Here are the data brokers quietly buying and selling your personal information

You’ve probably never heard of many of the data firms registered under a new law, but they’ve heard a lot about you. A list, and tips for opting out.

It’s no secret that your personal data is routinely bought and sold by dozens, possibly hundreds, of companies. What’s less known is who those companies are, and what exactly they do.

Thanks to a new Vermont law requiring companies that buy and sell third-party personal data to register with the Secretary of State, we’ve been able to assemble a list of 121 data brokers operating in the U.S. It’s a rare, rough glimpse into a bustling economy that operates largely in the shadows, and often with few rules.

Even Vermont’s first-of-its-kind law, which went into effect last month, doesn’t require data brokers to disclose who’s in their databases, what data they collect, or who buys it. Nor does it require brokers to give consumers access to their own data or opt out of data collection. Brokers are, however required to provide some information about their opt-out systems under the law–assuming they provide one.

If you do want to keep your data out of the hands of these companies, you’ll often have to contact them one by one through whatever opt-out systems they provide; more on that below.


Related: A landmark Vermont law nudges over 120 data brokers out of the shadows


Types of consumer data and data companies. Some companies included in the chart may not be covered by the Vermont law. See a larger version. [Image by Cracked Labs]The registry is an expansive, alphabet soup of companies, from lesser-known organizations that help landlords research potential tenants or deliver marketing leads to insurance companies, to the quiet giants of data. Those include big names in people search, like Spokeo, ZoomInfo, White Pages, PeopleSmart, Intelius, PeopleFinders, and the numerous other websites they operate; credit reporting, like Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion; and advertising and marketing, like Acxiom, Oracle, Innovis, and KBM. Some companies also specialize in “risk mitigation,” which can include credit reporting but also background checks and other identity verification services.

Still, these 121 entities represent just a fraction of the broader data economy: The Vermont law only covers third-party data firms–those trafficking in the data of people with whom they have no relationship–as opposed to “first-party” data holders like Amazon, Facebook, or Google, which collect their own enormous piles of detailed data directly from users.

What they know

By buying or licensing data or scraping public records, third-party data companies can assemble thousands of attributes each for billions of people. For decades, companies could buy up lists of magazines subscribers to build targeted advertising audiences. These days, if you use a smartphone or a credit card, it’s not difficult for a company to determine if you’ve just gone through a break-up, if you’re pregnant or trying to lose weight, whether you’re an extrovert, what medicine you take, where you’ve been, and even how you swipe and tap on your smartphone. (Browser cookies and trackers are a major part of this infrastructure, and like many websites, Fast Company’s site relies on them in order to serve content and ads.)

In 2017, data giant Acxiom provided up to 3,000 attributes on 700 million people. In 2018, the number was 10,000, on 2.5 billion consumers [Image by Cracked Labs]All that information can be used to create profiles of you—think of them as virtual, possibly erroneous versions of you—that can be used to target you with ads, classify the riskiness of your lifestyle, or help determine your eligibility for a job. Like the companies themselves, the risks can be hard to see. Apart from the dangers of merely collecting and storing all that data, detailed (and often erroneous) consumer profiles can lead to race or income-based discrimination, in a high-tech version of redlining.

Piles of personal data are flowing to political consultants attempting to influence your vote (like Cambridge Analytica) and to government agencies pursuing non-violent criminal suspects (like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Meanwhile, people-search websites, accessible to virtually anyone with a credit card, can be a goldmine for doxxers, abusers, and stalkers.

People in the U.S. still struggle to understand the nature and scope of the data collected about them, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, and only 9% believe they have “a lot of control” over the data that is collected about them. Still, the vast majority, 74%, say it is very important to them to be in control of who can get that information.


Related: The data firms ICE hires raise alarms about an unseen industry


“Deleting” your data

For companies regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), including traditional credit bureaus, you have the right to request your personal data and request corrections of anything that’s wrong.

But for other companies that deal in data, like marketing and people finder companies, U.S. law mostly doesn’t make any such guarantees, though that may change in the future as state and federal legislatures consider further rules. Those could ultimately bring protections like the right-to-be-forgotten and other safeguards granted to European residents under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), probably the strictest international consumer data policy.

  • To try to remove yourself from a company’s databases: Click on the name of the broker below, click “Filing History,” and then click “DATA BROKER REGISTRATION.” You’ll get a document in PDF form that contains details from the company on how to opt out–provided the company allows you to opt-out.
  • You can also consult various online guides listing opt-out procedures. Griffin Boyce, systems administrator at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, has compiled one such opt-out guide. Another guide is put together by Joel Winston, an attorney known for his work on data privacy and consumer protection. At Motherboard, Yael Grauer compiled another list of brokers with tips for opting out. If you’re a resident of the European Union, opt-out.eu has a guide to sending GDPR Erasure Requests.
  • You can also use the Data & Marketing Association’s DMAchoice program, which is primarily designed for opting out of direct mail and email messages, but is also used by some organizations to remove consumers from their lists entirely. It costs $2 to sign up for the program, and registration lasts two years.
  • If you’re part of a “protected class,” which includes victims of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, identity theft, or people who work in law enforcement, some states like California offer Safe at Home, a program that lets victims remove their contact info from databases with a single request. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has also assembled a guide to data brokers.
  • If you’re concerned about how a company is handling your personal data, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which has issued millions of dollars in penalties over unfair or unlawful behavior by credit agencies and data brokers.
  • You can limit data loss by deleting unnecessary apps, adjusting your privacy settings, using privacy tools like a VPN, and limiting what you post online.

In order to control your data, you may need to hand over some basic info to verify that it’s really you. But be careful about what you turn over. As Boyce writes, “other than credit reporting agencies such as Equifax, no one should ask for your Social Security number or tax ID while opting out. When sending a copy of your ID, mark out the ID number and draw a line across the photo.”


Related: 7 digital privacy tools you need to be using now


The data broker companies

Below are the companies that have registered under Vermont’s data broker law, with descriptions drawn from their websites or other sources where noted.

(To view opt-out instructions in PDF format, click on the name of the company, then click “Filing History,” and then “DATA BROKER REGISTRATION”)


Accudata Integrated Marketing Inc.

Accudata operates mailing lists and marketing data services.

Acxiom LLC

The data giant’s offerings now encompass “more than 62 countries, 2.5 billion addressable consumers and more than 10,000 attributes—for a comprehensive representation of 68 percent of the world’s online population.” Last year, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s decision to end partnerships with Acxiom and other third-party data handlers, LiveRamp sold Acxiom to Interpublic Group, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, for $2.3 billion. LiveRamp continues to operate as a leading “data onboarding” company, helping bring offline data online for marketing purposes.

