Finding new ways to stop scams

Consumer Alert!Author: Sheryl Harris, Director, Department of Consumer Affairs

A Cuyahoga County grandma gets a call from an attorney, who tells her that her granddaughter is in after a car accident in Las Vegas. The attorney briefly hands the phone to the granddaughter, then tells the grandmother it will take $10,000 to bail her granddaughter out.

The grandmother is so upset by her granddaughter’s plight, she doesn’t hesitate when the attorney advises her to send the bail money using iTunes gift cards.

One of the biggest obstacles the Department of Consumer Affairs faces in preventing scams is human nature. Scam victims often tell us that the calls they got were so real, and so worrying, they ignored a nagging feeling something was amiss. It was only AFTER they paid money that they clearly saw all the red flags and realized they’d been scammed.

We began to wonder if it was possible to time scam alerts so that victims saw warnings when they most needed it  – when they’re caught up in a scam attempt but before they lose money.

It seemed impossible, but then we realized that, because so many scammers are turning to iTunes gift cards for payment, we actually had the perfect opportunity to reach these “near victims” – if only retailers would help.

Today, when you shop at Giant Eagle and Dave’s stores, you’ll see a “Consumer Alert” sign on the gift card racks. These simple signs bear this message:

“If someone instructed you to purchase gift cards to:

  • Post bail for a relative
  • Settle debt collection
  • Avoid prosecution by the IRS

you may be the target of a scam.”  

We’re thrilled that Giant Eagle and Dave’s stores are helping Cuyahoga County residents avoid impostor scams. We are in the midst of reaching out to other retailers to encourage them to post similar warnings.

You can help, too:

  • You can learn about impostor scams and warn your family.
  • If you shop at stores that sell iTunes gift cards but don’t have warning signs, encourage them to join our program.
  • Report annoying scam robocalls to the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382-4357. 
  • And if you were drawn in by an impostor scammer – whether or not you lost money --  contact the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs (216-443-7035) to report it. The more we learn about these scams and how they work on victims, the better tools we can develop to combat them.

Finally, if you shop at Giant Eagle or Dave’s thank them for being willing to join our pilot program.

Remember, no legitimate government agency accepts payment in gift cards.