So, you think YOU can’t get scammed?

Every week – sometimes every day – I talk to individuals, the media, and community organizations about the dangers of getting scammed. There is always something new or timely to share – the latest e-mail going around, scams related to holidays or to a specific demographic, or something tied to a new technology or social media. Trust me, there are so many scams our there, sometimes it practically takes my breath away.

Even with all of those scams, most people think there is no way it could happen to them. They think they are too smart, or too suspicious, or too careful. They assume that those who are getting scammed are naïve, impaired in some way, or getting too old.

Even I can have this mindset, often saying to groups, “I know that none of us would fall for something like this, but we all know someone who might, so we need to know what can happen and help protect those people.”

Well, I am here to tell you that – given the right circumstances – anyone can fall victim. If we get hit in just the right way, at just the right time, even the smartest of us can get scammed.

This reality hit home for me in the last week, as a close friend fell victim and today is out $11,300.

What happened? Well, my friend – who is a smart, successful, self-made business leader in our community – received an e-mail that looked like it was coming from his business partner, asking that he immediately wire $11,300 to a client to make sure that an important deal was not lost. The message said that the business partner was stuck in a long meeting and that he was e-mailing from his cell phone, so any typos in the message should be forgiven. The message stressed that the money had to be sent quickly, so the client would get the money in time.

My friend, who is a busy guy and considers himself a man of action, happened to have time right then. He wanted to help his business partner and knew that speed is often important to clients. It was not his personal money, so his level of suspicion was not high.

He got up from his desk, drove down the street to the bank, and wired the money to an account in another state. Then he did not think about it again for two days, when his business partner called, asking why the money was not in their company’s bank account.

You know the rest of the story. That money is gone. It was moved just as soon as it hit the new account. Today, it is probably overseas. No matter where it is, my friend’s company will almost certainly never see it again.

Take this as a warning to all of us. Scams do not have to be super clever, they just have to hit in just the right way at just the right time, and part of that is just bad luck.

The lesson to be learned is that we all have to be far more careful than we ever have been. We have to realize that these scams are out there, and we have to know what to look for. When we see anything that seems just a little out of the ordinary, where money or personal information is involved, we need to be ready to take a step back, ask questions, or just walk away.

Student of Ethics Scholarship, $2500

The mission of Better Business Bureau is to build trust in the marketplace, and we pursue this in a variety of ways. People know about many of our programs related to consumers and businesses – such as business accreditation or the BBB consumer complaint program – and may be less familiar with our efforts to educate and promote a culture of trust with the young. Our Student of Ethics scholarship is one of many ways we seek to do this.

The Student of Ethics scholarship program recognizes high school students who personify high ethics, demonstrated through leadership, community service, overall personal integrity, and academic history. Rewarding ethical behavior in this way allows us to promote ethics awareness and discussion that reaches the very young, as well as the broader community.

To choose scholarship recipients, an independent panel of judges reviews applications from high school juniors. Scholarships must be used within three years of receiving the award, and are distributed to each student’s college or trade school upon verification of enrollment. The scholarship must be applied toward school-related expenses, including: tuition, books, room and board, or other related items.

In 2016, the deadline for applications is May 30. Judges evaluate entries based how well students demonstrate their commitment to high ethical behavior, using a completed entry form, a 300-word essay written by the student, the student’s high school transcript, and a letter of reference. Materials are scored based on: leadership, 10%; community service, 10%; academic performance, 10%; letter of reference, 10%; and personal essay, 60%.

For more information, please contact Sean Spence at 573-886-8965 or sspence@midmobbb.org.

Shred-Day: An Adventure in Preventing Identity Theft

This year’s annual BBB Shred Day was just so awesome. It was my first, so I did not really know what to expect, and it was much cooler than I ever would have thought it could be. The goal of the day is to provide free shredding services to people who want to dispose of old documents that might contain important personal information – tax returns, pay stubs, credit card statements, etc. This is an incredibly important step in the effort to prevent identity theft.

Last year in Mid-Missouri, we had 224 cars go through our line to deposit boxes and bags of old, sensitive documents into our industrial shredder (in the back of a big box truck, graciously provided by Shred-It). Our goal for this year was to service 250 cars, which would have been an increase of a little more than 10%.

Would you believe over 379 cars took advantage of our shredding service? That’s an increase of 69% over last year. Car after car just kept coming throughout the four hours we had announced we would be open. Thankfully – because of the awesome Shred-It truck and a troop of volunteers to unload cars and keep the shredder filled – the line got pretty long at several points, but it never took more than a few minutes for a car to get through it. The whole process ran like a well-oiled machine.

