Four Common Scams That Bloom in the Spring

March 10, 2011

Consumer experts say springtime is when many scammers become more aggressive at plying their trade. Like crocuses sprouting from the ground, you're guaranteed to see at least one of these four common scams pop up this spring.

Con artists rarely take a vacation, but consumer experts say springtime is when many scammers become more aggressive at plying their trade.

What makes this the time of year you’re more likely to get ripped off? In warmer weather, homeowners are more likely to be targeted by landscaping and home-improvement scammers, according to a recent issue of AARP Magazine. Tax season also brings out the fraudsters, with many consumers falling victim to bogus emails claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service and requesting sensitive personal and financial information.

Though the schemes may change slightly from year to year, like crocuses sprouting from the ground you’re guaranteed to see at least one of these common scams pop up this spring.

“Free” Vacations.

Now is the time of year many Americans plan summer vacations, and con artists -- and even some legitimate companies -- are prepared to take advantage. Be wary if you receive vouchers, or even checks, in the mail claiming to offer free vacations, cruises or time-share visits, AARP reports. Typically, you’ll be asked to pay fees, taxes or charges for your “free” vacation that more than cover the cost of the trip.

The magazine also cautions consumers to be wary of free vacation offers that come with phone number area codes you don’t recognize. Phone numbers starting with 876, 868, 809, 758, 784, 664, 473, 441, 284 or 246, are actually area codes for Caribbean countries and Bermuda and are likely to be scams, AARP warns. Calling just to inquire about a vacation offer could cost you -- callers are typically put on hold for long periods on and call transfers often result in long-distance charges of up to $5 per minute, the magazine said. And, as always, any number starting with a 900 area code generally will always cost you money.

Home “Improvements.”

Severe spring storms often lead to destruction that requires immediate home repair, and fraudulent or just plain shoddy home-repair companies will often go door-to-door looking for potential victims.

Before signing any contract, get a number of estimates, check with the Better Business Bureau, banks, suppliers and recent clients for references. Also, know your rights: You have three days after signing a home-improvement contract to cancel it without charge.

Recently, elderly homeowners have been targeted by new scam where a criminal pretending to be run home-improvement business comes to the front door to offer his services, and while the senior is busy listening to the con man’s pitch an accomplice breaks into the home and robs the victim. To protect yourself, turn down any offer from individuals looking for work by going door-to-door.

Going “Phishing” with the IRS.

This time of year, identity thieves take advantage of consumers’ focus on tax season by posing as the Internal Revenue Service in so-called phishing schemes. “Phishing” is the term used when con artists create official-looking emails that claim to be from a legitimate company seeing sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, financial accounts or passwords.

Current scams include phony e-mails which claim to come from the IRS and which lure the victims into the scam by telling them that they are due a tax refund, according to the agency. Criminals will also take advantage of tax-law changes -- such as new tax credits or deductions -- to lure victims into giving out personal information to qualify for the new tax breaks. The IRS keeps a list of recent scams here. If you suspect you’ve been a victim of an IRS scam, forward the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

Targeting New Homebuyers.

Spring is the traditional start of home-shopping season, and first-time homebuyers are often overwhelmed by the process -- in fact, con artists count on it.

Once homes are sold, much of the information on the sale -- the names of the buyers and sellers, the amount of the sale, even details on the mortgage -- become public information. New homeowners are targeted by fraudsters who use this information to create official-looking documents to try and obtain more sensitive financial information. In one common scheme, a scammer will mail a document claiming to be from the homeowner’s mortgage company. The letter tells the borrower that the loan has been sold or transferred to a new company, and requests that mortgage payments be sent to a new (and fraudulent) address. Note that loan transfers do happen, so if you receive such a notice contact your current lender directly -- do NOT use any phone or email information given by the mailed document -- to ensure the switch is legitimate.

Another common scheme takes advantage of residents in towns that offer so-called homestead rebates or exemptions. Scam companies will send notices to new homeowners offering to file your request to get the money for a fee. The notices often make it look that the only way to get the funds is to pay for the service to file the paperwork, when in truth homeowners can fill out the simple application forms themselves for free. If you receive such a notice, contact your town’s tax office and find out how to apply for the tax break yourself.