Scam Alerts!

Report a Scam

Report a scam here!

If you have lost money or provided personal information as the result of a scam, the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) will contact you to discuss your options and describe the assistance we can provide. This may include referring you to local, state or federal law enforcement offices.
To report suspicious telephone calls, texts, e-mail, letters or visits that did not result in your loss of money or disclosure of personal information, 

OCP will forward your report to federal agencies (such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center) that have the resources to investigate and prosecute the worst con artists. While you will not receive feedback from those agencies about your specific experience, rest assured that the information you and others provide is important to these agencies in tracking down perpetrators, developing evidence and bringing enforcement actions. 

OCP will also use the information you provide to alert others about the latest scams.

Recently Reported Scams

The following scams have recently been reported by residents in Howard County. We have provided general descriptions of what you may encounter if a con artist contacts you.

Back to School Scams

The high school diploma scam

For those of us who didn’t complete high school in a traditional setting, programs are available to finish coursework and earn a diploma. But scammers have identified ways of capitalizing on people seeking to earn their degrees later in life, and falling for one of these scams costs victims money and time and still results in no diploma. If you or a loved one are going back to school to complete a high school degree, watch out for these red flags:

  • You have to pay for a diploma. If you have to pay for your diploma, it is a scam. You may have to pay for classes and testing in a legitimate program, but -- once you earn it -- you will never have to pay for the diploma itself.
  • You can earn a diploma in a day or two. If there are no classes or tests involved, and if you can earn your degree from “life experience” or previous work experience, it is a scam. A legitimate program will require that participants demonstrate excellence via coursework and exams. 
  • They claim to be affiliated with the federal government. Legitimate educational programs are affiliated with state governments.
  • You can take an online test to earn your degree. High school equivalency tests are never administered online. All high school equivalency tests must be: administered in person, proctored, closed-book and scheduled for specific dates and times

Going back to school to finish earning a high school degree is a worthwhile endeavor. However, to avoid getting scammed, always check in with your local community college to see what option is best for you. Your local community college can also help you decide whether you want to take an equivalency test or a class from a legitimate operator.

The “student tax” scam

Imagine that while you are packing up your things to move into your new dorm, you receive an urgent phone call from the IRS. The “agent” informs you that you did not fill out your tax forms properly and you failed to pay your student tax, which helps pay for your public university. He notifies you that if you do not pay it immediately, you will not only be prevented from taking classes but that you will also face imprisonment!

While IRS imposter scams, like this scenario, can happen at any time of year, they tend to spike when scammers spot an opportunity to strike. Fortunately, knowing the telltale signs of an IRS imposter can help you steer clear of this scam.

  • The IRS calls to inform you that you owe money. If you receive a phone call from the IRS about an issue the agency has not contacted you about before, hang up; it is a scam. The IRS will always reach out through the mail first.
  • The caller is demanding payment through gift cards or a wire transfer. The IRS, along with any other government agency, will not accept gift cards as a form of payment. In addition, the IRS will never demand payment through a wire transfer.
  • The caller demands that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount you owe. If you are immediately threatened with imprisonment, and you are not provided with an opportunity to appeal your tax bill, you are being scammed.

Scholarship scams

Finding ways to pay for school can be challenging. Unfortunately, fraudsters know this and have devised numerous scholarship scams to cheat students out of their tuition money. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Never pay to apply for government student loans or financial aid. If you are told to pay a fee to a company so that they can file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for you, don't do it. You can find all the help you need – for free – at If you still have questions, reach out to your university’s financial aid office.
  • If a company guarantees that you will get a scholarship or a grant, you are getting scammed. While there are legitimate companies that can help students identify scholarships and grants that they qualify for, no one can ever guarantee that you will be awarded a scholarship. 
  • Never pay for a scholarship. If you are asked to pay fees or taxes in order to receive a scholarship, it is a scam.

Amazon Phishing Scam

You receive an email that appears to be from Amazon with the subject line “Your order cannot be shipped.” Claiming there is a problem processing orders, the message says, “You will not be able to access your account or place orders with us until we confirm your information.” A “click here” link leads to an authentic-looking page that asks you to confirm your name, address and credit card information (including expiration and CVV security code) — everything fraudsters need to make unauthorized charges. After entering that sensitive data and hitting the Save & Continue tab, consumers are stealthily redirected to the actual Amazon website, none the wiser that they just gave cybercrooks carte blanche to their plastic.