Advantage Credit Inc.

Advantage Credit resells credit services and data for the mortgage and finance industry.

Advantage Sales & Marketing LLC

Advantage offers shopper marketing, retail merchandising, and other services to retailers and manufacturers.

Advertise4Sales LLC

4LegalLeads.com connects law firms and legal professionals across the country to tens of thousands of prospects requesting legal help in real-time via phone or web leads each month.

ALC Inc.

ALC (American List Counsel) has “become the industry’s leading privately held direct and digital data marketing services provider.”

All Web Leads Inc.

All Web Leads is an “online lead generation company that sells the highest-quality sales leads to top insurance producers.” (Crunchbase)

Altisource Holdings LLC

Altisource provides information about landlords to businesses that wish to market to them.

AmRent Inc.

AmRent provides tenant screening services and data.

ANALYTICSIQ Inc.

“[T]he first data company to consistently blend cognitive psychology with sophisticated data science to help you understand the who, what and why behind consumers and the decisions they make every day. Their accurate and comprehensive consumer database, PeopleCore, provides access to data attributes you can’t find anywhere else.”

ASL Marketing Inc.

ASL is “the nation’s premier provider of student marketing data, focused on the highly desirable 13-34-year-old market.”

Automation Research Inc. dba DataVerify

DataVerify provides information for the mortgage and real estate loan industry.

Avrick Direct Inc.

Mailing list and direct marketing company “specializing in data compilation.”

Background Information Services Inc. (BIS)

BIS focuses on employee and tenant screening.

Backgroundchecks.com LLC

Backgroundchecks.com provides online background checks and criminal records data.

BeenVerified Inc. and its subsidiaries/affiliates

BeenVerified provides background check and people search services.

Belardi Ostroy ALC LLC

Belardi Wong is “a full service digital & direct marketing agency, relentlessly focused on driving revenue, profit and customer growth.”

Black Knight Data & Analytics LLC

Black Knight provides loan and real estate data.

Blackbaud Inc.

A “supplier of software and services specifically designed for nonprofit organizations. Its products focus on fundraising, website management, CRM, analytics, financial management, ticketing, and education administration.” (Wikipedia)

CBCInnovis Inc.

CBCInnovis provides credit and real estate data.

CDK Global LLC

CDK “provides software and technology solutions for automotive retailers in the United States and internationally.”

CIC Mortgage Credit Inc.

CIC provides credit data for the mortgage industry.

Civis Analytics Inc.

Civis is “an Eric Schmidt-backed data science software and consultancy company founded by Dan Wagner in 2013. Wagner served as the chief analytics officer for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.” Read more from Fast Company here.

Clarity Services Inc.

Clarity Services is a unit of Experian focusing on alternative credit data.

Compact Information Systems

Provides specialty lists, data hygiene services, and direct marketing database solutions.

Confi-Chek

A people search conglomerate that owns Peoplefinders.com, Enformium Inc., PublicRecordsNOW.com, PrivateEye.com and Advanced Background Checks Inc.

CoreLogic Background Data LLC

CoreLogic Background Data provides “wholesale background data” for screening purposes.

CoreLogic Credco of Puerto Rico

CoreLogic Credco provides credit data to the mortgage industry.

CoreLogic Credco LLC

CoreLogic Credco provides credit data to the mortgage industry.

CoreLogic Screening Services LLC

CoreLogic Screening Services provides tenant screening for rental properties.

CoreLogic Solutions LLC

CoreLogic Solutions processes and provides property records for the real estate and mortgage industries.

Cortera Inc.

Cortera provides credit information about businesses.

Data Facts Inc.

Data Facts provides information on consumers for background checks in lending, housing and more

DataMentors LLC dba V12

A “data and technology platform that links customer records with their proprietary blend of online, offline, and digital marketing data for highly personalized, one-to-one consumer marketing, regardless of device or channel.” (Crunchbase)

Datamyx LLC dba Deluxe Marketing Solutions

A “leading provider of integrated information, technology and analytics. Datamyx serves customers in industries ranging from banking, credit unions, and mortgage providers to alternative finance, insurance, and others.”

Datastream Group Inc.

Datastream “provides rich marketing data and real-time sales leads.”

DataX Ltd.

DataX is a unit of Equifax focused on alternative credit data.

Digital Media Solutions

“Deploys diversified and data-driven digital media customer acquisition solutions, including performance marketing, digital agency and marketing technology solutions to help achieve the marketing objectives of clients.”

Digital Segment LLC

A multi-channel marketing company.

Drobu Media LLC

Ad manager and lead generator for social media campaigns.

Dustin Blackman

Dustin Blackman is the head of Drobu Media LLC, a lead generation service. He indicated to Fast Company that he intended to register only the business, not himself.

Edvisors Network Inc.

Edvisors “provides independent advertising-supported platforms for consumers to search compare and apply for private student loans.”

Enformion

Enformion “aggregates billions of United States public records into one of the largest online people databases.”

Epsilon Data Management LLC

Epsilon is one of the largest data management companies in the world, and provides direct marketing and customer relationship management services, sending more than 40 billion e-mails each year.

Equifax Information Services LLC

Incorporated in 1937, Equifax is one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies. In 2017, the company said it suffered a cyberattack that exposed the data of more than 145.4 million Americans, including their full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver license numbers. At least 209,000 consumers’ credit card credentials were also taken in the attack.

Experian Data Corp.

A sibling of the giant U.S. credit reporting agency Experian Information Solutions and one of many subsidiaries of the Ireland-based data giant Experian PLC, the company operates Experian RentBureau, a database updated daily with millions of consumers’ “rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies.”

Experian Fraud Prevention Solutions Inc.

An Experian unit providing a database focusing on fraudulent transactions.

Experian Health Inc.

The healthcare division of the credit reporting agency, providing data and analytics for healthcare providers, labs, pharmacies, payers, and other risk-bearing entities.

Experian Information Solutions Inc.

One of the “big three” credit reporting agencies, Experian also sells data analytics and marketing services, and purports to aggregate information on over one billion people and businesses, including 235 million individual U.S. consumers.

Experian Marketing Solutions Inc.

A marketing subsidiary of the credit reporting giant focused on identity-linkage and consumer research.

FD Holdings LLC dba Factual Data

Factual Data provides credit and other data to mortgage lenders.

First American Data Tree LLC

DataTree “delivers the current and accurate real estate and property ownership data you need for your business.”