Well, it ran like a well-oiled machine until we broke the shredder.

Nobody had anticipated that we would have so many more cars than last year, so Shred-It sent a smaller truck than they otherwise would have. By the time we were done for the day, we had loaded in so much paper that the back of the truck, where the paper was stored, was literally bulging like it was seven months pregnant. There was a door on the back – for dumping out the paper for recycling – and it looked about to burst open, with openings at the seams where paper was starting to spill onto the road.

We used duct tape to cover the places where paper was falling out of the truck – yes, duct tape! – and I followed the truck, in my car, for the two hours back to the recycling facility, so I would be there to warn the truck driver if the doors were about to burst open and dump tons of paper onto the highway (something the company’s auto shop supervisor assured us could not happen).

In the end, the truck made it back just fine, and it turned out we had processed over five tons of paper during our Shred Day. Setting aside the unexpected end-of-day adventure, the day was a huge win for consumers who wanted to protect themselves from identity theft.

For more information about protecting yourself against identity theft, check out midmobbb.org.

A BBB Victory Over Scammers, at Kiwanis

Speaking to groups about BBB is something I do quite a bit, providing a good way to reach people at a time when they are particularly receptive to our message. Often, these engagements provide an opportunity to speak with attendees one-on-one, answering questions about BBB and helping address problems they may be facing.

This week, I spoke to a Kiwanis club. Groups like this are good because there is generally a mix of business people and consumers, including several business owners who might want to learn more about the value of accreditation. There are also generally several senior citizens, which are good for us because they are the most highly targeted demographic for scams, and some of what I talk about can be particularly valuable for them.

Following this week’s talk, a gentleman asked if he could share his story. He was a veteran, obviously in his 80s or maybe even 90s, and such a nice, sharp guy. In the previous week, he had received a phone call from someone purporting to be with the IRS, saying that he needed to pay $150, right then, over the phone, or he was going to be arrested for some unnamed tax violation. The gentleman fell for it, providing his credit card information to make the payment.

A few days had passed and the man had started to realize that he might have been the victim of a scam, and then he knew for sure when I specifically addressed this scenario during my talk. We talked about it and he was ready to write it off as a lesson learned, but I gave him two things he should do to help address the situation (both of which were especially applicable because this had happened within the last week), and one that could help others avoid facing the same problem.

First, I told him to call his card company and report what had happened. If he would do that, it is actually pretty likely that he will get his money back. Credit card companies, even more than debit cards, make it possible to reverse false charges.

Second, on that same call with his credit card company, he needed to cancel that card and get a new one. What he had not considered was that the scammers now had his card information, and could charge much more than $150 to it.

Third, I suggested that he report what had happened on the BBB scam tracker (he said he would get his great-grandson to help him). All he needed to do was a quick Web search for “BBB Scam Tracker” and he would find it right away. It would take him just a few minutes to report what had happened, and others would be able to see the scam report and where it had taken place (on a very cool, interactive map of the country), and they could avoid having the same thing happen to them.

To be honest, most scam stories I hear do not end this well. In so many cases, the money is gone forever and all we can do is warn others about what has happened. It was awfully nice to have the opportunity to help someone solve his problem, and still use his experience as a warning for others.

BBB on Ethical Decision Making — A Model

At Better Business Bureau, our core mission is to build trust in the marketplace. We want to help create a world where people can trust that businesses will provide quality goods and services in and honest and transparent way; and where businesses can expect the same honesty and transparency from their customers.

To this end, we speak to lots of different groups and organizations about a wide range of issues related to trust. Recently, I spoke to a group of over 200 high school student leaders. My program was titled “Ethical Decision Making in Leadership and Life.”

More than anything, my goal was to create a group discussion, designed to get them think about the difficulties that can be inherent in ethical decision-making. What if someone will be hurt by what seems like an ethical decision? What if a situation presents conflicting ethical values? What if your idea of “ethical” is different from someone else’s? These were the things we discussed, and it was exciting to see so many teens really get into the subject – arguing points, asking questions, and offering examples from their own lives.

In the end, we agreed that I could not begin to tell them what living ethically should mean for them. They will be faced with ethical decisions, large and small, on a nearly daily basis for the rest of their lives. My point was that the key is for each individual to figure out her own personal process for making ethical decisions. Someone else’s way and my way might be very similar or even identical, but each person must decide what process makes sense for them, and then figure out how that process fits in with such thing as the law and the rest of society.

