Archive for the ‘Scams’ Category

Service of Fakes

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

 

Fake

While art might come to mind first on the subject of fakes, [I covered that angle on Monday], there’s plenty going around that’s unrelated to pictures. Here I describe a telephone wolf in sheep’s clothing who is prowling the phone lines of Dutchess County, NY and a legitimate business that boasts a healthy, suitably ecological–if ersatz–meal in a bottle.

Taxing

I was alarmed last Friday night by a message left on our home phone that went something like this: “I am Denis Grey calling about an enforcement action executed by the US Treasury. You should cooperate with us to help us to help you or this would be considered an intentional attempt to avoid appearing before a magistrate of court or a grand jury for a federal criminal offense.”  Denis gave a phone number to call. He never said my name.  

Voice mailMy husband wasn’t disturbed—he said we’re up to date on our taxes for one thing and that the IRS would write before calling in any case. I felt antsy until I checked out the number online and saw that others had also heard from “Denis,” confirming this IRS scam.

I mentioned the Denis message to the attendant at my dry cleaner and she’d received the same as had the next two customers, one of whom had seen it covered on TV news. Pretty sure that anyone foolish enough to return the call would be asked to confirm their social security number or to provide other personal information.

A few days later I got a text marked urgent supposedly from Chase Bank telling me to call a number with 860 area code immediately. There were a string of others online who had also received the text, some from faux Chase, others Bank of America. One person reported that his text noted that his credit card was deactivated and in order to re-activate it he was prompted to enter his 16-digit card number. Sure. Right away.

Taste Sensation-less

Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mins wrote “The End of Food Has Arrived, Finally.” He welcomes a quick and easy way to eat healthy, cheap food [$2.50/bottle] on the run with a bottle of Soylent. He wrote that the company claims that its 400 calories from the plant sources of protein, carbs and fats, contains a quarter of daily nutrients.

The taste of Soylent today is “much evolved from its nearly unpalatable first version,” in Mins’ opinion. Not a novel concept, he lists predecessor meal replacement products such as the wine, bacon and twice-baked bucellatum biscuits ancient Roman soldiers carried to the portable soup Lewis and Clark lugged cross country. He qualifies the drink as “the most recent and highly evolved version of the convenience foods without few of us could function.”

Soylent. Photo: soylent.com

Soylent. Photo: soylent.com

Mins reminds the reader that food is “a deeply personal, cultural and even political phenomenon, which is one reason Soylent touches a nerve. But it’s precisely the time in which we find ourselves—when our humble daily bread pales in comparison to the meals we see on social media, and our health and environmental consciousness becomes more acute than ever—that a generic and convenient food replacement like Soylent starts to make sense.”

Have you ever been alarmed or duped by a scam artist on the phone, by email or text?

Have you tasted Soylent in its first and/or current iterations? Do you seek out less tech-y yet healthy substitutes for a quick meal—like drinkable yogurt–when you are on the run? To ensure that there’s enough food to go ’round, should we force ourselves to opt for foods like Soylent?

  Bread and water

 

Service of Settling with a Cheat

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Settle out of court

Knoedler & Company, founded in 1846, had a star-quality international reputation until 2011 when the art dealership was accused of fraud and closed.

In artnet.com Brian Boucher wrote: “Over fifteen years, from 1994 to 2009, the gallery sold fake paintings by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other artists that had been brought to the gallery by Long Island art dealer Glafira Rosales, who pleaded guilty to fraud in 2013 and is awaiting sentencing. She had commissioned the paintings from a Chinese artist in Queens, who has since fled to China.”

Knoedler & Co. Photo Observer.com

Knoedler & Co. Photo Observer.com

On the witness stand last week, Ruth Blankschen, the gallery’s accountant, “said that she had paid Rosales up to $9,000 in cash in an envelope for each of the paintings she brought to the gallery, which is significant because the IRS requires reporting of cash transactions over $10,000,” wrote Boucher in “Knoedler Gallery Fraud Trial Abruptly Suspended—Settlement Seems Likely.”