First Direct Inc. and its subsidiaries/affiliates

First Direct provides digital & traditional direct marketing.

First Orion Corp.

First Orion provides information on telephone callers, including contact information and the likelihood of a scam.

Forewarn LLC

Forewarn provides background information about potential business associates, including real estate clients.

Fused Leads LLC

Fused Leads is “a pipeline to potential clients for the home improvement, auto insurance, auto finance, life insurance, mortgage, and health insurance industries.”

General Information Solutions LLC

GIS, which recently merged with HireRight, is a background screening company.

HealthCare.com

Not to be confused with the government insurance portal healthcare.gov, healthcare.com provides consumer marketing for insurance companies.

I360 LLC

Funded by the Koch brothers and started by a former adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, i360 has built one of the largest data, technology, and analytics platforms for political and commercial clients.

ID Analytics LLC

ID Analytics is a unit of Symantec focused on credit and fraud risk mitigation.

IHS Markit

IHS Markit is a “global leader in information, analytics and solutions” for various industries.

InCheck Inc.

InCheck is a background check provider.

Inflection Risk Solutions LLC

Inflection helps “companies to make better and faster people decisions about who to hire, who to trust, and to whom they should grant access” using in-house and public data that includes criminal records, sex offender registries, and global watchlists.

Inflection.com Inc.

A subsidiary of Inflection Risk Solutions.

Infocore Inc.

Infocore “specializes in direct marketing, campaign strategy, and sourcing market data for domestic and multinational clients.”

Infogroup Inc.

Infogroup, founded by Vinod Gupta in 1972, “offers real-time data on 245 million individuals and 25 million businesses for customer acquisition and retention,” according to Wikipedia.

Infutor Data Solutions

Infutor is “the expert in identity management, enabling brands to instantly identify consumers and make informed marketing decisions.”

Innovis Data Solutions Inc.

Innovis is a consumer credit reporting agency.

Instant Checkmate LLC

Instant Checkmate is a people search site that uses public records, including criminal records.

Insurance Services Office Inc.

ISO is a unit of Verisk that focuses on insurance risk and fraud identification.

IntelliCorp Records Inc.

IntelliCorp is a unit of Verisk focusing on employment background checks.

Intellireal LLC

Intellireal is a division of Equifax focusing on real estate analytics and valuation.

Interactive Data LLC

Interactive Data provides consumer information for risk mitigation, compliance, and identity verification.

IQ Data Systems Inc. dba Backgrounds Online

A nationwide data aggregator, IQ Data Systems offers “private investigation, skip tracing, public record maintenance and background screening services,” and provides “FCRA compliant background screening.”

ISO Claims Services Inc.

ISO manages insurance companies’ personal injury claims portfolios.

ISO Services Inc.

A subsidiary of data giant Verisk Analytics, ISO “is a provider of statistical, actuarial, underwriting, and claims information and analytics; compliance and fraud identification tools” for “insurers, reinsurers, agents and brokers, insurance regulators, risk managers, and other participants in the property/casualty insurance marketplace.”

IXI Corp.

Equifax-owned IXI analyzes household economics and “offers customer targeting, segmentation, and market tracking solutions and services for financial services and consumer marketing firms.”

KBM GROUP LLC

WPP-owned data giant KBM offers “marketing strategy and analytics services.”

KnowWho Inc.

KnowWho helps “government relations, lobbying firms, advocacy groups, library patrons, and the government itself, connect with elected officials and their staffs for more than 15 years.”

LexisNexis Risk Solutions Inc. and affiliates

This LexisNexis unit provides and works with data for risk management purposes.

Lundquist Consulting Inc.

LCI, part of Verisk Financial, provides data on bankruptcy matters.

MCH Inc. dba MCH Strategic Data

MCH “provides the highest quality education, healthcare, government, and church data.”

Modernize Inc.

A home improvement contractor marketplace.

National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exhange Inc.

“NCTUE is a consumer reporting agency that maintains data such as payment and account history, reported by telecommunication, pay TV, and utility service providers that are members of NCTUE.”

National Student Clearinghouse

The National Student Clearinghouse verifies where people attended school and the degrees they earned.

Neustar Inc.

Neustar “provides real-time information and analytics for defense, telecommunications, entertainment, and marketing industries,” and provides clearinghouse and directory services to the global communications industries, serving as the domain name registry for .biz, .us, .co, and .nyc top-level domains.

New England List Services Inc.

Offers targeted consumer mailing lists.

Open Dealer Exchange LLC dba 700 Credit LLC

700 Credit provides credit screening for car dealers.

Oracle America Inc. (Oracle Data Cloud)

Data giant “Oracle Data Cloud gives marketers access to 5 billion global IDs, $3 trillion in consumer transactions, and more than 1,500 data partners available through the BlueKai Marketplace. With more than 45,000 prebuilt audiences spanning demographic, behavioral, B2B, online, offline, and transactional data, we bring together more data into a single location than any other solution.”

OwnerIQ Inc.

OwnerIQ “provides online advertising solutions and marketing channels for brands, retailers, and manufacturers” and operates a platform for second party data for marketing.

Parasol Media Inc.

Parasol Leads is one of the insurance industry’s highest quality leads generation services.

Partners Credit and Verification Solutions

Partners provides credit and background data to mortgage lenders.

Path2Response

Path2Response “collects, aggregates and models consumer information.”

PeopleConnect Inc.

A people search company that owns Intelius and Classmates.com, providing access to criminal records, employee screening, background checks, and identity theft protection services.

Pipl Inc.

Pipl is a people search tool.

Plural Marketing Solutions Inc.

A company that builds “engaging, consumer-centric paths and web sites.”

PossibleNOW Data Services

PossibleNOW “is the leader in consumer regulatory compliance and consent solutions, and pioneered the concept of enterprise preference management.”

Project Applecart LLC

Project Applecart gathers data on adults in the U.S. “via publicly available sources or via third-party license agreements. It analyzes the data to help advertisers address marketing and other communications to the relevant audience.”

Quality Planning Corp.

QPC provides analytics and information on policyholders for automobile insurance companies.

Rental Property Solutions LLC

Rental Property Solutions is a unit of CoreLogic that provides credit reporting information to landlords.

Reveal Mobile Inc.

Reveal “provides location-based marketing & analytics to help companies reach audiences across mobile apps, digital advertising, and social media.”

Ruf Strategic Solutions

A marketing firm owned by consumer identity management company Infutor with a focus on travel, tourism, insurance, e-commerce, and education.

SageStream LLC

SageStream is a consumer credit reporting company.

Skipmasher Inc.

For skiptracers and investigators.