Don’t take the bait. Never click on an embedded link from Amazon (or any other online retailer).  To find out if an email like this is legit, Amazon urges you go to “Your Orders” to determine if there is an order that matches the details in an email. If they don’t match, the message isn’t legitimate. Visit Amazon’s info page for more information.  

Government Impostor Scams

How the scam works - You receive a phone call (or e-mail) from someone who claims to be with a government or law enforcement agency such as the Social Security Administration, IRS, US Treasury, US ICE, Maryland District Court or Howard County Police. The caller sounds official and your Caller ID may even indicate (falsely) that the call is from the agency cited by the caller. The caller is, in fact, an imposter working a scam.

The caller will claim that you failed to pay a traffic ticket, or owe a fine failing to appear for jury duty. The caller claims that you could be arrested if you don’t pay a fine or that a warrant has already been issued for your arrest. Non-US citizens may be threatened with deportation.

You will then be instructed to send money to the caller in order to avoid arrest. You may be asked to provide a bank account number, wire money, or put money on a s cash reload card and give the PIN to the scammer. In some cases, the scam may be used to trick you into providing sensitive personal information such as your Social Security Number, date of birth, or credit card or debit card number.

To avoid this scam, remember

  • Government agencies, courts and law enforcement almost exclusively contact consumers by post, not by phone or email; 
  • Government agencies, courts and law enforcement will not ask for payment or personal information over the phone unless you initiate the call; If the call comes in the evening or at night, suspect a scam. Real government calls only come during normal business hours;
  • If you are asked to pay via wire transfer or cash reload card, it's a scam. Such payment methods are now illegal.  
  • If the caller claims to be part of a “warranty amnesty program,” it’s likely a scam. Such programs typically require consumers with outstanding warrants (such as for failure to appear for a court date) to reach out to the courts on their own.

If you are concerned that you may actually owe fines or have missed jury duty or a court date, contact the agency or court directly by looking up the phone number online or in the phone book and calling them yourself.

Bottom Line - Don't pay money or give personal information to anyone you don't know before independently confirming their identity

For more information:



How to Identify a Scam

What do most scams have in common?

Use caution if:

  • You receive an unsolicited telephone call, text, e-mail or visit from someone who claims to be from the government, an established business or well-known non-profit organization. Don't trust caller ID - scammers have technology that lets them display any number or organization name on your ID screen;
  • You get an offer that sounds too good to be true (e.g. you won a sweepstakes you don’t remember entering);
  • You are threatened or scared into thinking that bad things will happen if you don’t act (e.g. you’ll be arrested);
  • You are told you must act immediately;
  • You are asked to wire money or send a pre-paid debit card – note that these payment methods are like sending cash – once sent, it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the payment. It is now illegal for telemarketers to ask for payment used these methods. For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website.
  • You are given a check for the sale of goods or as a prize but are asked to immediately wire money back;
  • You are asked for financial, credit or personal information.

Still Not Sure?

  • When someone claims to be from a government agency, established business or familiar non-profit organization - All scams involve impostors, so be wary of all calls, texts and e-mail from someone you don't know. Government agencies do NOT ask for credit card or personal information over the phone or by e-mail. To verify that a call, text or e-mail is from entity it claims to be, find its contact information through independent means such as directory assistance or a web search using your internet browser.
  • Debt collection calls – Insist on written documentation from anyone who claims you owe a debt. While you can be sued for failing to pay a debt you actually owe, you will NOT be arrested for a delinquent payment.
  • Charitable solicitations - Request information in writing before donating money. Contact the Maryland Secretary of State at 800-825-4510 to verify that the caller is authorized to do fundraising.
  • Sweepstakes / Contests - You have NOT won a contest or sweepstakes you have not entered. If you entered a legitimate sweepstakes, you will NOT be required to pay taxes or fees to get your winnings. See the next tip if you receive a check that purports to be your prize winnings.
  • If you receive a check from someone you don’t know and are asked to send money back to them – This is always a scam. It can take up to a month to find out whether a deposited check has been accepted and paid by the sender’s bank. The sender is counting on you to send the money before you learn the check is no good. If you are still unsure, deposit the check but do NOT spend the proceeds or send any money back until your bank can confirm that the check has “cleared” (that is, it has been paid by the sender’s bank). 
  • E-mail and Pop-Up Messages - When in doubt: DO NOT open or download attachments in e-mail from unknown parties. DO NOT respond to pop-up messages that instruct you to click on a hyperlink or download software (e.g. “security software is about to expire).
  • Door-to-door solicitations – Ask to see the solicitor’s Howard County Solicitor’s ID. Do NOT do business with anyone who does not have that ID. If registered, also note that door-to-door solicitors must also provide a 3-day right to cancel contracts and provide you with a cancellation form.
  • Home improvement, landscaping and home security solicitations – In addition to needing a Solicitor’s ID, these service providers must have other local or state licenses. If the license number is not on the solicitor’s written materials, ask for the number and then contact the appropriate agency to verify that the license number given is real and actually belongs to the solicitor