This trial involved Eleanore and Domenico De Sole who were suing for $25 million because they paid $8.3 million in 2004 for their fake Rothko. Meanwhile the gallery did well, increasing their $9,000 investment to $8.3 million: A Madoff-worthy return, no?

Mark Rothko photo wikiart.org

Mark Rothko photo wikiart.org

Domenico De Sole, chairman of Sotheby’s, said that he was counting on the reputation of this well-regarded art house and didn’t do any vetting of the art himself. Given his position, imagine how embarrassed he was to be caught in such a net.

Clearly former gallery director and president Ann Freedman and Michael Hammer, the owner of Knoedler and its holding company, 8-31 Holdings, saved plenty of their ill gotten profits as they seem to be settling cases out of court right and left.

  • Freedman settled with the De Sole’s a few days before having to take the stand.
  • According to Henri Neuendorf of artnet.com in an earlier story, of nine suits against the gallery by buyers, five have been settled and four await trial.

Jennifer Smith in “Gallery Settles Art-Fraud Case,” written a few days after Boucher’s piece, reported that the gallery and the DeSoles’s have reached an undisclosed agreement and that “no criminal charges have been filed against Knoedler or Ms. Freedman.” In her Wall Street Journal article she continued “that both have said they were also duped by Ms. Rosales who told them the paintings came from a trove acquired by a collector known as ‘Mr. X.’” Smith said in all there were more than 30 fake artworks.

Do you think that sellers of fake art, if they settle out of court, should be free and not have to suffer punishment other than paying an agreed upon fine? Freedman claimed she knew nothing about the fakes. Wasn’t it a clue that her gallery paid less than $10,000 for something for which it was able to get over $8 million not from an art nubie, but from someone in the trade?

 Mr. X

Service of Too Big to Question

Monday, October 12th, 2015

 

Due diligence

In the news last week were at least two examples of people who should have known better. They conducted zero due diligence on activities of an individual or about a company for which they were about to pay dearly either because of the stellar background of the former or the size of the deal in the latter instance–or maybe because they were gullible [unlikely] or lazy. In all cases people were not doing their jobs.

Anupreeta Das and Jean Eaglesham’s Wall Street Journal story, “Harvard, Goldman, VC…Fugitive,” is about Iftikar Ahmed, known as “Ifty” to his friends. [Shifty is more appropriate.] They report that he “allegedly stole $65 million” from his partners at Oak Investment Partners. He “exploited the trust-based culture of the venture capital firm,” they wrote. According to the reporters, “Mr. Ahmed’s former colleagues at Norwalk, Conn.-based Oak found that he used doctored deal documents, phony exchange rates and fake invoices to siphon off millions of dollars into secret bank accounts, according to prosecutors and regulators. Oak made the discoveries only after Mr. Ahmed was arrested on insider-trading charges unrelated to his work at the firm.” Nobody knows where Ifty is these days–India they think.

The article describes the fascinating details and is worth a read. What got me was a trustsideline detail. Ifty’s wife was able to buy a Manhattan apartment for $8.5 million cash weeks after he was arrested! The intrusive financial raking that small fries must go through to buy a co-op is insulting, so clearly, this purchase must have taken place at a condo whose board members wear blinders. They aren’t the only board so equipped. Please read on.

Next, I was glued to The New York Times article, “A Deal That Still Haunts Hewlett-Packard” which you should also read. The allegations illustrate inconceivable neglect by a CEO and board of a publicly owned company. To describe their vetting process as “scrutiny light” is an exaggeration in the $11 billion purchase of a British company called Autonomy, covered by reporter James B. Stewart. Most people would do more research before purchasing a vacuum cleaner than HP’s chairman Léo Apotheker and the HP board did before buying a foreign software company.

wearing blindersAccording to Stewart, “Some consider the Autonomy acquisition to be the worst corporate deal ever. Just how bad is confirmed by the latest revelations from a shareholders’ suit over the deal: Mr. Apotheker didn’t even read the due diligence report on Autonomy that H.P. commissioned from KPMG, the giant accounting firm. Nor did Raymond J. Lane, the board chairman, or any other member of the board, according to a report prepared by the law firm Proskauer Rose, which was hired to represent H.P.’s independent directors.”