As a way to help them think about this, I shared my own process with them, stressing that this is my personal process and was not necessarily right for them or anyone else.

I simplified my model for ethical decision-making by creating the “HEART” acronym

H – Hurt – Will this hurt someone? Including myself?

E – Everyone – If everyone did this, would the world be a better or worse place?

A – Analyze – Have I really analyzed the action and thought about the consequences?

R – Responsibility – Am I prepared to take responsibility for whatever happens?

T – Transparency – Is it okay with me if everyone knows I did this?

The “HEART” acronym led to plenty of discussion about what sort of mental construct the kids might use to make ethical decisions. Among my favorites were whether they could live with what they had done and whether they would get caught (okay, that last one is not really something we should encourage – it is still one of my favorites, though, because it led to some really great discussion about right and wrong and telling the truth).

At the end of our time together, the students and I had had an incredible discussion about the process of making ethical decisions. Many of us thought about some pretty important things for the very first time, and gave real consideration to how we can be the kind of people we want to be. Circling back to the mission of the BBB, this seems like a pretty good start to building trust in the marketplace.

Protect Your Personal Information at BBB Shred Day!

Want to help protect yourself from identity theft? Got stacks or boxes of documents with sensitive information cluttering up your home or office?

Make your way to “Mid-Missouri BBB Shred Day” on Saturday, April 16, between 8:00 a.m. and noon, at the Office Depot parking lot on the corner of Broadway and Providence.

Each year, BBB’s across the country host “Shred Day”, where anyone can show up and shred boxes of documents with sensitive information. The day provides an alternative to throwing the documents away or needlessly storing them to protect the information.

Consumers and businesses may shred up to three boxes of documents. BBB asks visitors to use bags or boxes that can be shredded along with their papers. During their visit, consumers will also be provided information on identity theft protection. Shred-It, a Securit company, is donating the shredding service.

Mid-Missouri BBB recommends shredding documents that contain financial information, account numbers, PINs, birth dates, or Social Security numbers. Examples include expired ID cards, legal documents, credit card and bank statements, and canceled checks.

Better Business Bureau a Great Media Source

At Better Business Bureau, a big part of our job is educating the public so they can make better choices in the marketplace, relating to both their money and to protecting their personal information. We do this in so many ways – with our website, through speaking to community organizations, and by providing information to members of the media, just to name a few.

Working with the media is one our most effective options because it allows us to reach so many people. It is great for us because we are accomplishing our mission. It is great for the media outlets because they are providing a service for their audience, generally in an entertaining way.

For example, every Thursday at around 12:15, I sit for a segment on Columbia’s KMIZ-17 news broadcast. Each week, the noon anchor and I talk about all sorts of issues, mostly related to consumers. For example, this week we talked about scammers who convince people that they can get their student loans forgiven, for a fee, through some imaginary government program. (As a side note, you will probably never find a program like this – if you see one, look at it very carefully; you will almost certainly want to get as far away from it as possible).

Here are some of the ways we work with the media:

  • Regular news segments on TV or radio, like the one I do each week on KMIZ
  • Columns in newspapers or magazines (for example, I currently write columns for the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Jefferson City News-Tribune)
  • Serving as a source for existing news stories, or helping initiate new ones
    • Related to scams
    • Related to information consumers need to make good buying decisions
    • Related to identity theft
    • Related to seasonal issues such as gift shopping, winterizing homes and autos, and applying for scholarships
  • Writing blog posts, either now and then or on an ongoing basis

The bottom line is that Better Business Bureau enjoys an important relationship with media at all levels – from local to national – that allows us to provide valuable service to both consumers and the business community in an interesting way.

The Duality of Better Business Bureau

As regional director for Mid-Missouri Better Business Bureau, I talk to pretty much every kind of person you can think of – business owners and managers, customers, men, women, the young, and the old. One thing that strikes me is that many people have a fairly narrow view of what BBB does and whom we serve, based on their specific interactions with us.

This, in turn, leads me to one of the things I love most about BBB – our duality, the fact that we serve both businesses and consumers. Everything we do comes down to the fact that our role is to build trust in the marketplace; to do that, we must serve both sides, those who are selling and those who are buying. To me, this is the real beauty of BBB, and a big part of my job is helping everyone understand it.

For example, we provide business accreditation – a process through which we determine that a business is trustworthy (to be accredited, a business must have at least a B, on a scale of A+ to F; be in business for at least one year; and be free of a pattern of consumer complaints). On the one hand, for businesses that achieve accreditation, this is a feather in their cap, a third-party validation that they conduct themselves in a way that most of us would deem appropriate. On the other hand, providing a directory of businesses that includes accreditation status, gives consumers a powerful tool to make smarter buying choices.

