Another post pandemic fallout is the fact that rental car agencies have sold their fleets, for obvious reasons. In doing so, there aren’t enough rental cars for all of us who have been stuck at home and are now raring to go on vacation.

While the shortage of rental cars naturally means higher prices, and some entrepreneurs are responding to the shortage with offerings of an Airbnb-type model, scammers also are aware of the shortage and the frenzy to confirm a rental car and see an opportunity to fleece consumers.

According to a Federal Trade Commission Scam Alert, scammers are designing spoof websites to lure consumers and deceive them into believing they can provide a rental car at a deep discount. When you click on the website to rent a car, they ask you to pre-pay with a gift card or a pre-paid debit card. RED FLAG. Your gut should be telling you that a legitimate rental car agency would not be asking for payment with a gift card!

According to the FTC:

To avoid rental car scammers driving off with your money:

  • Research the rental car company by searching for the name of the company and words like “scam,” “complaint,” or “review” to check if other people have had a bad experience.
  • Verify deals with the company directly. If you need customer support, look for contact info on the company’s official website. Don’t use a search engine result. Scammers can pay to place sponsored ads in search results, so they show up at the top or in the sponsored ad section.
  • Pay with a credit card if possible, and never pay with a gift card or prepaid debit card. You can dispute credit card charges, but gift cards and prepaid debit cards can disappear like cash. Once you give the number and PIN to a scammer, the money is gone.

Before you rush to book that miraculously available rental car, take a beat and read up about things you should consider when renting a car. If you spot a rental car scam, tell the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

And I’ll add a couple more:

  • If a deal is too good to be true, it’s exactly that—too good to be true, and probably a scam.
  • Be cautious about any “deals” you get through an email, as it may be malicious.
  • Be cautious about calling any customer support numbers you get through emails.

Happy vacationing, and be safe while reserving car rentals.

Robocalls continue to be irritating and their increased frequency is distracting and exhausting, at least in my experience. We can usually spot them when our caller ID says “potential spam” or if we don’t recognize the number, but robocallers are getting more sophisticated, just like other scammers.

A frequent and increased scam is one alleging that your car warranty is expiring and that you need to renew it. The messages sound legitimate, but they are not. It has become such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning this week advising that you hang up when you receive an auto warranty call.

According to the FTC, “This is an illegal robocall and likely a scam. The companies behind this type of robocall are not with your car dealer or manufacturer, and the ‘extended warranty’ they’re trying to sell you is actually a service contract that often sells for hundreds or thousands of dollars.”

I was raised not to hang up on anyone, but following the FTC’s advice to hang up on auto warranty robocalls seems like a good exception.

If you have seniors in your life who could become a victim of this type of scam, let them know so they, too, can follow the FTC’s advice.

Criminals use current events to launch new schemes designed to prey on victims’ vulnerabilities or fears. Throughout the pandemic, criminals have used fear of COVID-19, or the anticipation of a cure or a vaccine, to lure victims and persuade them to provide information they can use for fraudulent purposes.

The most recent scam being reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is related to a vaccine survey. The criminals either email or text victims, asking them to complete a survey about the vaccine that they received and employing the logos of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The surveys look very real because of the logos, and they offer a reward if you fill out the survey. However, they ask you to pay for the shipping of the “reward.” In order to pay for the shipping, you have to give them your credit card number or bank account number. That’s the scam.

According to the FTC:

No legitimate surveys ask for your credit card or bank account number to pay for a “free” reward.

If you get an email or text you’re not sure about:

    • Do not click on any links or open attachments. Doing so could install harmful malware that steals your personal information without you realizing it.
    • Do not call or use the number in the email or text. If you want to call the company that supposedly sent the message, look up its phone number online.

Remember:

    • Do not give your bank account, credit card, or personal information to someone who contacts you out of the blue.
    • You can filter unwanted text messages on your phone, through your wireless provider, or with a call-blocking app.
    • If you get an email or text that asks for your personal information and you think it could be a scam, contact the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Unfortunately, many individuals who have been vaccinated and who are receiving these fake survey requests are our seniors. Warn the seniors in your life about this scam and caution them to be wary of all unsolicited requests for information.

The best way to find out if you have been the victim of identity theft and to determine what accounts may have been opened in your name by criminals is to get a copy of your credit report. Prior to the pandemic, individuals were eligible to obtain a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year. Last year, the credit reporting agencies allowed eligible individuals to obtain their credit reports once a week for free.

The credit reporting agencies — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — are extending the ability to obtain free weekly credit reports through April 20, 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission [view related].