Stewart notes that the executive summary contained “numerous warnings.” But they didn’t read the executive summary either. [Stewart did–as well as the full report.] He wrote: “The executive summary stresses repeatedly that Autonomy stonewalled KPMG accountants, who were granted ‘access to very limited proprietary financial and tax information.'” The summary questioned the “claimed stellar revenue growth” and Autonomy’s “revenue recognition practices,” crucial backup information to justify such an expensive acquisition. 

In the first instance, does a “trust-based culture” have a place in today’s world? Were the Oak venture capital partners asleep at the switch, busy doing similar fiddles or simply blindsided?

Regarding the second example, I Googled “most expensive vacuum cleaners,” and saw one that cost $5,599.99. Would you pay that much based on a brochure claim that it was worth the money with no other information? Stewart wrote, “I’d say that for $11 billion, HP should have been able to see whatever it wanted.” Do you agree?

warning

 

 

Service of The Who in Who’s Who

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Who are You

Following are two “Who’s  Who” scams. The first was created by lazy folks. It came by email and may, in fact have been a front to encourage people to click on a poisoned link without promise of a listing in an unrecognized research tool. The folks directing the second went to more trouble, first forming a fake university alumni group which then offered the “benefit” of joining a pricey impersonator “Who’s Who.”

Simple Scam

A message in my SPAM file began: “You were recently chosen as a potential candidate to represent your professional community and be ranked along side of our industry experts.” It was in the SPAM file for good reason.

SpamAn additional excerpt: “Through our publishing alliance we select potential candidates based not only on their credentials but also focusing on criteria from professional directories, associations, and trade journals…..This time honored tradition has become a hallmark revered by the upper echelon throughout Corporate America; A virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of prominent professionals.”

I have until August to respond and there’s a characteristic scam alert: I must verify the information they have about me by clicking the link they provide. Sure: Hold your breath.

Faux Alumni Group Who’s Who Come-on in Sheep’s Clothing

Photo: wikimedia.org

Photo: wikimedia.org

We all get scams like this but a friend told me of a double scam also involving a “Who’s Who” clone that she might easily have fallen for but didn’t. She thought she was signing up for her university’s alumni association group on LinkedIn.  She filled out her information for the “closed group” and awaited word on admission.

She soon heard from a representative of the group (aka salesman) who introduced himself as “the senior director with who’s who distinguished individuals alumni of the university of ____.” He asked her to answer some questions to verify that she was an alum and told her that one of the perks of joining this group was that members would be added to “Bristol Who’s Who.”

He pressured her to sign up for the Who’s Who double—which cost plenty–adding that it would be most beneficial to her personally and professionally, and specified she had to do so by a deadline–a possible clue that something’s amiss. What’s the rush?

She became more suspicious when at first she understood she’d have to pay a fee for the LinkedIn group membership and then, when she asked again, he said she didn’t. He even floated the promise of new business saying he was on the board of a company that was a fit with her specialty.

He consistently left messages on her mobile and work phones to get her to agree to be included in the Who’s Who “honor.” When she inquired if she needed to pay the hefty sums for the Who’s Who inclusion to be a member of the alumni group on the social networking service he said “No.”

She phoned the University Alumni office and learned the correct name of the official LinkedIn  group which she joined free, with no strings.

Will the Real Who’s Who Please Stand Up?

Who's who in AmericaMarquis Who’s Who publishes the flagship and well known “Who’s Who in America” and the others—“Who’s Who in American Politics;” “Who’s Who of American Women;” “Who’s Who in Science and Engineering,” to name a few. According to Wikipedia, “Marquis requires no publication or processing fees from the persons selected as biographees [sic].”