Speedeon Data LLC

“Speedeon Data’s goal has been to provide our clients with the highest quality customer contact data…”

Spokeo Inc.

Spokeo is a people search giant that purports to provide access to 12 billion public records. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission fined the company $800,000 and placed it under a 20-year privacy prohibition for marketing information for employment screening purposes without adhering to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, in the first FTC fine involving personal data collected online and sold to potential employers.

Spy Dialer Inc.

Spy Dialer is a people search website providing information on people by name or phone number.

Strategic Information Resources

SIR provides background and credit screening to employers, landlords, and lenders.

TALX Corp.

TALX is a unit of Equifax that provides employment information to companies and landlords through a database called The Work Number. As Fast Company previously reported, the database relies on feeds of detailed employee and salary data provided by the country’s biggest companies and organizations, including Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, Walmart, Twitter, AT&T, Harvard Law School, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 2017, a security researcher exposed a breach in which employees’ data could be accessed using only Social Security numbers and dates of birth.

Teletrack LLC

“CoreLogic Teletrack is a consumer reporting agency that provides consumer reports to third parties for the purpose of credit risk assessment and/or other purposes as permitted by law.”

The Lead Company Inc.

Specializing in quality real-time online insurance leads for auto, home, life, and health.

Thomas Reuters (CRC) LLC dba Refinitiv

Refinitiv operates the World-Check database used for financial “know your customer” compliance and identity verification.

Towerdata Inc.

A multichannel marketing firm focused on email.

TransUnion

TransUnion is the smallest of the “big three” credit reporting agencies, alongside Experian and Equifax.

Truthfinder LLC

Truthfinder is a people search site that provides background checks and public records search capabilities.

Twine Data Inc.

“Twine is a mobile data platform that works with app publishers who generate mobile data & the companies who need data for ad targeting.” (Crunchbase)

Viant Technology LLC

Viant, a former Time Inc. and current Meredith subsidiary, is “a premier people-based advertising technology company, enabling marketers to plan, execute, and measure their digital media investments,” with “access to over 250 million registered users in the U.S., infusing accuracy, reach and accountability into cross device advertising.”

West Publishing Corp.

A unit of Thomson Reuters, West offers tools for searching public records and legal records. In 2018, the non-profit Privacy International identified it as one of a number of firms hired by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide data that “can be used by the agency and others to identify and track people and their families, including for deportation.”

WhitePages Inc.

WhitePages provides people search and background information.

Whoodle LLC

Whoodle is a people search and background check service.

Wiland Inc.

A “provider of intelligence-driven predictive marketing solutions.”



By Steven Melendez and Alex Pasternack for Fast Company.com

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7 Steps to More Data Security

These tips will help you stay safe from identity theft and other digital dangers

Just Say No
“Be stingy with personal information,” advises Justin Brookman, Consumer Reports’ director of consumer privacy and technology policy. The less data you give out, the less there is to be stolen. Consumers aren’t obliged to comply with every request for personal data.

Guard Mom’s Maiden Name
Because crooks can search online for details such as your mother’s maiden name or where you attended elementary school, use memorable but fictitious details for online security questions.

Be Unique
Using strong passwords is a must, but it’s just as critical to use different ones for each site. You don’t want cybercriminals to luck into your banking password if they happen to hack into your favorite site for cute socks.

Write It Down
In a perfect world, you’d commit your hard-to-hack, 11-character alphanumeric passwords to memory. It’s not a perfect world. “If you don’t have nosy roommates, just write down your passwords” in a secure spot, Brookman says. (Experts also recommend digital password managers.)

Use a Burner Email
Create a separate email address for one-time purchases and for logging in to the occasional ukulele chat group. That will limit the risk to the email address you use for more sensitive activities.

Freeze Credit Reports
You can do this free at all of the major credit reporting bureaus, which should make it tough for criminals to get a credit card or mortgage in your name. You can temporarily unfreeze the reports if you need to take out a loan yourself.

Monitor Accounts
Look for suspicious activity on financial accounts, and contact institutions immediately with any questions. The Identity Theft Resource Center has detailed advice for consumers facing data breaches and identity theft.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Social Security Administration warns about scam callers trying to steal your checks

The Social Security Administration is warning that schemers are impersonating government agents and stealing people’s benefits.

In a blog post Wednesday, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General said people have been receiving calls from a number with a 323 area code.

“The caller claims to be an [agency] employee, and in some instances, tells the victim that they are due a 1.7% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increase of their Social Security benefits,” the post reads. The fraudsters attempt to “acquire personally identifiable information from victims to then edit the victims’ direct deposit, address, and telephone information with [the agency].”

If the caller obtains the information, he or she can then use it to change the victim’s account information — so the fraudster can rewire Social Security payments to his or her bank account, according to the agency.

“Social Security employees occasionally contact citizens by telephone for customer-service purposes, but they will not request sensitive personal information from a citizen over the phone,” according to the blog post.

The administration asks that anyone who receives a suspicious call to report it to the agency’s Office of the Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or online.

Social Security recipients are common targets of foul play, and the agency recently cautioned the public about another other widespread scheme.

In March, Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, warned of a separate nationwide telephone scheme in which a recording impersonates a message from Inspector General investigators and asserts that the listener’s Social Security benefits have been suspended.

One such recording prompts the listener to call a number, and a person on the other line tells the caller that there’s a warrant out for his or her arrest and demands payment.

Inspector General warns of Social Security fraud scheme

The Social Security Administration is warning the public to be wary of an employee impersonation scheme.

Acting Inspector General of Social Security Gale Stallworth Stone says some citizens are getting calls from persons posing as SSA employees, The fraudsters are attempting to get potential victims to verify their name, date of birth, Social Security number, parents’ names, and other personal information, in some cases by telling them that they are due for a 1.7% cost-of-living increase.

Impersonators who get such information can contact the SSA and request changes to the victim’s direct deposit account, address, and telephone information.

Some of the calls are coming from a phone number with a 323 area code, the SSA says.
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The Admistration does sometimes contact the public directly for customer service purposes, but this is a rare occurrence, and is usually known to the person who has been contacted.

Best advice: exercise extreme caution before surrendering any private information.

“You must be very confident that the source is the correct business party, and your information will be secure after you release it,” Stone said.

If you get a suspicious call, contact the Inspector General’s office at 1-800-269-0271 or online via https://oig.ssa.gov/report.

Why spam robocalls are increasing and what’s being done about it

Robots and computers aren’t just taking people’s jobs, they’re also calling everybody and leaving messages about sweet business loan opportunities that you have been chosen for. Recently, these annoying spam calls have been on the rise, leaving people increasingly frustrated.