Kinda cool, huh?

Another example is BBB mediation services (which are free, by the way). We work with businesses and consumers to solve disputes, without involving the time and expense of the court system. We even take that a step further, offering binding arbitration services.

These are just a few of the many, many services BBB provides to both businesses and consumers. Others include BBB Scam Tracker, an interactive, online mapping program that allows people to report and see scams all over the country; our business review system; and Request A Quote, which allows consumers to request job quotes from BBB accredited businesses.

Check out www.MidMoBBB.org to learn more about Better Business Bureau and how we can be of service to you. Feel free to contact me with questions, sspence@midmobbb.org or 573-886-8965.

Never Wire Money to Strangers

There are plenty of telltale signs of a potential scam. One of the easiest to spot is a request to wire money. If someone you do not know asks you to wire money for any purpose, take it as a sign to look much more closely at the situation or just forget about it.

I have told the story before of my relative who almost got scammed when he was selling something online. He got an offer, accepted it, and received a check in the mail for maybe $1000 more than the selling price. He e-mailed the buyer to let her know about the mistake, and the buyer asked him to wire the extra amount, and keep $100 for his trouble.

Thankfully, my young relative did not know how to wire money and asked his mother, who knew to be cautious, and the story ends with no money being wired and nobody getting scammed.

But what if my relative had not asked the question? The original check he had been sent turned out to be fake. If he had wired that money, he would never have seen it again, and he would have been out the $1000.

In one way or another, this is a very common story. Scammers often ask that money be wired because it is harder to trace. Once you have wired money, it can be very difficult – often impossible – to recover it.

In any situation, if someone you do not know asks you to wire money, the best course of action is to assume that it is a scam until you have proof that it is not. Almost every time, it will be, and you will be glad you did not fall for it.

Eight New Year’s Resolutions to Avoid Getting Scammed

A big part of my job as regional director for Mid-Missouri Better Business Bureau is helping consumers avoid getting scammed. Heading into 2016, I have been thinking about the advice I would give people, the resolutions I would suggest to stay safe from scams. The following are eight things that apply to pretty much everybody, and that I particularly recommend.

  1. Be skeptical of calls claiming to be from the IRS. This is first on my list because Missouri is one of the most frequent targets for “fake IRS” calls. The fact is that the IRS does not call people or email them to inform them of taxes or penalties due, nor does it threaten to arrest or sue taxpayers. Their initial contact is always through the mail.
  1. Get everything in writing. Do not just take a company’s word for it. Get every verbal agreement in writing to limit miscommunication and misunderstandings between what you expect and what the business delivers. If there is ever a problem, having everything in writing will make it much more likely that you will be able to resolve the situation to your satisfaction. Also, if a company will not give you the details in writing, this is often a hint that there may be a problem.
  1. Always read the fine print—especially with “free” trial offers. Thousands of consumers have complained to BBB after signing up for a “free” trial offer online that resulted in repeated charges to their credit or debit cards, sometimes amounting to hundreds of dollars every month. Read the terms and conditions of any “free” trial offer before providing credit or debit card numbers.
  1. Keep your computer safe. Install anti-virus software on your computer and check regularly for software and operating system updates and patches. Do not open attachments or click on links in emails unless you can confirm the email came from someone you trust.
  1. Fight identity theft. Shred paper documents that include sensitive financial data and dispose of computers, cell phones and digital data safely. BBB offers tips and checklists on what to shred and hosts annual Secure Your ID events nationwide to help you stay safe.
  1. Never wire money to someone you do not know. Seriously, being asked to wire money may be the biggest red flag there is in the world of scams. Many scams require that the victim wire money back to the scammers. Scammers know tracking money sent via MoneyGram, Western Union or Green Dot MoneyPak is extremely difficult. Once you have wired money, it is nearly impossible to get it back.
  1. Ask BBB for help. Better Business Bureau is an incredible resource when t comes to scams. Check online or call with questions; file a complaint with BBB if you have a dispute with a business or have been ripped off by a scammer.
  1. If it feels even a little bit wrong, investigate or just get away. So often, people ignore gut feelings, and so often, this is absolutely the wrong thing to do. If something feels funny or wrong – or too good to be true – it probably is.

For questions about avoiding scams or anything else related to trust in the marketplace, contact Sean Spence at 573-885-8965 or sspence@midmobbb.org.