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Beware of government impostors
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Consumer Action is warning consumers about websites, emails and calls that purport to be from government officials but are actually from fraudsters and profiteers. By claiming to be from a government agency or making it appear so, these sites and communications instill trust and confidence in recipients when it is not justified, and cause unwitting consumers to pay unnecessary fees or divulge sensitive personal information.
Impostor sites are designed to look official by using images of the American flag, Statue of Liberty, White House or U.S. president. Some sites list a Washington, DC mailing address and use a name that sounds similar to a government agency, such as "Immigration Direct," but the web address is missing the “.gov” at the end of the URL. Only official U.S. government websites will have addresses that end in “.gov.” Some of these scam websites claim to offer immigration, tax filing, Social Security and other government services (for a fee), while others may be a front for an identity theft operation.
By pretending to represent a U.S. government agency, these impostor sites trick consumers into revealing personal information. They often ask for government-issued identification and other documents such as birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses and Social Security cards to be mailed to them as part of an application process. Providing your sensitive personal documents could result in identity theft or other fraud.
Many for-profit websites purporting to be from a government agency claim that the application process for visas, passports, Social Security, government grants, financial aid, etc. is impossibly time-consuming, complicated or confusing. The business proposes to walk you through the process for a fee, despite its instructions nearly always being inferior to those available at no charge on government sites. Often, businesses that seek to charge fees to file applications that are otherwise free will buy up the .com versions of legitimate .gov sites. For example, if a prospective borrower goes to the non-government FAFSA.com website, he or she would be charged at least $79.99 to file a student loan application that would be free to file from the legitimate FAFSA.gov site. In many cases, the “service” will request, in addition to its fee, a hard copy of the application with supporting documents to be delivered to the U.S. government agency. This could expose your personal information to identity theft.
There are dozens of scam artists and impostor sites that try to swindle prospective immigrants seeking to enter the United States’ free Green Card Lottery. Although the legitimate site for the Diversity Visa is www.dvlottery.state.gov, scammers build websites with addresses that use variations of “Green Card,” “Diversity Visa" or “USA lottery,” then cheat users through bogus “application fees,” which often exceed $100. Paying these fees does nothing to improve the applicant’s chance of being awarded a Green Card. In fact, going through a third-party site often reduces one’s chances of winning a Green Card because some sites will submit multiple applications, automatically invalidating the individual’s lottery entry.
To protect yourself:
- Check the website to see if the address ends in ".gov."
- Beware of any site that charges a fee for blank government enrollment/application forms—government forms and instructions are free.
- Contact Consumer Action’s hotline at 415-777-9635 or online if you have a question about a suspicious site.
In addition to building impostor websites, scammers also impersonate government officials and law enforcement officers on the telephone through caller ID spoofing. The consumer's caller ID displays the number of the police department or other law enforcement or government agency but the call actually originates from somewhere else. Impersonating an officer, the scammer tries to intimidate the consumer by threatening arrest or court action unless the consumer pays some bogus fine immediately. A law enforcement officer will never call an individual to collect fines or other payments. If you receive such a call, immediately hang up and report it to the legitimate police department or other law enforcement agency.
Consumers who believe they are victims of impostor government websites or scammers posing as government employees should contact their state attorney general and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center.
On its website, Consumer Action offers many free multilingual publications on how to protect yourself from fraud and scams. Click here to browse the publications.
Emails that claim to be from the IRS but do not begin with "http://www.irs.gov" should be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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