Helpful Resources


Other Common Scams

Most scams come and go over time, often with subtle variations that coincide with news events or technology changes. Here are a few that never die.

Grandparent / Family Emergency scam – You receive a telephone call from someone claiming to be a family member or an authority figure calling on their behalf. You are told that s/he needs cash immediately because s/he has been arrested, the victim of a pick pocket or in an accident and needs to pay for emergency medical services. The caller may claim to have a cold (to help disguise his/her voice) and may ask that you not call his/her parents because s/he’s embarrassed or will “get in trouble.” You are asked to immediately send money by wire transfer or prepaid debit card. For more information

Debt Collection Scam - You are told that you owe money on a retail credit card account (e.g. Sears, Target) and if you don’t pay the amount they claim you owe, you’ll be arrested. Since you may have or had an account with the retailer, you may be convinced that you owe money when, in fact, you don’t. For more information

Fake Check Scams – You have sold an item on E-bay and the buyer sends you a check for more than the agreed upon price. The buyer asks you to go ahead and cash the check and in the meantime, send back the difference. Weeks later, you learn that the check was a fake. For more information

Sweepstakes scams – You get a phone call from someone claiming you have won the grand prize in a sweepstakes or lottery but in order to get the prize you must first pay taxes on your winnings. Some scams will send you a check as the first installment of your winnings to make the sweepstakes look more legitimate but you find out weeks later that the check was a fake. For more information 

Charitable solicitations – You receive a call from someone who claims to be from a charity or non-profit organization that sounds familiar (e.g. the Police Benevolent Society, Fire Fighters Fund, or Veterans Welfare Association) and asks for donations by credit card. For more information 

Driveway Paving, Tree Trimming and other Door-to-Door Scams - You are visited by a door-to-door solicitor who says that he's doing work in your neighborhood and has leftover paving products that can be used on your driveway for a reduced price. The “product” turns out to be an oil paint that runs off in the next rain. 

Or, a solicitor may claim your trees are diseased and offer to trim off the affected limbs or remove the tree. He will request money up front for work to be done the next day but won't return to do the job. Others may offer “free” water testing and claim that you need a filtration system to ensure your water is healthy. 

Most of these “traveling’” contractors are not properly licensed, do not provide the services offered or misrepresent the need for their services. Some have solicited work to “case” homes for burglaries. Read OCP's tips on home improvement and clean up scams for more information.

Tax Identity Theft – Crooks file phony tax returns using your stolen personal information (like Social Security numbers) to get a tax refund from the IRSOr, they may use your Social Security number to get a job or claim your child as a dependent on a tax return.Tax identity theft victims typically find out about the crime when they get a letter from the IRS saying that more than one tax return was filed in their name, or receive IRS records that show they received wages from an employer they don’t know. If you get a letter like this, don’t panic. Contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.  Learn more at

Mobile Car Repair Scam - You are approached in a parking lot—or your own driveway—by someone claiming s/he can fix the dings and paint scratches on your car at little cost. But once you hand over your money– often hundreds of dollars – you may find your car in worse shape than before. When you question the repair person about the patchwork of sanded scratches, sloppy patches and mismatched paint, you will be told not touch the repairs, wait three or four days, go to the car wash, and then everything will be perfect. When that claim proves to be untrue, you are unable to find or contact the con artist. 

Other mobile auto repair crooks use websites such as Craigslist to entice you with low prices to make repairs at your home or workplace. Again, once the crooks have your money, they disappear. Catching these crooks is nearly impossible because they constantly switch their ads on Craigslist, using different names and phone numbers. 

Online Internship / Employment Scams - You answer a job posting for a job or internship and are invited to have a brief online interview.  After the interview you are told you have the job, and are asked to complete a personnel form that asks for your bank account number and your bank’s routing number so that your paychecks can be automatically deposited.  After you provide this information, the company disappears along with the money in your back account. 


