Protecting yourself from online frauds and scams

This month, I wrote columns about two of the best known scams. And as usual, I heard from other people who fell for these scams — or came close to falling for them.

When it comes to online sales pitches, extreme skepticism is required. If you don’t see the people involved, why should you trust anything they say?

The first fraud I wrote about usually starts with a phone call. Someone who works for Microsoft says your system is in danger of crashing and can be fixed if you give the person remote access to your computer.

This scam has gone viral, says the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, and the dramatic increase means the scam is working.

I’m rarely at home, but I got one of these “Microsoft” calls the very same day my article appeared. I just laughed and hung up.

The second fraud usually starts with an email. Your friends or family members are in a jam in a foreign country and need you to send money right away to get home. If you fall for the emergency scam, as it’s called, you wire funds by Western Union or MoneyGram to a fraudster and never get it back again.

There are other traps for the unwary. Just last week, I heard from someone who ordered tickets online and fell into the hands of a reseller, who charged many times more than the box office rate. I also heard from someone who was buying a computer on Craigslist and fell for the overpayment scam.

Reading the fine print is always tricky — and even more so when the terms and conditions appear online in the midst of a transaction you hope to complete quickly. There’s a temptation to click “I agree” without thinking.

You have to pay attention to your computer, network and browsing. Do you have anti-virus software that is up to date? Do you have a firewall? Are your passwords strong enough and changed often enough? Can you verify that an email from someone you know actually comes from someone you know?

Canada has no anti-spam law yet, unlike other countries, despite watching the problem develop for years. A federal law was passed in late 2010, Bill C-28, and draft regulations are being circulated for comment. But it’s not in force yet.

Meanwhile, spam is moving to new platforms, such as social networking sites, says a report by the Public Interest Advocacy Group. What’s better than a product or service that comes highly recommended by a Facebook friend?

“A significant number of Canadians are ignorant of the risk posed by spam, even those who consider themselves savvy computer and Internet users,” says PIAC.

“Consumers appear aware vaguely of their role in spam propagation and perhaps in denial regarding it.”

You may say, “But I’m not a techie,” when told you have a role in blocking fraudulent messages and fighting off services you don’t want. That’s not a good excuse.

If you use a computer, you have to to keep yourself — and your friends and family — safe from harm. This means you become a techie and shore up your defenses against fraud. You also question everything you see online and take nothing on faith. Check out cautionary fraud articles at websites such as Comparitech.

There are many shysters lurking online trying to part you with your money, preying on your deepest fears and using every trick in the book to gain your trust.

Check out a few cautionary stories below.

What’s the best way to get through to companies?

Happy new year to my readers. I hope you exercise your consumer rights in 2012.

You have the right to safety, to choose, to be informed and to be heard, according to the original consumer bill of rights put forth by U.S. President John Kennedy in 1962.

Four more rights were added in 1985 by the United Nations: The right to redress or remedy. The right to environmental health. The right to service. The right to consumer education.

So, what happened in the past year? We had a victory for consumer activism with Open Media’s petition campaign to get the CRTC to review its decision on usage-based billing. The CRTC said smaller Internet service providers could charge customers as they liked.

We also had some losses. TD Bank pulled out of the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI),following RBC’s lead. Now Canada’s two biggest banks can use their own hand-picked mediator for banking complaints — and the federal government has done nothing to stop them.

The Supreme Court of Canada turned down a national securities regulator, saying it was unconstitutional. However, the court may have opened the door to more federal-provincial cooperation in this area, says Ermanno Pascutto of FAIR.

Is customer service getting any better? I’ve seen little improvement. I’m busier than ever helping readers with consumer complaints.

In fact, the Air Miles decision to date-stamp its points with a five-year limit is a step backward and makes Aeroplan’s seven-year expiry date look good in comparison. (Air Canada tweeted my column about the change.)

CBC Television ran a documentary on Customer (Dis)Service last year. And this week (Jan. 6), CBC Marketplace will launch its new season with a one-hour look at Canada’s Worst Retail Customer Service. (I’ll be on the show, giving my views of the three retail chains with the worst service.)

I’m also tackling this topic in a new book, called 99 Ways to Fight Back: How to Hang on to Your Money and Protect Yourself from Corporate Trickery. It’s going to be pubshed by Wiley in the next year or so.

Since I’m still writing, I’d love to get your stories. How do you get through to large corporations? How do you reach a decision-maker who can resolve your complaint?

How effective are social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in communicating with companies and spreading the word to other consumers? Do you use social media? Do you find they work?

Musician Dave Carroll, famous for his YouTube protest, United Breaks Guitars, will be on the CBC Marketplace show on Jan. 6. He’s written a new ode to consumer activism that he’ll sing on the show.

Talking about social media, check out my story on the Zellers coupon fiasco and Zellers’ Facebook page. I think this is one huge corporate mistake we’ll be talking about for months to come.

Thanks for all your comments on the blog. I expect the total number of comments to get close to, or surpass, the 10,000 mark this year.

Let’s keep talking about consumer rights (and yes, consumer responsibilities) and the progress we’re making in getting our voices heard and our issues taken seriously.