Protect Yourself from Scams & Fraud
The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) works to educate and alert Howard County residents about scams. Our scam alerts page provides examples of and information on current and ongoing scams.
Contact our office to report suspicious telephone calls, texts, email, letters or visits you received, that did not result in a loss of money or disclosure of personal information. You may also report this information to the FTC.
Now that vaccines are here, COVID-19 related scams are on the rise. Protect yourself and your loved ones by learning more about common scams and other consumer issues related to Covid-19.
NEW! Do NOT post photos of your vaccination card on social media - doing so may expose you to identity theft or fraud as it lists your name and birth date.
Crooks can file phony tax returns using your stolen personal information (like Social Security numbers) to get a tax refund from the IRS. Or, 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 recognize. If you get a letter like this, don’t panic. Contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 1-800-908-4490.
Be on the alert for callers claiming to be from Apple and Amazon support, who may be trying to rip you off. In one version of the scam, you get a call and a recorded message that says it’s Amazon support and that there’s something wrong with your account - a suspicious purchase, a lost package, or an order they can’t fulfill.
Or, you may get a recorded message about suspicious activity in your Apple iCloud account, or that your account may have been breached. If you get an unexpected call or message about a problem with ANY of your accounts, hang up.
• Do not press 1 to speak with customer support
• Do not call a phone number they gave you
• Do not give out your personal information
For more information, visit the FTC scam alert page. And if you do get a call you think is a scam, report it at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
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.
In this scam, you receive a phone call (or email) 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 one of these agencies, but the caller is likely an imposter working a scam.
The caller may tell you that you did not pay a traffic ticket, or owe a fine for 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.
The scammer asks you to send money to avoid arrest, and/or asks you to provide a bank account number, wire money, or put money on a 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, credit card or debit card number.
To avoid this scam, remember:
- Government agencies, courts and law enforcement almost always contact individuals by US mail, 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, suspect a scam. Real government calls are made during normal business hours;
- If you are asked to pay via wire transfer or cash reload card, it's a scam; these payment methods are illegal.
- If the caller claims to be part of a “warranty amnesty program,” it’s likely a scam. Legitimate programs require consumers with outstanding warrants (failure to appear for a court date) to reach out to the courts on their own.
If you are concerned that you might actually owe fines or have missed jury duty or a court date, contact the agency or court directly, after locating the correct phone number online.
Don't fall victim to scams which target your Social Security benefits! Safeguarding your Social Security number is the best way to avoid identity thief. Be aware that scammers try all sorts of ways to trick you into giving it away. For details about how to recognize these scams, read our fact sheet on this topic. If you are contacted and suspect it's a scam, please report it to the Social Security Administration’s Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271, or 1-866-501-2101(TTY), call our office at 410-313-6420 (voice/relay).
"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
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
Geek Squad (Best Buy) Scam -
The Office of Consumer Protection has been alerted to a new variation of a phishing scam. In this variation, the email appears to be from Best Buy’s Geek Squad, and states that you are being billed for an automatic renewal of your membership ($250 to $350), and to call if you do not want to renew. If you call, the person you reach will tell you that they will refund you the money, but then says they refunded you more than the amount originally charged or debited from your account. You are then asked to allow the scammer access to your computer and your bank account to “help” you sort the matter out and get the overcharge back to them.
Once the scammer accesses your computer, he shows you a fake screen with what looks like a large amount was transferred into your bank account, then asks you to transfer money from your account or asks you to buy gift cards to refund the overpayment. Either way, the scammer now has your money and may have access to your computer.
You may receive a telephone call from someone claiming to be a family member or an authority figure calling on their behalf, and are told that s/he needs cash immediately because s/he has been arrested; is the victim of a pickpocket; or has been 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
Veterans who have proudly served our country are constant targets for con artists. Swindlers target vets because they know they receive guaranteed benefits. Click below to learn more about examples of recent scams.
Thousands of internet users fall victim to online romance scams each year. Unfortunately, these scammers are out to steal your money, not your heart. In a recent survey, romance scams ranked first in total reported financial losses. These scams can be incredibly convincing and they are increasingly being uncovered by users on dating websites and social media platforms.
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
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 actually have an account with the retailer, you might believe that you owe money when, in fact, you don’t. For more information
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 legitimate, but you find out weeks later that the check was a fake. For more information
You are visited by a 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 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.
You receive a Facebook message that appears to be from someone you know, asking “how are you doing?” When you respond, the conversation continues, 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 sum of money and tells you that you have, too and gives you 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 Facebook CEO Zuckerberg 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 legitimate lottery will ask for personal information or demand payment before releasing your winnings!
You sold an item on eBay or another online reseller 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
Victim of a scam or fraud?
If you have lost money as a result of a scam or fraud, report this crime to the Howard County Police Department at 410-313-2200.
If you also provided personal information as the result of a scam, visit the FTC’s Identity Theft website and follow the step-by-step instructions on what to do next.