Have you been approached or tempted by publishers of ersatz “Who’s Who” directories? Have you found online a company or organization you thought was legitimate and it turned out its name was deliberately close to what you wanted to first dupe and then pull you in?

Wolf in sheep's clothing

 

Service of Trust II or I Wish It Were True

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Tax relief

I would like to know how you gauge which commercials to trust, especially those involving health-related products, identity theft protection, tax relief advice, weight loss, gardening aids, deer and mouse repellants.

identify theft protectionI was inspired to cover the topic [again] after listening to a segment of “Health Matters,” on NPR sponsored by Sharon Hospital in Conn. The doctor, Jared Zelman, shared sage if obvious advice: Don’t believe quick fix solutions regarding weight loss remedies or those described by people who claim to have been cured of their chronic diseases simply by taking X. The hospital and/or doctor must come across plenty who fall for useless tonics or they wouldn’t select the topic–there are so many other potential ones.

Deer eating plantsRadio personalities tout [and say they swear by] miracle anti-wrinkle creams, weight loss tonics that take off 30-40 lbs. in a month, easy back tax relief for those who owe $10K or more, foolproof rodent repellants, effective organic garden pest deterrents and protection from identity theft. The latter makes me chuckle: If Sony, Target, TJ Maxx and Home Depot can’t fend off hackers while allegedly spending $billions, how are Mr. and Mrs. Middle America supposed to protect themselves by tossing monthly dollars at some company?

If I’d saved what I’ve spent on useless mouse and deer repellants alone I’d be on easy street. I continue to fall for what I so desperately wish would work. Do you? And as I asked in the lead, how do you know what is really effective? Are you ever tempted to give something new a chance?

garden pest

Service of Scams

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

Scam2

When I hear about or observe outrageous scams or ones that are easy to fall for I share so word gets out, which is an effective way to defang such swindles.

The worst of the latest crop preyed on students by offering them internships at the United Nations Centre for International Development (UNCID) in Geneva, Switzerland. The student who told me about it originally heard of the opportunity via her university’s career services department. “It was just like any other email/job posting that we receive,” she said. Others in her class also applied and a longtime professor remarked at what a superlative opportunity this was.

She was accepted by the fraudulent program and received medical record, internship allegiance and employment offer forms and documents that she was to sign and return via a special email address.

FishyWhat alerted her to the fact that this otherwise legitimate sounding internship was fishy? Her sister mentioned to her that there is no organization called U.N.C.I.D, her first clue.  She then checked out the names of various people who signed or were mentioned in emails. None came up in a Google search, nor did any have LinkedIn profiles nor did they appear on the U.N. website.

In addition, the employment offer, signed by a Dr. (Mrs.) Jennifer Hudson, Intern Coordinator, noted a $4,125/month stipend. She told me, “The UN doesn’t pay its interns.” [Do real people sign their name Dr. (Mrs.)?]

When I saw the stationery used for the employment offer—she sent me all the documents–it looked clumsily handmade. The letterhead was crammed up against the UN logo, another tip of the dubious nature of this offer.

I couldn’t figure out what the scammers had to gain by receiving a batch of signed documents from students. My young friend said she read in an online forum that they would next ask her for money to cover her airline and living expenses. I shudder to think of other nefarious outcomes of young people arriving abroad, alone, in the hands of people with shady intentions.

These timely cons seamlessly intrude in ways that make perfect sense. Here are two more.

SurveyAfter we leased a new car I received three requests to take a survey. The first one, from General Motors, I responded to. Another came by email a month or so later and the third, supposedly from J.D. Power and Associates, through the USPS at the same time. Before doing anything I contacted Barry Lang, our General Motors salesman. [I wrote about his spectacular service a few months ago.]. He suggested I ignore both which, with the corroboration of my nephew who is in another part of the car business, I did. Neither man liked the sound of these requests. Tip: The one from J.D. Power came with a sweepstakes offer for a $100,000 prize.

