Consumer IQ

3 Signs You’re About to Be Ripped Off By the “Government”

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If you’re a business owner in Indiana, maybe you received a recent invoice from the Secretary of State’s office. It’s a bill for a $125 annual fee for “record keeping and processing of a company’s annual minutes.”

And it’s bogus, according to the Secretary of State. There are no fees for record keeping, and the payments are mailed to a UPS store, according to a report.

The fraudulent form is just the latest in a series of scams in which criminals impersonate a government organization. Here are three signs you’re about to be ripped off by the “government.”

Someone says, “Trust me, I’m with the government.”

That’s not just a movie cliche. Scammers are posing as government officials in an attempt to get your personal information — and they’re getting away with it.

South Dakota’s attorney general recently issued a warning to be on the lookout for telemarketers claiming to be government representatives and tricking victims into giving up personal identifying information.

“Consumers and businesses alike tend to take phone calls or emails from government officials very seriously,” said Marty Jackley, South Dakota’s attorney general. “These unscrupulous attempts to obtain personal or sensitive information is just another example of what lengths these scams artists will go to make a buck.”

Armed with the information, the scammers commit all the basic ID-theft crimes you’re accustomed to. The only way to avoid it is to verify the caller’s identity and never to click on a link that comes from an unsolicited email.

They flash a government logo and then ask you to pay up.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently shut down two mortgage-loan modification services. One of the operations claimed that they could help people get benefits from programs offering government-sponsored relief for homeowners, for a price.

In fact, you don’t have to pay anything to get the benefits of these programs, according to the CFPB. You just have to qualify.

Anyone who flashes a seal, logo or badge with one hand and has another hand outstretched, waiting to be paid, should be suspect. The mortgage-modification operations closed by the CFPB were so successful because they found people who were desperate and wanted to believe they could get government aid.

Had they taken a few minutes to investigate the government-sponsored relief programs for homeowners, they would have known they were about to be scammed. Another tip: It sounded too good to be true.

The President promises to pay your utility bill

Last summer’s big “government” scam involved a hoax that the President would pay your utility bill. Untrue, of course.

A Public Service Electric and Gas Company warning spells it out in painful detail: It starts with utility customers getting a phone call that the federal government has a program to pay utility bills on a one-time basis. The thieves then ask for your Social Security numbers to “apply for the program.”

They also provide you with a Federal Reserve bank routing number to use when paying their bills online. Customers who use this number are led to believe that their bills are paid. But they aren’t.

What made last summer’s scam so awful is that it might have been true. It was an election year, and the federal government had a well-established track record of generous aid programs, like cash for clunkers and the stimulus program.

Plus, it was one of the hottest summers ever. Add a little social media to the mix, and people could be forgiven for thinking that President Obama would pay their utility bill.

Instead, the scammers made off with people’s Social Security numbers and set out to steal their identities. The only way to figure out this was bogus was to call the utility company before taking advantage of this federal “program.”

These are just three warning signs, but the scammers continue to innovate, so watch out. Anytime someone tells you they’re with the government and they’re here to help, don’t take their word for it.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.