The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

January 13, 2011
On Your Guard: Thieves hit Postal Service collection box in capital

Those large, blue U.S. Postal Service collection boxes are regarded as secure places to deposit mail, but even they are sometimes targeted by thieves.

The break-in of one such box at Cadillac Drive and Howe Avenue in Sacramento was reported Jan. 3, said Jeff Fitch, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Damage to the box was repaired the following day.

People who deposited mail there during the New Year's weekend may learn their mail was stolen only when they receive a notice of an unpaid bill, or when stolen financial information leads to identity theft.

"If we recover any of that mail, we send out letters to those customers," Fitch said.

He urged people to immediately notify postal inspectors if they are contacted by their bank about suspicious account activity that might be the result of mail theft.

Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each incident.

The Postal Service has a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for mail theft, Fitch said.

You can call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's 24-hour hotline, (877) 876-2455, or file online at: http://postalinspectors.uspis.gov.

Because vandalism of collection boxes typically occurs at night, Fitch advised against depositing mail in them after the last collection of the day. Instead, deposit mail in the mail slot at a local post office, or hand it to your letter carrier.

- Cathy Locke

December 30, 2010
On Your Guard: Returning holiday gifts can offer new surprises - here are some tips

It's that time of year: gift returns. All those unwanted ties and toasters need to go back to the store to get what you really want.

Plan ahead, advises the Better Business Bureau, which always hears from consumers who are surprised by unexpected fees or terms.

"Every store has a different wrinkle, so pay attention to the stated return policies and what's printed on the receipt," said Gary Almond, president of the Northeast California BBB chapter in West Sacramento. For instance, he said, some stores have 14-day return policies; some are 30 days. Some charge a restocking fee, especially for electronics. Some give only store credit. Some sales are final, which should be stated clearly on your receipt or posted prominently at the cash register.

Here are the BBB's return tips:

• Monitor the "return clock." Some retailers only allow returns within a certain time frame, which usually begins when the item was purchased, not when it was given.

• Understand return policies for "sale" or "clearance" merchandise, which may be more restrictive than those for merchandise sold at full price.

• Don't remove electronics from their boxes because the original packaging may be required for a return.

• Check online terms. The original shipping may have been free, but you may have to pay for returns. Some online stores allow merchandise returns to a regular store instead of an online merchant.

- Claudia Buck

December 23, 2010
On Your Guard: You can help prevent holiday house fires

Fire agency and insurance company officials urge safety precautions to prevent fires during the holidays and winter months.

State Farm Insurance reports that one-third of home fires and home fire deaths occur during December, January and February. California ranked fourth nationally in the number of Christmas Day fire and smoke-related claims for 2005-09.

To avoid fires:

• Pay attention to the stove. Cooking is one of the top causes of home holiday fires, usually from unattended cooking.

• Keep flammable materials at least 3 feet from space heaters, wood-burning stoves and other heating devices. Heating equipment ranks second as a cause of household fires.

• Make sure candles are in stable holders and placed where they can't be easily toppled. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials suggest using battery-operated candles instead of traditional candles, noting that they are safer, last longer and don't spill melted wax on the furniture.

• Inspect holiday lights for frayed wires, bare spots or broken sockets, and remember to turn them off before leaving home or going to bed.

• Don't overload electrical outlets for holiday lights.

• When keeping a live Christmas tree indoors, make sure the needles are fresh and green, and that the tree has plenty of water.

• Never burn trash or paper in a fireplace. Burning paper can float up the chimney onto the roof, or a neighbor's roof, causing a fire. Remove ashes from the fireplace in a metal container and allow them to cool outdoors for at least 24 hours before disposing of them.

For more information on fire safety, see the Cal Fire website at www.fire.ca.gov.

- Cathy Locke

December 16, 2010
On Your Guard: Restaurants warned of a phony health inspector scheduling visits

Restaurant operators and others in the food facility industry are advised to check the identification of health inspectors, following reports of an impostor calling eateries to notify them of pending inspections.

Sacramento County's Environmental Management Department reported a person using various names was calling up local food businesses and purporting to be a health inspector. The impostor announced an inspection was scheduled, usually for the next day, the county reported.