Make sure you go to the right site, as there are fake websites that claim to be the legitimate website and which then ask for your Social Security number or payment information in order to to commit fraud against you. Here is the legitimate site to get your free credit report. You also can always find the legitimate website access through the FTC website at www.ftc.gov.

Bloomberg reported this week that the first comprehensive federal privacy bill of the year was introduced by Representative Suzan DelBene (D-Washington). The bill is known as the Information Transparency and Personal Data Control Act. The key concept of the bill is to protect sensitive personal information, which includes data relating to financial, health, genetic, biometric, geolocation, sexual orientation, citizenship and immigration status, social security numbers, and religious beliefs. This means that companies would need to have opt-in consent from consumers before such sensitive information could be used or disclosed. The bill also provides protections for the information of children under 13 years of age. According to her press materials, Rep. DelBene states that the key elements of the bill are:

  • Plain English: Requires companies to provide their privacy policies in “plain English.”
  • Opt-in: Allows users to “opt-in” before companies can use their most sensitive private information in ways they might not expect.
  • Disclosure: Increases transparency by requiring companies to disclose if and with whom their personal information will be shared and the purpose of sharing the information.
  • Preemption: Creates a unified national standard and avoids a patchwork of different privacy standards by preempting conflicting state laws.
  • Enforcement: Gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) strong rulemaking authority to keep up with evolving digital trends and the ability to fine bad actors on the first offense. Empowers state attorneys general to also pursue violations if the FTC chooses not to act.
  • Audits: Establishes strong “privacy hygiene” by requiring companies to submit privacy audits every two (2) years from a neutral third party.

The bill requires that data controllers shall provide users with the ability to opt out at

any time for the collection, transmission, storage,  processing, selling, sharing, or other use of non-sensitive personal information, including sharing with third parties. The bill has no private right of action and would increase both the staffing and budget of the Federal Trade Commission. We will continue to monitor this legislation as well as other pending state legislative privacy bills.

The news is full of stories about crashing vaccination scheduling websites, seniors who are unable to get their vaccine appointment, and how different states are rolling out their limited supplies of COVID vaccines.

People are becoming desperate in the scramble to get vaccinated during or even before their allotted time, and scammers know that and are banking on it.

Vaccine scams are so rampant that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued an alert this week called “Help fight COVID vaccine scams: Share these tips with those you know.”   It urges us to help protect the most vulnerable, including our loved ones and friends, and those that are particularly isolated.

The tips to share to help protect those around you from COVID vaccine scams include:

  • Don’t pay to sign up for the COVID vaccine. Anyone who asks for a payment to put you on a list, make an appointment for you, or reserve a spot in line is a scammer.
  • You can’t pay to get early access to the vaccine. That’s a scam.
  • Are you on Medicare? You don’t have to pay to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Only scammers will ask you to pay.
  • Ignore sales ads for the vaccine. You can’t buy it – anywhere. It’s only available at federal- and state-approved locations.
  • No legitimate person will call, text, or email you about the vaccine or ask for your Social Security, bank account, or credit card number. That’s a scam, too.

Heed these tips and share them widely with those you know.

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Those of us who are not health care workers, essential workers or the highest-priority cohort in our state to receive the COVID-19 vaccine are patiently awaiting our turn. We are anxious to receive the vaccine for our personal safety and health, while monitoring complaints about vaccine rollouts in different states.

As we have reported before, criminals and fraudsters prey on unsuspecting victims who have been anxious (understandably so) about many different issues that have arisen since the beginning of the pandemic, including their jobs, the infection rate of COVID-19, the prevalence of COVID-19 in their community, obtaining relief through funds from the state or federal government, and unemployment payments.

The pandemic has been used by fraudsters and scammers to attempt to obtain personal information or money from victims. These scams have included phishing schemes, telephone schemes and the introduction of malware and ransomware into networks and systems to obtain personal information or money under false pretenses.

With the development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the fraudsters and scammers continue to prey on the uncertainty and anxiety of individuals in figuring out how and when they will be vaccinated. Each state has its own rollout plan, and these plans frequently change depending on the number of allocated vaccines and how they will be distributed and administered. Unfortunately, whenever there is confusion in communication, fraudsters and scammers are at their best.

It has been widely reported that there has been an increase in attempted fraud by criminals around COVID-19 vaccinations. These schemes include emails and telephone calls to individuals providing them with information about how they can get vaccinated in advance of their scheduled time. Fake websites are set up for appointments where the criminals request individuals to input their personal information, including their name, date of birth, address and Social Security number, in order to secure a vaccination time slot.