Have you noticed scams like these that we should know about? Has the prevalence of such behavior changed the way you respond to opportunities and requests for information? Think that there are more cons than ever before?

scam alert 2

Service of “I Told You So”

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Told you so

Certain specialties, while critical, are fragile because they have so many naysayers. Psychology is one of them. I believe in its effectiveness so much I wish I’d studied to be a psychologist.

When a once respected PhD like Diederik Stapel, a social psychologist, fakes tests to gain fame it’s as bad for the field as the damage charlatans do for currently incurable diseases. Because naysayers think psychology [and its offshoots] is so much bunk, when a star is caught red-handed can’t you just hear the “I told you so!”

I read about Stapel in Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s “The Mind of a Con Man,” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The reporter notes that such fraud is nothing new in science which I know firsthand. As a newbie PR person in a then unfamiliar field I uncovered a clinician who had invented test results that a pharmaceutical client was about to tout. I always thought that this was the exception and was disheartened to read in the Times article, “But the scientific misconduct that has come to light in recent years suggests at the very least that the number of bad actors in science isn’t as insignificant as many would like to believe.”

social psycologyStapel, a Dutchman, blamed the media, in part, for the path he chose. Bhattacharjee wrote: “In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. ‘They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.”

This I don’t buy. Much of my business involves simplifying my clients’ sometimes complicated or technical information for industry trade and consumer audiences which, like me, thousands do daily without fakery. That’s what links, footnotes and charts are for.

Bhattacharjee continued, “What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. ‘There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,’ he said.’Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman.”

SalesmanDoes every salesman lie? In addition, Stapel doesn’t think much of the public’s brains if he believes we know nothing about scarce resources, competition and budgets/funds for projects in his or any business.

The fake studies also marred the work of countless doctoral students for whom Stapel conducted studies though the universities where they and Staple were involved didn’t find the students guilty. Yet earlier in the article Bhattacharjee commented about the students, “They don’t appear to have questioned why their supervisor was running many of the experiments for them. Nor did his colleagues inquire about this unusual practice.”

fake brandToward the end of the article Bhattacharjee wrote: “The field of psychology was indicted, too, with a finding that Stapel’s fraud went undetected for so long because of ‘a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data.’”

Are you especially dismayed when people in a field that’s supposed to help others do more to help themselves thereby leaving subjects at risk, giving ammunition to the “I told you so” crowd? Is the media to blame for scientists who cheat because editors look to cover simple subjects and conclusions? It’s hard to get grants and financial support for scientific research: a viable excuse for faking a study, yes or no?

Measure human behavior

Service of Caution

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

caution

The AARP is sending out postcards to “current resident” warning caregivers and older Americans about foreign lotteries—scams that are making the rounds via phone, email and mailed letter. [I haven’t seen this one yet but obviously it must be prevalent.]

News flashThis week I got an email from CNN headlining enticing news. I didn’t link from the email but instead went to the CNN website and there was nothing of the sort posted. That one scared me—I was inches from falling for it.

A friend is helping her son look for an apartment in upstate New York and she’s been letting her fingers do the research online. I asked her how it was going and whether she’d seen any of the spaces in person.

apartmentTurns out that many of the apartments she’d seen in listings on a well known website are scams. I know landlords who have filled their offices with legitimate business people through this listing. I was disheartened that for residential purposes so many opportunities were cheats.

These faux landlords are really looking for personal, credit and bank information, not tenants. Obviously the burgeoning polluted links that arrive via email aren’t designed by the only unscrupulous people online.

Reaching outTakeaway: You’ve got to be cautious even if you’re the one reaching out.

Soon my friend realized what was going on: She didn’t fall for the requests to fill out all sorts of forms before seeing the properties. She said, “We’re going to a real estate agent,” and added, “It’s horrible that these people prey on innocent, poor people. Someone looking to rent a studio or one bedroom apartment isn’t usually affluent.”

Have you seen new Internet scams and swindles lately? How do you protect yourself from unscrupulous types who post on a legitimate site [which covers itself with appropriate warnings]?

swindle

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