The impostor gave the business a phone number to call to verify the inspection, and in some cases a "confirmation number." But the inspector never arrived, and no county inspections had been scheduled.

County officials say other California counties and states have been targeted by similar scams.

"It's unclear how the scam works or if the impostor is attempting to get personal information from the operator for other fraudulent schemes," John Rogers, Sacramento County's environmental health chief, said in a written statement. "We urge owners and operators to contact our office if they have any doubt about the identity of a person claiming to be a health inspector."

Officials said food facility health inspections generally are announced and conducted by certified and trained registered environmental health specialists. Inspectors do not collect money at food establishments and do not sell or endorse specific products. State law also requires inspectors to carry official photo identification.

To report fraudulent activity, call the Environmental Management Department at (916) 875-8440.

- Cathy Locke

December 2, 2010
On Your Guard: Experts say: Be a smart, and safe, holiday shopper

It's that time of year again, when customers flood the area's shopping centers for holiday gift buying. Unfortunately, so do plenty of grinches. Experts offer tips to keep you safe and free of crime during this holiday season.

• Stay alert to your surroundings. Do not overburden yourself with packages, making it easy for someone to snatch one.

• Keep your purchases out of sight in the trunk of your car - not in the passenger cabin.

• Ladies, carry your handbag close to you, rather than dangling off your arms or in your hands. Gentlemen, put your wallet in your front pocket or in a coat pocket, where it is harder for a pickpocket to reach.

• Stick to credit and debit cards or checks. If you must carry cash, stick to small amounts, and again, not in the back pocket.

• In case you do lose your wallet or purse, make sure you have your credit card information stored somewhere safe at home. Report stolen plastic immediately.

• If you bring along children, teach them to go to a store clerk or security guard if you get separated.

• For online purchases, shop with companies you know. If you want to check a company's complaint history, visit www.bbb.org.

• Pay only with credit cards. Don't comply with requests that you wire money or send a check.

• Use only websites that indicate some level of security, like a padlock symbol, and use a secure browser.

Save all information about your transactions, such as e-mails and online receipts.

- Kim Minugh

October 29, 2010
Wise up, make sure your smart phone is protected

By Claudia Buck
cbuck@sacbee.com

With so many of us accessing the Internet or storing sensitive data on our iPhones, Droids or BlackBerrys, our mobile phones are increasingly vulnerable to cyberthieves.

The state Office of Privacy Protection is warning consumers to protect their smart phones against the same types of dangers - hackers, viruses - that can lurk within a big, bulky computer or laptop.

"We treat them like it's only a phone, but it's really a little computer that has the same kind of vulnerability as your PC," said privacy office chief Joanne McNabb.

McNabb said consumers download apps that may not contain enough security coding to thwart hackers.

Or smart phone users may be unaware they need the same type of anti-virus and anti-malware protections used on their home or work computers.

In one case earlier this year, a mobile game, "3D Anti-terrorist Action," inadvertently allowed hackers to rack up expensive, international phone bills on users' phones.

McNabb's tips:

- Install the same type of software and security programs you'd want on your computer. There are mobile versions of security software from the same companies that offer products for your desktop. Or contact your phone service provider for guidance.

- Check out apps before downloading them. Look on review sites, such as www.whatapp.org which rates some apps for privacy and security.

- Be aware. Although it's a challenge on a small screen, read the app's privacy policy to be sure your data aren't being shared. Try to avoid or limit such sharing.

September 26, 2010
Unemployed should be wary of some job offers

Authorities are warning people not to fall prey to job schemes that target the unemployed.

A lot of people are desperate for work and may be grasping for any job, which creates a great opportunity for scammers, " according to the area Better Business Bureau.

BBB cautions job seeker to beware of:

• The "employer" asking for Social Security or bank account numbers.

• The "employer" asking to check your credit report through a recommended website that will trick you into divulging sensitive financial information.

• Any job requiring you to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram.

--Chelsea Phua

September 16, 2010
Be suspicious of invoices in e-mail that look official

It's a form of "brandjacking," when a well-known company or consumer product is used by online scammers. Among the latest incidents to pop up: fake Amazon.com invoices for items people didn't order.

