Scams against businesses and individuals have gotten more sophisticated over the years with the use of the internet, email and social media. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this with more people staying home and using their computers to shop, invest, find love and find jobs.
Lisa Schiller, director of investigations and media relations at the Better Business Bureau Serving Wisconsin, spoke to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently about what to look for and how people can protect themselves.
Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Question: How have scams evolved over the years?
Schiller: BBB has seen scams change and evolve and expand tremendously over the years. For example, 25, 30 years ago we saw a lot of scams perpetrated through the postal mail and via telephone. They now are coming from all over the world and scammers use all of the technology tools. They can hijack your website, your logos, your business or even your home address. They re-create names and steal identities. Scams are much, much more sophisticated these days. And, if scammers see people catching on, they change their techniques and shift their tactics.
When I think of the evolving of scams, I think of the infamous Nigerian prince email scam that we saw constantly in the 1990s and early 2000s versus what we see now: phishing scams and romance scams that, if fallen victim, can wipe out bank accounts and life savings. People lose so much more money today, not to mention their personal identities. Much different than the scams of decades ago. And then there are the methods of payments in scams. Today, scammers prefer – and are successful – in getting payment through untraceable methods such as gift cards, cryptocurrency, prepaid cards and now mobile payments.
Q. Have the number of scams increased since the COVID-19 pandemic?
Schiller: When COVID-19 began, it was a time of uncertainty. Scammers took advantage of that and we began to see specific COVID-related scams surfacing such as phishing emails purporting to be with the CDC, text messages pretending to be with Amazon and offers for fake PPP (Payment Protection Program) loans. COVID-19 also resulted in fake advertising, price gouging and an explosion of fake online websites – selling everything from puppies to clothing and the high-demand items at the time such as hand sanitizers, tissues, face masks and toilet paper. In 2020, we saw an 81% increase in processed complaints and a 38% increase in customer review postings. We also saw a 20% increase in submissions to our BBB Scam Tracker online tool. Investigations we conducted were up 20% and we sent out a record number of press releases – 187 in 2020 – including informational pieces, business alerts and scam notifications, many related to and concerning COVID-19.
Q. What are the top 3 most reported scams to BBB Scam Tracker?
Schiller: In 2021, online shopping scams were the riskiest. Cryptocurrency scams were the second riskiest jumping from No. 7 in 2020. Employment scams were the No. 3 most riskiest.
In Wisconsin specifically, we are still seeing high reports of online purchase scams, puppy scams and recently, we’ve seen a real uptick in lottery winner impersonation scams.
We also continue to see employment scams, romance and romance-related (such as the wrong number text that included fake texts from a female) and impersonation scams being reported on a regular basis.
Q. How does the BBB rating system work?
Schiller: Among the most popular features in the BBB Business Review is the rating, which is a letter grade from A+ to F. BBB ratings are dynamic and are based on an algorithm that takes into consideration a wide range of information and elements including complaints, length of time in business, competency licensing (if applicable), government actions and business size is factored in. People often believe that a rating can be changed by an employee. It cannot. A report can only be put in an “NR” or “no rating” status if it is being temporarily reviewed. A rating is based solely on the information contained in the report and that algorithm within the computer’s system.
Q. If a person is scammed, what should they do?
Schiller: If you have been scammed, report it to the BBB Scam Tracker, bbb.org/scamtracker. The Scam Tracker provides consumers with a place to report scams and fraud and to warn others of malicious or suspicious activities. The data collection process for BBB Scam Tracker was designed to generate information that can be useful to media and law enforcement. Scam reports are sent to the National Cyber-Forensics and Training Alliance (NCFTA) for analysis and collaboration with law enforcement to help stop the most flagrant scammers through prosecution and other legal means. BBBs also routinely share information on scams with federal, state and provincial agencies and local law enforcement, and will make the data available to agencies in other countries to help shut down scammers based overseas.