It’s hard to measure robocall volume directly. Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, put the figure at 2.4 billion calls each month. If there isn’t great data about the number of unwanted calls which feature a recorded message instead of a live person, a good proxy is the number of consumer complaints.

Both the FCC and Federal Trade Commission work to fight robocalls. Janice Kopek, the coordinator of the FTC’s Do Not Call program, told Yahoo Finance the agency typically receives about 5 million complaints and about 3.4 million of those come from robocalls.

The robocall epidemic has a very simple cause: Moore’s law and technological advances. “The tech to make these calls is readily accessible and inexpensive, so years ago it would cost you to pay telemarketers to sit and make the calls, and the calls themselves would expensive,” Kopek said. “Now through voice and internet technology you can blast out billions of calls with prerecorded messages from anywhere in the world and that can cost you pennies.”

The ever-growing flood of robocall puts the FTC’s robocall enforcement division at an incredible disadvantage. It’s a small US government agency against a pest that can be outside the commission’s jurisdiction. Many of the robocalls — the free cruises, IRS scams, and business financing — come from beyond US borders, from far-flung locals in Eastern Europe, Asia, or pretty much wherever there is internet.
It’s not just annoying, it’s expensive

Robocalls aren’t just prank calls on an industrial level. They cost people in the US hundreds of millions each year due to scams. “The first type is a telemarketing call that’s trying to get you to buy something or assess your interest,” said Kopek. And if you’re on the Do Not Call list, Kopek says that call is illegal.

The second type is pure scam, trying to lure people using fear or a tantalizing opportunity. “We see all sorts of impostor scams where people are calling and pretending to be a [legitimate] government [agency], corporation, relative and try to get you to send money,” said Kopek. “Microsoft technical support,” IRS scams, lottery scams, elderly grandparents scams are all popular – and malicious – options that unfortunately succeed.
Fighting the good fight

Though you’d never notice due to the deluge of calls, the FTC has been tracking down robocallers and slapping them with lawsuits. Kopek told Yahoo Finance that the agency has made 131 law enforcement actions going after over 700 companies and individuals who it has alleged are responsible for illegal calls to consumers.

The FTC isn’t alone. The FCC has brought 13 formal actions of its own since 2013, most notably hitting a Florida travel agency with a $3 million fine for calls that promoted travel deals.

According to Kopek, cracking down begins with looking into the complaint database, a vital tool for the agency. Filing a complaint may seem like a futile exercise, but it can make a difference. “[Consumer complaints] go into our decision-making about what to pursue,” said Kopek. “Some call centers aren’t in the US so that can present challenges, but we do try to reach them in other ways. We try to develop international relationships to encourage local law enforcement abroad.”
The only solution is a tech solution

Both the FTC and FCC understand that going after robocallers individually is an incomplete strategy. The FTC realized the limitations of law enforcement a few years ago, Kopak says, and pivoted its key strategy to facilitating technology solutions. If tech can make robocalls, the thinking goes, tech can stop them.

Fighting fire with fire isn’t something either commission can do on its own, or without the heavy hitters like phone and device companies. According to Kopek, a big portion of both the FTC and FCC’s strategy is enabling these private companies to fix the problem. To that end, the FCC has begun looking into ways to give carriers more authority to block more calls.

Another strategy is to stoke startups to devise a solution. The FTC has held competitions for the best anti-robo app and winners have included apps like Nomorobo, which won in 2013. The free-for-landlines ($1.99-a-month for iPhones) might help some people, but it’s far from the sweeping solution that the public craves.

Regulators have attempted to prod major private companies to fix the annoyances, and some progress is being made. AT&T (T) has data scientists who look for robocall patterns in around 1.5 billion calls each day, finding and blocking about 12 million. And according to the company, help from potential rule changes that the FCC is looking into could allow them to block “literally billions more unwanted calls from reaching consumers.”

In 2016, telecom industry groups launched a strike force on robocalling, focusing on how to deal with spoofing, which is when a caller impersonates someone else’s caller ID. The groups have developed an anti-spoofing protocol called “SHAKEN,” and when it’s implemented, it would add a level of authentication to calls, potentially crippling robocallers using false numbers.

A US Telecom spokesperson told Yahoo Finance the company was hoping to implement the program at the end of the year.

The strike force also detailed an enhanced trackback protocol that allows telecom companies to get better at weeding out robocallers by learning more about them and where the calls originate. With that information, the industry can suppress the VoIP gateways, the links from the computers to the phone networks, crippling robocallers.
The devices

Tech solutions don’t just come from the networks—they come from devices and operating systems as well. Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone iOS operating system has an option to retroactively block a number that the user identifies as spam, the same way one could block a phone number from some crazy guy who won’t stop calling.

Apple’s response hasn’t been particularly pro-active, but the company has provided a way third-party apps can curb annoying robocalls. Apple introduced an extension for its phone app that lets third-party apps access the phone app’s inner-workings. With access to the device’s calls, these third-party apps can intercede should a spammer try to robocall.

On the Android side, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) phone apps for its Pixel, Nexus, and Android One phones have built in spam call protection that seem to work well. Other proprietary versions of Android may use their own systems outside of Android.

Google wouldn’t get into specifics of how it blocks spam robocallers or manages to flag suspicious incoming calls as “suspected spam caller.” But the company did note that feedback reports play a role in the process – meaning you should flag any bad calls.
What you can do now

There isn’t too much you can do except wait and hope for the industry’s projects to succeed, unless you want to buy one of the third-party apps that blocks robocalls. (CTIA, an industry group, has a good lists for Android and iOS). But Kopek did say that it is still worthwhile to add your number to the Do Not Call list even if you think it’s not doing anything.

“Putting your number on the Do Not Call list still helps,” says Kopek. “Legit companies who telemarket do scrub your numbers for their list.” Every month, telemarketers are required to check the list for new additions, so if you add your name, you should get fewer calls.

Until it gets better, it’s nice to remember one thing: Though we are living in a deluge of robocalls, it could be worse. The phone companies are pretty good at blocking robotexting.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance.

FTC Gets Court to Halt Phony Payday Loan Broker

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court has halted a Tampa, Florida-based operation that promised to help consumers get payday loans.

Sean C. Mulrooney and Odafe Stephen Ogaga and several companies they controlled used consumers’ personal financial information to debit their bank accounts in increments of $30 without their authorization.

Claiming to be affiliated with a network of 120 potential payday lenders, the defendants misrepresented that 80 percent of applicants got loans in as soon as one hour, according to the complaint filed by the FTC.