In one example we've seen, the official-looking e-mail arrived with details on two supposed electronics orders from Amazon.com, including a $4.49 order for iPad screen protectors. The shipping charge on the tiny order: a whopping $74.98.

Another suspicious tipoff: The supposed Amazon.com e-mail definitely was not from Amazon.com's corporate office.

Although these types of e-mails don't ask for personal financial information, they're considered a type of "phishing," where cyber-criminals send out phony e-mails in hopes of getting you to click on links or provide personal information, such as bank account and Social Security numbers, said Sarah Dalton, spokeswoman for the California Office of Privacy Protection.

"These are 'bad guys' who are attempting to steal from you," Dalton said. "If you have already given out any personal financial information such as your credit card number or password, change the information right away."

Her additional advice:

• Never respond to out-of-the-blue requests for personal financial information. Only give out such information if you initiate the contact.

• Never click on links in those types of "request" e-mails.

• If you think the request is legitimate, contact the company or organization by means other than what is provided. If it's an e-mail supposedly from your financial institution, for instance, use the 800 number from your bank statement or the back of your credit card.

Nat Wood, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, recommends that individuals report phony e-mails to the commission at "spam@uce.gov," so the information is available to law enforcement.

Amazon also allows consumers to report suspicious emails at www.amazon.com (Click on "Help").

– Claudia Buck

September 13, 2010
Roseville police warn of credit card scam

Our colleagues at the Sacto 9-1-1 blog have an item of interest for those who live in the Roseville-Placer County area: The Roseville Police Department is advising consumers to carefully monitor their banking and credit card transactions, citing an unusual number of local cases in which thieves have used credit card numbers to make purchases.

Read the full post here.

August 5, 2010
Some for-profit colleges encourage fraud

Recent undercover testing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, found that some for-profit colleges encourage fraudulent practices. And all the tested colleges made "deceptive or otherwise questionable" statements to applicants, such as misrepresenting the benefits of their degree or certificate programs, according to the agency's report.
gao graphic.JPGNearly 1.8 million students attend for-profit institutions of higher learning, according to the report, and they received more than $24 billion in Pell grants or federal loans. The agency's investigators posed as prospective students to 15 such colleges, and in four cases were encouraged by officials to "to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid." In some cases, college admissions staff also pressured applicants to enroll before they received advice about costs and financial aid.

In one case, an undercover tester was falsely told that unlike consumer loans, if students loans are not repaid, "no one would 'come after' the applicant."

-Charles Piller

August 4, 2010
Covert tests: fraudulent passports easy to obtain

Recent covert testing by the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, showed that the State Department's procedures for issuing passports are open to fraud. The agency tried to obtain seven passports, in each case using applications riddled with stolen identities and other fraudulent information. In five cases, the State Department sent the new passports out -- although in two of those five cases, the department belatedly recognized the error and retrieved the passports from the mail before they reached the recipient.passport photo.jpg

Among the glaring errors that the passport authorities failed to catch, according to the report:

Passport photos of the same investigator on multiple applications; a 62 year-old applicant using a Social Security number issued in 2009; passport and driver's license photos showing about a 10-year age difference; and the use of a California mailing address, a West Virginia permanent address and driver's license address, and a Washington, D.C., phone number in the same application." (AP photo by Damien Dovarganes.)

-Charles Piller

August 3, 2010
If food is tainted, notify your doctor, health officials say

The latest E. coli scare last month prompted Bee readers to express disbelief that state public health officials had not received any reports that anyone had gotten sick from potentially tainted bags of pre-packaged salad mix.

One Sacramento woman said she and her son were hospitalized after eating the salad, which was the subject of a recall. Several other callers also said that, without a doubt, they had eaten from a bag of bad product.

But none of those who contacted The Bee said they had taken the time to call local health officials.

If consumers suspect that tainted food has made them ill, they should contact their doctor, said state Public Health Department spokesman Ralph Montaño. A doctor can help determine whether tainted food was potentially the cause and if necessary contact the county public health department.

