, two recent articles stand out. Laura Daily, a Denver-based freelance writer specializing in travel, health, food and consumer issues, isn’t the usual tech writer covering these criminal acts. But her recent column in The Washington Post is a good read about the state of scams in this pandemic period. A slight drop in spam calls this summer and fall came as call centers closed because of COVID-19 (in part due to the lockdown in India); I thought it had to do with the national election.

Daily sees the volume on the rise and offers advice on how to avoid being a victim. Some I’ve covered before, such as not trusting caller ID and “resist the temptation to click . . . on anything.” But here are two others:

– Take a pass on innocent-looking online quizzes. Scammers use them to add specifics to your profile, says Ron Culler, senior director of technology and solutions for ADT Cybersecurity. Once they’ve compiled enough data, they can target you and sound legitimate, because they know the model of your first car, your favorite breed of dog or the first street you lived on.

– Don’t forget to update your software and applications for computers, tablets and phones. This helps protect you from criminals exploiting software vulnerabilities. Auto-updating is best.

– Here’s one with Elizabeth’s (and Jennifer’s) seal of approval: “Dig deeper.” Search online for a company or product name with words such as “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” Or search for a phrase that describes your situation, such as “IRS call.” Search by phone number to see if others have reported it as a scam or nuisance call.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network does great work, and continually updates its pandemic scams story (most recently on Monday), “Beware of Robocalls, Texts and Emails Promising COVID-19 Cures or Stimulus Payments,” by John Waggoner and Andy Markowitz.

This week’s good news about a coronavirus vaccine doesn’t mean an approved vaccine or drug is available now to treat or prevent COVID-19. The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have sent more than 40 warnings to companies selling unapproved products they claim can cure or prevent COVID and shut down a website that was promoting a nonexistent vaccine. Teas, oils, cannabinol, colloidol silver and intravenous vitamin-C therapies are among supposed treatments hawked in clinics and on websites, social media and TV.

Meanwhile, the FBI is reporting ads for fake COVID-19 antibody tests that in reality collect personal information to use in identity theft or health insurance scams. AARP’s The Perfect Scam podcast recently featured fraud expert Frank Abagnale answering questions on scams. Topics included an Amazon impostor scam, how to spot PPE (personal protective equipment) fraud and deciphering checks in the mail.