In all, the defendants victimized tens of thousands of consumers, taking more than $5 million from their bank accounts. Many of the victims were in difficult financial straits to begin with, and as an added insult, often began receiving harassing telemarketing and debt collection calls shortly after the defendants made their unauthorized withdrawals.

Consumers who complained to Defendants’ Philippines-based customer service agents were frequently offered refunds and $100 gasoline vouchers that never materialized.

Mulrooney and Ogaga apparently used proceeds from their illegal scheme to finance a lavish lifestyle. Mulrooney is the registered owner of a 2012 Maserati GranTurismo, while Ogaga owns a 2011 Rolls Royce Ghost and a 2006 Ferrari 430, according to documents filed with the court.

800notes has quite a few phone numbers that, according to the community reports, were used by the defendants in their scam operation.

866-740-7066 (names used “Your Loan Funding”, “Vantage Funding”)
216-744-9124 (names used “My Cash Guardian”, “Pacific Advances”, “Proctor & Associates”)
866-763-7462 (name used “Pacific Advances”)
866-678-3482 (name used “FASTLOANFAST.COM”)
866-789-3108 (name used “Loan Tree Advances”)
866-765-5097 (names used “Loan Assistance”, “Check Process”)
866-789-3114 (name used “Palm Loan Advances”)

Florida residents headed to prison over Costa Rica sweepstakes scam targeting the elderly

ORLANDO, Fla. – Four Florida residents are headed to prison after pleading guilty in connection with a sweepstakes scheme that bilked dozens of elderly people out of nearly $1.4 million.

The individuals perpetrated the scam by contacting elderly people across the U.S. and telling them they had won a prize in a sweepstakes, officials said.

“They falsely told the victims that they had to send money to pay various fees and taxes necessary to retrieve their prize,” court documents said.

They ran the scam with telemarketers at call centers in Costa Rica, investigators said.

One of the scammers was found to have flown from Orlando to Costa Rica at least six times to pay call center workers, court documents said.

The individuals opened accounts at several banks to deposit funds from victims, ultimately taking at least 57 people for almost $1.4 million.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the victims will get much of their money back, even though their plea agreements require them to pay restitution, WFTV legal analyst Belvin Perry said.

“They may see part of (the stolen funds), but it is all dependent solely upon the individual’s ability to pay,” Perry said. “It is tantamount, if they don’t have any assets, to trying to get blood out of a turnip.

“The chances of recovering something are very unlikely.”

The victims, who were not identified in court documents, have a better chance of getting some of their money back because the scammers were charged in federal court because the feds can seize property, Perry said.

The four individuals previously pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The scammers were identified as:

Audrey Montserrate, 50, of Dania

Benancio Lopez, 53, of St. Cloud

Richard Ellis, 30, of Miami

Donald S. Sutliff, 42, of Kissimmee

by: Mike Manzoni http://www.wftv.com/ Updated: Jun 20, 2017 – 11:19 PM

10 Things You Can Do to Avoid Fraud

Crooks use clever schemes to defraud millions of people every year. They often combine new technology with old tricks to get people to send money or give out personal information. Here are some practical tips to help you stay a step ahead.

1.Spot imposters. Scammers often pretend to be someone you trust, like a government official, a family member, a charity, or a company you do business with. Don’t send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request — whether it comes as a text, a phone call, or an email.

2.Do online searches. Type a company or product name into your favorite search engine with words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” Or search for a phrase that describes your situation, like “IRS call.” You can even search for phone numbers to see if other people have reported them as scams.

3.Don’t believe your caller ID. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information, so the name and number you see aren’t always real. If someone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. If you think the caller might be telling the truth, call back to a number you know is genuine.

4.Don’t pay upfront for a promise. Someone might ask you to pay in advance for things like debt relief, credit and loan offers, mortgage assistance, or a job. They might even say you’ve won a prize, but first you have to pay taxes or fees. If you do, they will probably take the money and disappear.

5.Consider how you pay. Credit cards have significant fraud protection built in, but some payment methods don’t. Wiring money through services like Western Union or MoneyGram is risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back. That’s also true for reloadable cards like MoneyPak, Reloadit or Vanilla. Government offices and honest companies won’t require you to use these payment methods.

6.Talk to someone. Before you give up your money or personal information, talk to someone you trust. Con artists want you to make decisions in a hurry. They might even threaten you. Slow down, check out the story, do an online search, consult an expert — or just tell a friend.

7.Hang up on robocalls. If you answer the phone and hear a recorded sales pitch, hang up and report it to the FTC. These calls are illegal, and often the products are bogus. Don’t press 1 to speak to a person or to be taken off the list. That could lead to more calls.

8.Be skeptical about free trial offers. Some companies use free trials to sign you up for products and bill you every month until you cancel. Before you agree to a free trial, research the company and read the cancellation policy. And always review your monthly statements for charges you don’t recognize.

9.Don’t deposit a check and wire money back. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. If a check you deposit turns out to be a fake, you’re responsible for repaying the bank.

10.Sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams. Get the latest tips and advice about scams sent right to your inbox.

If you spot a scam, report it at ftc.gov/complaint. Your reports help the FTC and other law enforcement investigate scams and bring crooks to justice.

This article appears on ftc.gov.

Download a PDF of this article here  pdf-0003-10_things-you-can-do-to-avoid-fraud

10 Golden Rules to Avoid Getting Scammed

Have you ever bought a product based on a powerful testimonial, only to find that it did not in any way measure up to the hype? Or grab a low-interest credit card offer only to find the rate quickly soars to ridiculous heights? Or get something for free that really wasn’t free — like an awesome deal on lodging that turns into a high-pressure sales pitch for a timeshare?

These experiences can be costly and, frankly, kind of humiliating. You find yourself wondering why you didn’t see it coming.

Well, I’m here to offer you a money-back guarantee that if you follow my 10 Golden Rules of Scam Prevention, or even some of them, you’ll never be foolishly parted from your money again.

1. Testimonials are a testament only to gullibility.

There’s only one kind of testimonial worth believing — the kind that comes from people you both personally know and totally trust.

Testimonials from strangers you see on TV or online may very well be lies. I’ve personally met more than one infomercial actor who’s told me they simply read a script without ever seeing the product.

So the next time you see an ad, website or infomercial, ignore all testimonials.

2. “Documented proof” is neither documented nor proof.

Don’t believe your eyes. Anyone willing to rip you off is willing to create fake checks, letters or anything else to support their sales pitch. They’re able to easily do so by using programs like Photoshop. And even if the earnings you see are real, that has no bearing whatsoever on what you’ll earn doing the same thing.

