What's the nation's biggest consumer complaint?
For the 11th year in a row, the Federal Trade Commission said it received more complaints about identity theft than any other single item -- including debt collectors, ranked second, and the ever-popular bogus sweepstakes.
The FTC says among the fastest growing types of fraud are those collectively known as impostor scams. They're perpetuated by people who pose as someone you know -- or government agencies that you trust -- to get information that can lead to identity theft. Or in some cases, just old-fashioned theft.
A favorite impostor scam during tax season is the fake Internal Revenue Service e-mail. The target of the fraud gets an e-mail with an official-looking IRS logo demanding a credit card number to settle a tax debt. If the potential victim doesn't come through, the e-mail warns, the agency will take action by garnishing the person's wages or placing a lien on his or her home.
The IRS doesn't contact taxpayers by e-mail or even by phone. But a person who doesn't know that might be shaken enough to click on the link in the e-mail and plug in a credit card number.
Another impostor fraud, the grandchild scam, used to target seniors by phone. An elderly person would get a call from someone claiming to be his or her grandchild in distress, wrongly arrested in a foreign country and desperately in need of money to get out of jail. But because the grandchild scam required a gullible senior, who was perhaps forgetful or hard of hearing, con artists have moved on to pastures where the potential victims are more plentiful: social networks.
Now instead of getting a call or e-mail from a grandchild, the scam target might get an instant message from a Facebook friend. The message begs for an emergency loan because the friend's wallet was stolen or he or she was unjustly imprisoned.
But the "friend" is actually a con artist who has hacked into an e-mail or Facebook account to take on a false identity.
The "send money quickly" scam is likely to be more effective through an instant message because it conveys a sense of urgency, experts said.
"The key to a successful impostor scam is getting you to send money before you find out who's really on the other end," the FTC said in a consumer advisory last week. "The more time you have, the more likely you'll figure it out. Resist the pressure to act immediately."
One prospective victim said she received an instant message on Facebook from a friend's mother, who was supposedly stranded overseas. Luckily she took the time to call her friend, who happened to be talking to her mom at that very moment. Crisis averted.
Another impostor scam uses online links, supposedly sent by friends, to send you to websites that will install viruses or other kinds of malware on your computer, said Tom Clare, head of product marketing at Blue Coat, an Internet security firm.
If you do go to a site recommended in an e-mail, one tipoff that it could be a malware trap is that a message pops up, saying you need to upgrade your video or security software to see whatever your friend sent. If you do click on the button, the viruses and such flow into your computer. This could include software that records your keystrokes, thus possibly revealing passwords, credit card numbers or other private financial information that identity thieves crave.
Facebook security staffers say they're aware of the scams and have been working to shut them down. But when staff members get too aggressive in stopping what they determine are suspicious messages, they can end up blocking a number of legitimate friend-to-friend communications. Facebook's security site is full of complaints from people saying they were blocked from sending legitimate messages.
The FTC has posted a tip sheet on spotting impostor scams. It's at http://www.ftc.gov under "consumer protection."
(Kathy M. Kristof, author of "Taming the Tuition Tiger" and "Investing 101," welcomes your comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters or phone calls. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.