In a related scam, you are told that you will need to obtain some special equipment to start your new job. The company sends you a check to cover the cost and you are instructed to wire money to a specific equipment vendor immediately. Sometime later, you discover that the check sent to you was a fake, and the money you paid to the bogus vendor is long gone.

To avoid these scams, remember: 

  • Exercise caution if you hear from a potential employer online, especially if you did not submit an application to that company.
  • If you are offered a job online, contact the company’s Human Resources Department - using contact information you find yourself - to find out if the offer is real. Con artists often use company names that sound similar to reputable companies or pose as representatives of those companies.
  • Don’t give your Social Security number, bank account number or other personal information to anyone online until you have confirmed their identity. Con artists can make their websites and e-mail look like the real thing.
  • Beware of job offers that require you to purchase equipment or software with the promise of reimbursement.

Fake checks are used in many types of scams. No legitimate company asks you to deposit a check and send money back.


Tech Support Scam - The caller claims to be with Microsoft (or another computer company) and that their regular scan of your computer indicates you have a problem. You are directed to turn on your computer and follow various instructions to fix the problem. Following the instructions, however, makes it easy for the caller to hack into your computer and steal the personal and financial information they need to raid your bank / credit account and use your identity for other criminal purposes. The caller may also demand to be paid for the computer “fix.” For more Information

Phishing Scams - "Phishing" refers to fraudulent emails and websites that impersonate a business to trick you into giving out your personal information. Don't reply to email, texts, or pop-up messages that ask for your personal or financial information. Don’t click on links within them either – even if the message seems to be from an organization you trust. It isn’t. Legitimate businesses don’t ask you to send sensitive information through insecure channels. For more information

Foreign Dignitary Scam – You receive an e-mail that looks claims to be from claim to be officials, business people, or the surviving spouses of former government honchos in Nigeria or another country whose money is tied up temporarily. They offer to transfer lots of money into your bank account if you will wire money to them for fees or "taxes" they need to get their money. Inevitably, emergencies come up, requiring more of your money and delaying the "transfer" of funds to your account. In the end, there aren't any profits for you, and your money is gone along with the thief who stole it. For more information 

Facebook Lottery Scam - You receive a Facebook message that appears to be from someone you know that asks a general “how are you doing” question. When you respond, the conversation continues by asking if you’ve heard of the lottery promotion on Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg is running. The writer explains that s/he has already won a large some a money and states you have too. You are then given a number to call to verify your winnings. The original message is, in reality, sent by a con artist who has hacked your friend’s Facebook account or has set up a new account in their name. 

Sometimes, the “you have won” message appears to have come from Mark Zukerberg directly and states that the lottery is “based on an electronic selection" of all Facebook users. If you call the number provided, you are told that you are a winner and then, like other sweepstakes scams, are asked to provide personal information such as your bank account or social security number. With this information, the con artist can withdraw funds from your account or steal your identity. No real lottery will ask for personal information or demand payment before releasing your winning

Grant/Scholarships Scams - You get a call from someone who says that you have won a scholarship for an educational program, such as a class to help you learn English. All you need to do is to purchase text books and provide references to ensure you are eligible for the class. 

It sounds like a wonderful opportunity until you find out that the books for this “free” class will cost you a bundle – often more than the cost of a class and books combined at other programs. And, those who pay usually never receive either the books or the class. 

If you try to cancel, the scammers may claim that you are bound by a verbal contract to pay for the books. The scammers will then use all manner of threats and intimidation to get your money - including calling your references to ask them to pay or convince you that you need to make the payments. They may go as far as to tell you there will be a hearing on your failure to pay the debt and give you an address of where the hearing will be held. That location, however, is usually a random Federal office building, not a court house. 

Don’t fall for this scam! 
  • If you receive an offer of a “free” class or other goods or services, request that the offer be put in writing before providing any financial or personal information (such as references).  
  • Don’t be misled by claims that you have made a verbal contract. Maryland law provides that any consumer contract made as the result of a telephone solicitation is not valid or enforceable unless all of the terms of the contract are put in writing and signed by the consumer. 
  • Be skeptical of debt collection calls. If you are asked to pay money on a loan or other debt that you don’t think you owe, demand that the debt collector give you written proof of that debt.  
For more information