Locksmith scams can pick your pocketbook clean

By Susan Tompor Detroit Free Press

Locks are supposed to keep the crooks away, or at least make them work harder. So who would imagine that there’s a locksmith scam out there?

If you need to change the locks, say someone stole your purse with your house keys, be extra careful when shopping for a locksmith. Some con artists advertise super low prices on the Internet, show up when you call, disassemble the lock and then say they’re going to have to charge far more than advertised.

“And here you are without a functioning lock now,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C.

The locksmith scam is just one of the many ways for someone to pick your pocket — and your lock — these days. Keep an eye out for these scams:

Bogus checks: Crooks love passing bogus checks, so they are hitting mailboxes and grocery carts. The homeowner writes a check to the electric company and trustingly leaves the envelope for the mail carrier.

Bad move. The crook gets the envelope first, then tweaks the check — maybe even making the amount bigger — and cashes it.

Stick to electronic bill pay, automatic bill pay or mail bills directly at the post office.

ID thieves are also ripping off checkbooks. Don’t leave your wallet or purse unattended in your shopping cart or in your car, even when you make quick trips.

Financial aid: Parents and students need to be skeptical about websites and schemes for quick-fix financial aid. Some deals promise a money-back guarantee, but the Better Business Bureau said there are so many hoops that it’s often impossible to get a refund.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, said students shouldn’t be paying $3 or $5 or $50 for a chance at a scholarship. Some of those deals are outright scams, where no scholarship money is paid. Others, he said, might pay out some scholarship money, but raise thousands of dollars more in fees than the amount that is paid out to students.

Don’t send money to pay taxes upfront on a so-called scholarship, either.

Fake tax lien: Don’t lose sleep — and money — over a bogus tax lien. Some fraudsters are frightening elderly people and students into thinking they must address a tax lien. The Internal Revenue Service noted that the schemers can charge victims $5,000 or more to settle bogus federal tax liens. The IRS isn’t initiating contact by using Facebook or texting you.

Mystery shopping jobs: Lately, fraud experts report some consumers have gotten caught after finding a secret-shopper job online and then receiving a document that includes logos from big-name retailers.

“It looks pretty official,” said Dianne Shovely, vice president at Comerica’s fraud services office in Auburn Hills, Mich.

It’s fake. The scammers also send a fake check, say for $1,983.25. The shopper is to spend $100 or so at a time at a store and report on the service and the product. Then, the shopper is to wire back $1,280 and keep the rest.

Well, it’s all a scam.

“They’ve sent you a counterfeit check,” Shovely said. You wire back money, and you’re out what you spent shopping, and the money you wired back.

Prepaid cards: A store-bought prepaid card is a new twist in some scams.

Easy-money scams

• Grandparent scam: Don’t wire money to your grandson who needs help in Mexico, or a granddaughter who claims to be in jail in Canada. Contact a family member first to find out whether a relative is really facing financial trouble.

• Fake buyers: One of the top Internet scams is a fake buyer who offers a legitimate-looking check for more than the asking price. The so-called buyer needs you to wire back excess cash.

Weeks later, the seller finds out that the check was bogus and is then on the hook for any bounced checks, the money lost and the loss of the item that was sold.

• Phony sweepstakes: Official sounding names may fool consumers who are told they have $1.5 million from a sweepstakes but they must send in the taxes first.

• Fake federal program: President Barack Obama is not paying your utility bills. Consumers nationwide have been getting telephone calls and text messages claiming that Obama has a new federal program that provides credits or applies payments to electric or gas bills. All you have to do is give over your Social Security number and bank account information. As many as 6,000 people nationwide have fallen for this scam, utility companies have reported.