In addition, there are some reports about a black market springing up around COVID-19 vaccinations and that scammers are luring victims to pay for vaccinations with the promise that, if they pay, they can jump the line to receive it. Unfortunately, it is very tempting, and many people are falling for it.

It has become such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has provided a warning and guidance to consumers about these widespread scams and how to protect oneself from them. The most basic tip is not to provide your personal, financial or health information to anyone who texts, calls or emails you regarding a COVID-19 vaccination. The FTC confirms in its warning that no legitimate healthcare site, provider or other entity that is distributing and administering vaccines will ask for this information in order for you to sign up for a vaccination when it is your turn.

As we have reported before, be very vigilant about requests to click on any links or attachments or to provide any personal information in the context of COVID-19, including around the vaccine or getting vaccinated. For more information, visit the FTC’s guidance here.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning small businesses that they are being targeted by scammers through a new coronavirus-related scam. The scam “starts with an email that claims to come from the ‘Small Business Administration Office of Disaster Assistance.’ It says you’re eligible for a loan of up to $250,000 and asks for personal information like birth date and Social Security number.”

Unfortunately, many small businesses have been dramatically affected by the coronavirus and are seeking assistance to help retain their employees employed and keep their doors open for business. However, governmental agencies will never send an email advising you that you are eligible for a loan and will never ask for your Social Security number over email. Such material is sent through the mail and on official applications and letterhead.

In addition, governmental agencies will not call to advise you that you have been accepted for relief or ask you for your personal information over the phone. These are scams intended to get you to tell them your Social Security number so the caller can open up credit card or other accounts in your name without your knowledge.

The same is true for scam websites offering assistance with small business loans. If you need to apply for a loan, go to a trusted entity that you have done business with before. Scammers are using the coronavirus, the need for relief, and the government’s Disaster Loan program to fraudulently obtain funds from unwary small business owners. Be wary of these scams and websites and report any fraud to the FTC.

Flo Health, Inc., (Flo) which offers a fertility-tracking app (Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker) used by more than 100 million customers, has agreed to settle with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to dismiss the FTC’s claims that Flo shared the health information of its users with data analytics firms despite promising users that it would keep the information private.

According to the FTC’s press release, the FTC alleged that “Flo promised to keep users’ health data private and only use it to provide the app’s services to users. In fact,…Flo disclosed health data from millions of users…to third parties that provided marketing and analytics services to the app, including…Factbook,…Google…and Flurry.”

The Complaint further alleged that Flo disclosed the user’s sensitive information, such as pregnancy, to third parties and did not limit how third parties could use the data.

The settlement requires Flo to review its privacy practices, obtain consent from its users before sharing their health information, prohibits it from misrepresenting the purposes for which it collects, uses and discloses user data, notify users of the unauthorized disclosure of the information, and have any third parties who received the information destroy it.

In addition, the FTC issued guidance on health apps, including tips on how to select and use health apps and reduce privacy risks. The guidance can be accessed here.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced its settlement with Everalbum Inc. (Everalbum) for its Ever app, a photo and video storage app, due to its alleged deception of consumers related to the app’s use of facial recognition technology and its retention practices around deactivated accounts.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, Everalbum must delete models and algorithms that it developed using users’ uploaded photos and videos and obtain express consent from its users prior to applying facial recognition to a photo. FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra said that facial recognition technology is “fundamentally flawed and reinforces harmful biases.” As regulation and enforcement around this technology surely increases, the FTC seeks to suspend or inhibit and restrict the use of such software.

The Ever app (which is defunct as of August 2020), permitted users to upload their photos and videos to a cloud-based storage platform. The app then used facial recognition technology to automatically sort users’ photos and videos for the tag a “friend” feature. However, according to the FTC’s allegations, Everalbum’s use of facial recognition was NOT limited to its app’s friend feature; between September 2017 and August 2019, it allegedly combined facial images from its users’ accounts with facial images from publicly available datasets. The combined data was then used to develop Everalbum’s facial recognition technology. This technology (since it is no longer used in the Ever app) is now marketed through Paravision, which is a company that provides services related to building security, payments and travel. A Paravision representative said that the FTC settlement reflects “changes that have already taken place” as it continues to utilize the technology in a more ethical manner. The new Paravision model also does not use any of the Ever app’s user data previously collected from consumers.

This settlement raises more questions (than answers) about how to handle and use the data used to train facial recognition software. This settlement also highlights the potential for an increase in consumer class actions over the use of facial recognition technology, especially as consumers become more aware of the use of this technology, how it works and the perhaps uncontemplated uses by the companies with which many consumers are freely sharing their data.