I once attended a multi-level marketing meeting at which a speaker took the stage and held up a check for some ungodly amount of money. He claimed that it was one month’s earnings that came entirely from sales made by those in his down-line.

After the meeting, I asked the speaker exactly how many people were in his down-line. A few calculations revealed that for everyone in his audience to make the same monthly income, they’d collectively have to recruit more people than there were on the planet.

3. Guarantees are no guarantee.

One of the most universal components of any scam is that the results are “guaranteed, or your money back!”

Guarantees only carry weight if you know and trust the company behind them. If a major retailer or company that is a household name offers me a written guarantee, I might believe them. But if some guy on an infomercial or unknown website offers me a money-back guarantee, it might as well be in Chinese, because it’s totally meaningless. When they don’t refund your money, what are you going to do, take them to court?

4. It’s not fine to ignore the fine print.

Virtually every deal that goes awry is the result of people listening to the sales pitch without reading the fine print. If you were unaware that your mortgage payment would go up after three years, your credit card interest could jump from 9 percent to 29 percent, or that mutual fund was risky — you didn’t read the fine print.

I was a stockbroker for 10 years and have been involved with sales of one kind or another for nearly 30. Trust me — a salesman’s job is to sell “sizzle.” It’s the fine print’s job to offer the “steak.”

There’s a reason that fine print is there. If you don’t understand it, find someone who does.

5. Haste lays your savings to waste.

If the “train is leaving the station,” wait for the next one. The easiest way to steal someone’s money — other than perhaps with a gun — is to force them into a quick decision.

The only people who can wisely make snap decisions regarding a purchase are those who are experts at what they’re buying. You’re an expert at buying milk, jeans or any number of consumer goods. But if you’re not an expert at what’s being sold, slow down.

From buying a house to getting married, the time spent on a decision should directly correlate to its potential ramifications.

6. Seek and you shall find.

I once got an email from a reader asking if she should pay some website to get a government grant for her small business. I went to a search engine and put in the words “government grants for small business.” In 0.31 of a second I was directed to a U.S. government website with these exact words: “The federal government does not provide grants for starting and expanding a business.” Thus, the site was a rip-off: Problem solved in less time that it probably took for the reader to send me the question.

The internet is a powerful tool — use it.

7. Before listening to strangers, listen to strangers.

Don’t just search for the pitch you’re getting. Add words like “review” or “rip-off” to your search. There are sites that specialize in consumer reviews, from Scam.com to Ripoff Report to the Better Business Bureau. With all this information available, it’s amazing that people still blindly enter into transactions when they could easily have known better.

However, recognize that anyone can say anything about anything for any reason. Reviews, both good and bad, can be made up, and frequently are. But they’re better than nothing, so it’s therefore worth the 0.31 of a second to uncover.

8. Use the help you’ve already hired.

Imagine paying thousands of dollars for expert advice on avoiding rip-offs — then totally ignoring it. That’s what a vast number of Americans do, because they pay thousands of dollars in income taxes to fund agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, then ignore all the free advice they publish.

For example, here’s just a little of the information the Federal Trade Commission has published on avoiding rip-offs:

“10 Things You Can Do to Avoid Fraud”
“Scam Alerts: What to Know and Do About Scams in the News”

9. Getting something free? You might be the product, not the customer.

We all take advantage of free stuff, from information to products. In fact, you’re doing it right now. But be aware, lunch isn’t the only thing in life that isn’t free. The motivation for those offering some free things is apparent. For example, this article is surrounded by ads that hopefully will generate enough income to justify the time I spent writing it. (Speaking of which, it wouldn’t kill you to click on an ad now and then, you know.)

But with other free things you find, especially online, consider the motivation of those offering it. If you’re being asked for a lot of personal information, that information could be sold — perhaps to someone you’d rather not have it.

10. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This saying is cliche, but it’s true. The best way to avoid getting ripped off is to simply ignore people and companies that promise simple solutions to complex problems.

Nobody is going to show you how to buy a house for $398, nobody is going to provide a consistent 12 percent return without risk, and nobody knows how to make big bucks with little effort at home in their spare time. Think about it: If these claims were true, why would the people making them share that information with you?
The bottom line

Avoiding being scammed is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s simple because simple logic reveals most scams — see rule No. 10. But it’s not easy, because humans are programmed to trust people and to hope for the best. Deprogramming takes time, but now’s as good a time as any to start the process.

 

Original story by Money Talk News

How a Phony Online Boyfriend Scammed a 75-Year-Old Widow Out of $1 Million

The call came the day before Thanksgiving 2015.

In between prepping the turkey and picking up last-minute necessities for the annual family feast—the first without her husband of almost 50 years—a widow in upstate New York, picked up the phone. On the other end was a fraud analyst for TD Bank.

A wire transfer the widow had made—$203,000, sent earlier that month to a new friend she had met through Match.com—had been flagged as a fraudulent transaction. (The woman, who spoke with MONEY and shared legal documents related to her case, asked that her name be withheld to preserve her privacy.) At first, the 75-year-old tried to explain that the call was an error, but it soon became apparent that this was no mistake.

It felt like a physical punch to the gut, she says. And yet, as everyone sat down onto the table on Thanksgiving, she kept the news, and her rising panic, to herself. What she didn’t yet comprehend was that the situation was not merely a theft of $200,000. Her total losses, at that point, actually exceeded $1 million.
Illustration by: Nazario Graziano | Original Photographs, Man: Image Source/Getty Images; Woman: Jose Luis Peleaz—Getty Images

The worst part? She had allowed the swindle to happen. Like a number of seniors, she had been targeted—in her case, successfully—by an unscrupulous fraudster who posed as a friend in order to steal her life savings.

Unfortunately, such situations are more common than you think. Losses from elder financial fraud and abuse have been estimated to be more than $36 billion a year, according to a 2015 report by True Link Financial. In Virginia alone—where the state’s Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services has conducted the most recent comprehensive study looking at the trend—financial exploitation robs victims of an estimated $1.2 billion a year.

Yet many of these crimes go unreported, or under-reported—largely for the same reason that the widow in this case didn’t want to divulge her name. Unlike so many other crimes, financial exploitation often stems from personal relationships, and many victims feel embarrassed and guilty at having been taken in. Indeed, only one in 44 cases of financial abuse is ever reported, according to an estimate by the National Adult Protective Services Association.

