Susan Tompor: Alerts about ‘suspicious activity’ surge, as crooks impersonate Amazon

Now scammers are trying to warn you of possible fraud on your account to make you so nervous that you don’t think twice about what you’re doing next.

We’re seeing an uptick in texts and phone calls from scammers alerting us to suspicious activity. Some are pretending to be from the Amazon fraud department. Others follow a similar M.O. with dubious fraud alerts by impersonating big names, including banks such as Chase and government agencies such as the Social Security Administration.

Everything is portrayed as something terribly “urgent.” Some text messages warn you that your account has been locked or restricted because of unusual activity and you may be told, falsely, that you need to click on a link to fix the problem.

Others may claim that you need to verify that a $500 purchase was made on your card for something or another.

Some robocalls tell you to “Press 1” to report a phony charge often claimed to be $729 or $1,499.

Every text message you get isn’t real

Our first automatic reaction, of course, is to rush to try to make sure that no one is stealing money out of our accounts or using our charge cards.

Unfortunately, moving quickly is the wrong response. We need to take a breath and train ourselves to carefully examine who might really be texting, emailing or calling us.

While you might somehow think that every text or warning you get has to be legitimate, it isn’t.

“These scams work because they target routine human behaviors and prey on consumers’ fears that a problem has surfaced,” said Brian K. Payne, director of the Coastal Virginia Center for Cyber Innovation.

“Ironically, the only problem is that the offender is targeting the individual to steal from them.”

Responding right away only gives the crooks what they want – a jittery consumer who might easily hand over a username and password, a driver’s license number, a credit card number or a Social Security number.

Why you don’t want to click on that link

In some cases, a scam might start out as an email or text with a warning that your account access has been restricted due to unusual activity.

Urgent action is encouraged, as customers are told to click on a link to confirm their account and restore normal access.

Of course, clicking on the link takes the user to a landing page that asks for their login credentials. Scammers can use information to steal your identity and take out new loans. Or they may even find ways to try to drain your bank account.

Like with other scams, these fraudsters might convince you that you need to go out and put money on a prepaid card or Bitcoin to address a problem.

Some consumers in Michigan report getting calls from a so-called U.S. government “anti-fraud department,” whatever that might be.

In that scam, the caller says the consumer’s computer had been compromised by hackers and the caller needs remote access to stop them. Somewhere along the line, the scammers are likely going to ask for gift cards to help “catch the suspects.”

Consumers can end up being tricked because the messages from scammers typically sound or look official.

“Sending a scam email costs the scammer nothing and they are able to target thousands of potential victims at once,” Payne said.

“Even if just a few individuals fall prey to the scam, the payoff can be high,” Payne said. “And catching the offenders is not easy as they are able to hide their identities and commit the offense from anywhere in the world.”

Did someone just make a fraudulent charge on your Amazon account?

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel reissued an alert in May to warn consumers about the increase in Amazon scam calls.

We heard about the Amazon scams in late 2020 when holiday shoppers started getting phone calls supposedly from Amazon that claimed nearly $800 in charges were made on someone’s account.

The Amazon calls have increased dramatically in the past few months, according to consumer watchdogs.

Consumers are regularly receiving between 100 million and 150 million robocalls per month from fraudsters claiming to be with Amazon, according to YouMail, which has a robocall blocking app.

Nessel noted that some departments at Amazon will call customers, but Amazon will never ask you to disclose or verify sensitive personal information or offer you a refund you do not expect.

“If you are an Amazon customer, log in to your account directly through the mobile app or website to verify your order status or contact customer service,” Nessel said in a statement.

Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said the fake text messages can be particularly unsettling for some consumers who don’t expect scammers to use text messages.

Nofziger noted that consumers must recognize that smartphones are computers and once a crook has access to the phone, it may be possible to tap into accounts you already have open on the phone, such as your bank account.

So you do not want to click on any links in these texts.

Your best bet is to hang up on a robocall or ignore a text and, if worried, call the company directly using a number listed on a statement or the company’s website.

Other recommendations include the following:

• Never give personal information to someone you do not know.

• Treat demands for immediate action as big red flags.

• Be aware that scammers may reach out by voice mail or text message telling you your bank account will be closed, frozen or terminated unless you call or go to a website, where you’ll be asked to give personal information. Don’t do it.

• Banks, including Chase and others, also warn consumers to avoid printing a driver’s license, phone or Social Security number on your checks.

Some people have lost serious cash to these crooks. Some end up putting hundreds or thousands of dollars on gift cards.

If crooks access your bank account, they will attempt to steal tens of thousands of dollars in a few seconds.

Amazon impostors lured one California woman into an elaborate scam that led to a $40,000 loss, according to the YouMail alert.

Remember, part of the scam game involves creating some drama to drive you to do something you’d never do if you weren’t on edge, like send money via a wire transfer or go to a store to buy a prepaid card or gift card.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stompor@freepress.com.

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