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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.


The Year of the Coronavirus has been a tough one, with little to cheer. So for this last Consumer Tip of 2020, let’s celebrate a little good news.

Last month, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), U.S. Department of Justice and other federal law enforcement partners scored a “first-of-its-kind indictment” against Indian-based Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) provider E Sampark and its director, Gaurav Pravinkumar Gupta, who allegedly connected tens of millions of scam calls to American consumers on behalf of India-based phone scammers. The indictment news release also reported that a federal court ordered a Florida-based server farm to stop providing E Sampark and Gupta with servers used to help perpetuate the fraud scheme.

I’d like to say Gupta and others are behind bars, awaiting trial for these crimes. Or that their victims might recoup some of their stolen money. But, alas, not quite.

Byung J. “BJay” Pak, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said in a Nov. 17 statement that the defendants who “bombarded American consumers with scam calls, causing emotional and financial devastation, including to vulnerable and elderly individuals” will be investigated and “brought to justice.”

According to the indictment, E Sampark routed calls from criminal India-based call centers to U.S. victims, both directly and through VoIP services, leading to reported victim losses of more than $20 million.  The scammers used multiple schemes, including Social Security and Internal Revenue Service (IRS)  impersonation, and loan scams. Multiple examples were outlined in the indictment. Perhaps the most heartbreaking was a November 2019 case in which the callers kept a Marietta, Ga., woman on the phone for 11-plus hours while they convinced her that her Social Security number had been compromised, that there was a warrant for her arrest in Texas and that her assets could be frozen. Hoping to protect her funds, the victim, following the imposter’s orders, purchased more than $35,000 in gift cards from retailers including Target, GameStop, Sephora and Nordstrom. She gave the callers the numbers on the back of the gift cards, and they drained the funds from them.

If you’re a regular Consumer Tip reader, you know that no governmental or police agency would ever ask for payment via gift card — a major red flag. Anyone who demands payment by gift card is a scammer.

The Justice Department press release did clue me in on something: If you or someone you know is age 60 or older and has been a victim of financial fraud, you can dial the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833-372-8311. And if you’ve been duped by an IRS impersonation scam, you can report it to TIGTA at 800-366-4484.

Learn more about gift card scams at this page. It includes a handy contact list for gift card purveyors such as Google Play, iTunes and MoneyPak, which has an excellent rundown of scam methodology.

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.