The widow’s case started shortly after she joined the dating site Match.com. Her late husband, an electrical engineer who worked for over 40 years with IBM, had died in December 2014 after a six-month medical ordeal, during which a series of complications kept him in the hospital until the very end. And the widow—a retired nurse—soon found herself in a health battle of her own. The month after the funeral, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. A course of radiation and constant appointments left her exhausted, and a bit defeated.

So by summer, when a friend suggested the dating site as a way to take her mind off the tumult of the preceding year, she was more than ready for some entertainment. While she was not at all ready for anything “hot and heavy,” the widow says, she wanted to rejoin the world—to see what was out there.

What she found in September was a man who called himself Edward Duffey, who entered her life after he “liked” her photo on Match.com. Conversations started small, sharing basic information. He told her that he was younger, and a widower—that his wife had died of cancer two years prior. He was a retired accountant who was raised in England, living now in Texas, he said. She revealed that she had three kids and was trying to learn how to handle home repairs.

They hit it off, and the relationship moved quickly from Match.com messages to daily calls and texts. While they never met in person, she says, Duffey’s missives were sweet, and filled with poetry. And while she’s not a big poetry fan, she enjoyed the attention. Soon he told her that he loved her. Flattered, she took it as a compliment that a man 10 years her junior would be interested in her.

There was one early sign that something was amiss. After he had claimed that he worked with a Christian youth group in Texas, she called the church he referenced—but neither the receptionist nor the local priest had heard of him. When she confronted Duffey about it, however, he turned it back on her, saying she didn’t trust him and that it was a big church.

At the same time, Duffey was offering a sympathetic ear. The widow was still learning to live on her own and sifting through all the paperwork and financial documents—a daunting task for her.

As was (and still is) true for many couples of their age, her husband had taken care of all the financial aspects of their life together. She knew they had some IRAs and some IBM stock from her husband; there was also a financial advisor through Schwab—but she had never met the man. Every once in a while, she says, her husband would say she should learn some of it, but then something would come up and they’d put if off. When her husband got sick, he showed her how to access their bank account online—but that was all they managed before he died.

So, later in October, when Duffey told her that he might be able to help her with her finances, she jumped at the chance. She told Duffey that she knew her husband had valuable IBM stock, but wasn’t sure the extent of it. He told her that he managed finances for friends, and assured her that he could make her more money.

While she was comfortably situated, the idea of getting better investment returns piqued her interest—it sounded like something nice she could do for her kids and grandchildren. On Duffey’s advice, she began liquidating her assets, with the intent to pool all of her savings under his care.

When she went to make the initial wire transfer—the first one she’d ever sent—into the TD Bank account specified by Duffey, she followed his instructions to the letter. When she went into her local Bank of America, the teller questioned her reasons for processing the transfer. But she stuck to what Duffey told her to say: that it was for a family matter.

She then set about liquidating the funds from her Charles Schwab account. She called her advisor, who said selling the IBM stock that was in the account wasn’t a good idea. He suggested they meet to discuss the decision, but they were never able to get together.

In the meantime, Duffey—never a big phone talker—texted to say he was heading to London to visit his daughter and his grandson, who was ill. He suggested she wire the rest of the funds to his London-based HSBC account, she says. So she called Schwab’s 1-800-number and had a call center employee based in Colorado initiate the transfer of almost $873,000—which she wired to Duffey in two installments.

About three weeks later, the alarm bells at TD went off, prompting the phone call from the fraud department—but by then, she had sent Duffey about $1.1 million to invest. She didn’t really believe she’d been victimized, she says, until the analyst told her that a woman had picked up the transfer. As she looked back at their whirlwind relationship, however, she remembered that call to the church in Texas—and realized she’d long been ignoring a niggling suspicion in the pit of her stomach.

By the time she hung up with the fraud analyst, she knew there was a good chance she’d been swindled. And her immediate reaction was anger. She texted Duffey, asking how he could “do this.” Duffey called her back right away—and, as usual, had an answer for everything. He denied that there was anything untoward going on, saying her money was safe in England, and scolded her for doubting him.

Duffey’s adamant denials made her question whether TD was right, and calmed her down enough to get through the Thanksgiving weekend without immediately going to the police. But she had begun to question her own judgment. When she confided the situation to a friend who was visiting for the weekend, the friend strongly recommended speaking to her bank and filing a police report.

After she filed a report, she found she wasn’t alone. Duffey was actually an alias for Ken Ejimofor Ezeah, a 33-year-old living in Houston—and dozens of women all over the country had contacted authorities throughout 2015, relating similar stories. A man posing as Duffey had apparently been working across several dating sites, including Match.com, ChristianMingle.com and others, according to court documents. FBI agents in Oklahoma investigated the claims and arrested Ezeah and an accomplice in January 2016.

Following the arrests, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oklahoma indicted Ezeah and reached a plea agreement with him in February of this year. While he hasn’t yet been sentenced, the charge he pled guilty to, wire fraud, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

But while authorities have caught up to Ezeah, it isn’t clear whether the widow will ever see a penny of her money. The incident cut her monthly income in half and drastically increased her tax bill last year, because of the capital gains she incurred. She’s also hesitant to invest what remains, fearing that additional bad financial advice will decimate what is left of her savings.

Just as important are the lingering emotional scars. She spent six months seeing a therapist, trying to come to terms with her sense of betrayal and blame. The fraud has also cut her off from many of her friends, who have no idea what she’s been through—primarily because she wants to keep it that way.

Most days, she says, she’s able to push past what’s happened. But then that feeling in the pit of her stomach will creep back in when she thinks how much money she’s lost. The financial security she once had is less certain now. The worries hit at random moments, but they’re never far from her mind.

Unlike many silent victims, though, she’s now fighting back. She has retained an attorney, New York-based Kevin Galbraith, and is going through arbitration with Schwab over the fund transfer. (Galbraith claims the transfer ran afoul of a senior protection statute in Colorado, where the call center employee works; Schwab declined to comment on the matter.) She had even planned to testify at Ezeah’s hearing until he pled out. She’s still cooperating with prosecutors on the case.

And she wants to warn others, to keep them from going through a similar ordeal. By sharing her story, she says, she hopes to shine a light on some of the tactics these scammers use to bilk their victims. Experts actually say the best way to avoid this kind of trap is to limit the amount of personal information you share online with strangers—although this can be a hard line to draw once an emotional bond has formed. The AARP even has a Fraud Watch Network that informs people about scams in their area.

But at the end of the day, the best protection may be simply to trust your own intuition. She now realizes—with deep regret—that she should have paid more attention to early clues that something was amiss. “Trust your gut,” she says.

Time.com
Megan Leonhardt
Apr 03, 2017