"The county is the first line of defense in these cases," Montaño said.

Robert Schlag, chief of the state agency's Food, Drug and Radiation Safety Division, said local departments need the reports "so that officials are alerted to a potential problem that may exist in the food supply or with practices at a retail food facility."

--Bobby Caina Calvan

July 23, 2010
Low-cost genetic testing kits offer dubious results

Looking for answers about your risk for ailments commonly linked to heredity? Don't bother with direct-to-consumer test kits, advises a report from United States Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress. (Illustration by John Alvin, The Fresno Bee.)20070829_Biomed_research.jpg

The agency recently tested kits from four companies, priced at $299 to $999 per test. The agency received "test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use." For one set of identical samples, different test kits showed "below-average, average, and above-average risk for prostate cancer and hypertension."

The agency also cited "egregious" deception in how the kits were marketed, such as touting the ability to "repair damaged DNA" or cure disease -- capabilities that no such testing kids can provide. The agency did not name the products tested.

-Charles Piller


July 13, 2010
Computer software scams target whatever it hot in the news

It's an Internet scam that really sucks. At least that's how computer security officials describe a new online threat tied to the latest "Twilight" vampire movie.

It's what's known as "headline malware" - malicious computer software that pounces on current hot topics circulating on Internet search engines, whether it's World Cup matches, Michael Jackson's death or scandalous celebrity news.

"There's no end to the number of scams," said Stephanie Edwards,of PC Tools, a computer security software company. She called the recent Twilight scam "vampire bytes."

"When you go online to search for the latest gossip of your vampire heartthrob, underneath that search is a very nasty fake anti-virus threat that tells you to download a fake fix - and pay for it, no less," said Edwards.

Headline malware is typically a ruse to infect your computer, steal passwords or dupe you into buying phony anti-virus software. Sometimes it infects Facebook accounts, using malicious software known as "koobface" that sends out phony messages to your Facebook friends.

David Marcus, director of security and research for McAfee, said the massively popular appeal of the "Twilight" movie makes it "a very attractive lure" that attracts cybercriminals.

He advises being cautious of any unsolicited e-mails, such as invitations to download movie clips or vote for your favorite Twilight actor.

Make sure your computer's security software is updated and scans daily for viruses, he said.

- Claudia Buck

June 15, 2010
Be careful with your oil-spill cleanup donations

Images of oil-covered birds from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have many looking for ways to help. The Better Business Bureau urges donors to be cautious, noting the constraints in the cleanup effort limit what charities can do.

Beware of well-intentioned but inexperienced groups that may lack the resources and management to be effective. Look for established organizations with environmental expertise or experience aiding gulf communities.

Ask whether the organization will restrict your donation for use in its gulf-related efforts or intends to use it to support all its programs. If a charity is raising money for other groups, consider avoiding the middleman and give directly to those performing the work.

Cathy Locke

June 8, 2010
Doublecheck vacation rentals before paying

Whether it's a beach house offering panoramic ocean views, a rustic mountain cabin or a downtown condo, vacation rentals are popular with travelers looking to save money.

But travelers should be forewarned. What you think you are getting may not be so.

The Better Business Bureau accredits businesses that meet its standard of best practices. The agency advises travelers to research rentals carefully because the properties are not always as advertised. Here are tips:

If you go through a third-party website or professional service, check them out at bbb.org.

Some companies guarantee the property meets your level of cleanliness and other expectations. If not, consider travel insurance.

Pictures and descriptions posted online can be deceiving, so use Google map's "Street View" to check out the surrounding area. Ask plenty of questions about the property.

Check the rental contract to ensure that all verbal agreements including details such as deposits, refunds, utility costs and rules on pets are in writing.

Do not send money until you've signed the agreement. Also never pay by money wire. When possible, use a credit card.

-- Chelsea Phua



About The Public Eye

Welcome to The Bee's newest blog: Public Eye. In the coming months, you will see us breaking news here as well as following up on investigations we have published with tidbits, news breaks and behind-the-scenes descriptions of our news-gathering process. Know of a wrong we could right? Send our fraud squad your tips at: fraudsquad@sacbee.com.

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