Consumer protection advocates this past week described not just the rising tide of old scams, but newer and more aggressive frauds hurting more people across the country and in the Tampa Bay area.
No wonder so many folks may want to disconnect their phones, unplug their Internet and never answer the front door again.
If deflecting scams were only that easy.
Yes, the top consumer complaints about ripoffs once again are dominated by the old standbys. Auto sales and repair complaints are No. 1 on the latest annual top 10 list unveiled this past week by national groups that track these problems. Right behind were gripes related to home improvement and construction, credit and debt matters, retail sales difficulties and utility billing disputes, among other concerns.
Keeping these traditional hucksters at bay is tough enough in an age of diminishing regulatory muscle, consumer advocates say.
But there are bigger fears. Consumer groups see an increase in more sophisticated and technology driven scams. One is the aggressive wave of telemarketers and automated phone sales known as ID-spoofing "robocalls" that hide their identities while flagrantly ignoring national and state Do Not Call lists.
Another worry is the "tech alert scam" of phone calls and emails from people claiming to be from Microsoft or an Internet provider. They convince consumers that their computer systems have been infected with viruses or malware, and as "tech specialists" the callers need to be given access to an individual's computer systems to check for problems. Once in, they instead plant viruses or direct people to websites that deposit malware designed to steal personal information, from passwords to personal banking or tax information.
Caveat emptor, the buyer beware cliche, sounds almost quaint these days. Tampa Bay has already carved out an unfortunate reputation as a hotbed for identity theft and fraudulent federal tax scams.
"One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the marketplace of scammers targeting U.S. consumers from other countries," warns Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, a Washington, D.C., association of nearly 300 nonprofit consumer groups. County and state consumer protection efforts are ill-equipped to pursue international fraudsters and even federal regulators have their hands full with domestic ripoffs. The Federal Trade Commission gets close to 280,000 complaints per month just about Do Not Call telemarketing abuses.
The CFA teamed up again this year with the North American Consumer Protection Investigators group to monitor scams and report on consumer complaint trends for its annual survey.
The advocates sound these new alarms at a time when many regulatory and state consumer protection services face leaner budgets.
The Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, for example, lost two staff positions last year, but hopes to use more technology to maintain its outreach. And the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency continues to cope with little resources for training, new technologies or supplies.
In addition to the annual "Top 10" complaints list, this year the consumer groups emphasized two additional scam rankings.
The "fastest growing" complaints include scams aimed at the elderly, telemarketing abuses, Internet sales and utility billing issues. Based on Tampa Bay reader complaints about utility billing I have recently received by email, that problem seems to be on the rise.
One reader, a frugal 75-year-old widow, this past week complained to me that her utility bill had jumped for no apparent cause to $360.69 from $234.63 a month earlier and way up from just over $177 in the same period a year ago. Another reader, a U.S. Army retiree, complained he was billed $45 out of the blue despite his paying his bills in full and on time.
The second complaint ranking from the consumer groups focuses on "new" types of consumer problems. They include concert tickets purchased online that turn out to be invalid at the concert door, and health clubs with changing ownership that try to charge customers even after they cancel their memberships.
Another headache: websites that collect or aggregate embarrassing or misleading public information online, raising privacy concerns and, in some cases, charging money to individuals in exchange for removing their names from such lists.
Consumer protection groups also are getting more inquiries about safety and other aspects of online ride-sharing services, like the new Uber and Lyft services trying to break into this metro area.
So where does all this leave the basic household trying not to get flimflammed? The sad truth is everyone needs to become better educated about scams and how to deal with them. And, alas, people need to be more skeptical of pushy sales pitches, whether at the door, by phone or email. This is especially true of the more vulnerable elderly who must rely more on others for basic needs.
Consumer advocates want tougher regulations and enforcement power and, of course, more resources to educate people. They want payment system providers like Visa and MasterCard to be more responsible in tracking ripoffs that use their financial services. Advocates also see some hope in antiscam technologies that are slowly starting to become more available on the market.
My favorite: the "Nomorobo" website, a winner of a 2013 FTC challenge to problem-solvers to devise a way to help stop robocall or automated telemarketing phone calls. It's a free service that helps households better repel robocalls, like a spam filter deters unwanted emails. But Nomorobo works only with VoiP — phone service provided over the Internet — and will not work with older phone services operated over copper wire.
But it's a good start.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.