The weather may be getting colder — but consumer protection experts warn that scam season is heating up, here in Chicagoland and around the country. 

Every year, unsuspecting homeowners and investors fall victim to a wide variety of wintertime scams. As the AARP explains, some of the most common forms of winter fraud involve scammers offering to provide a service — such as chimney sweeping, furnace and ductwork cleaning, or snow removal — only to suddenly disappear after they get their (hefty) first payment. 

In other cases, scam artists take advantage of the rising utility costs that come with the winter months, contacting homeowners while “posing as workers from the gas or electric company” and “threatening to cut off their service unless they pay an overdue bill within 30 minutes,” as CBS Chicago has explained. In some cases, CBS notes, sophisticated scammers may even be able to manipulate caller ID “to make it appear like they are calling from the utility company.” 

And then there’s the holiday season, one of the busiest times of the year for travel, charitable giving, shopping, and fraud. According to a report from CNBC, online fraud attempts rose 22 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve in 2017. Similarly, CBS News has observed that cyberattacks tend to see a 317 percent increase around the holiday season. 

So, what can you do to minimize your risk of getting left out in the cold by a common winter scam? 

One way to protect yourself may be to identify when and how scammers expect you to pay up, compared to legitimate businesses. As Steve Bernas, a representative for the Better Business Bureau, put it to CBS Chicago: “The only thing you should pay in 30 minutes is a pizza! Other than that, it’s a scam.”

The BBB explains this idea in a little more depth over on its blog, advising consumers to not feel “pressured to act immediately.” As the BBB notes: 

“Scammers typically try to make you think something is scarce or a limited time offer. They want to push you into action before you have time to think or to discuss it with a family member, friend, or financial advisor. High-pressure sales tactics are also used by some legitimate businesses, but it’s never a good idea to make an important decision quickly.”

If you’re feeling pressured or threatened, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urges consumers to reach out for help:

“Before you give up your money or personal information, talk to someone you trust. Con artists want you to make decisions in a hurry. They might even threaten you. Slow down, check out the story, do an online search, consult an expert — or just tell a friend.”

Similarly, the BBB encourages consumers to be wary of how they make payments when working with a vendor, strongly recommending that consumers “use secure, traceable transactions when making payments for goods, services, taxes, and debts.” The BBB also advises watching out for alleged service providers who request alternative methods of payment, writing: 

“Do not pay by wire transfer, prepaid money card, gift card, or other non-traditional payment method. Say no to cash-only deals, high pressure sales tactics, high upfront payments, overpayments, and handshake deals without a contract.” 

The FTC agrees, explaining on its blog:

“Did someone say you can only pay by wiring money, putting money on a gift card, or loading money on a cash reload card? If they did, then yes: that is a scam… nobody legitimate is ever going to say you have to pay by wiring them money, getting iTunes cards, or putting money on a MoneyPak, Vanilla Reload, or Reloadit card.”

The FTC also warns consumers to “be skeptical about free trial offers” and to never “pay upfront for a promise” — including paying in advance for a prize package, debt relief, a credit or loan offer, or a job opportunity. 

Consumers should also take plenty of time to research and vet all businesses and charitable organizations, according to the BBB, which offers a reminder that “scammers are great at mimicking official seals, fonts, and other details” and encourages consumers to look for “proper identification, licensing, and insurance” from all contractors and service providers. 

Along with other consumer protection advocates, the BBB also recommends taking steps to protect yourself online, where more and more scammers are targeting their next victims. The BBB notes that consumers can take a variety of simple safety precautions, including: 

  • Taking care to never share personally identifiable information with someone who contacts you unsolicited over the phone, by email, or on social media
  • Avoiding opening attachments or clicking on links in unsolicited emails, which can cause your system to download identity-stealing malware
  • Looking for websites that offer secure transactions (complete with “https” in the URL), and making sure to look for reviews, testimonials, and complaints before doing business with any company
  • Upgrading privacy settings on social media, limiting the amount of personal information you share, and being cautious when communicating with anyone who you meet online

Finally? If you have a suspicion that you may have been contacted by a scammer, consumer protection experts encourage you to immediately reach out and report your experience to an agency who can help, such as the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the office your state Attorney General. Taking action today may help someone else avoid losing their hard-earned money down the line. 

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