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Scams are everywhere says the FTC!

Mona Shah, who lives in the Bay Area, was selling her sunglasses on Facebook Marketplace. She had multiple offers and decided to go with a person who seemed to have a convincing Facebook profile. The buyer lived in Texas in what appeared to be a beautiful home, was a grandmother, and shared adorable family interactions with her children and grandchildren on FB.  

Once they agreed on a price, the buyer asked Mona to process the transaction on PayPal instead of Facebook Marketplace to avoid extra fees. Mona agreed. That’s when things got weird, Mona told India Currents.

The buyer offered to pay Mona an extra $400 above the asking price to avoid complications with her PayPal account about minimum transaction amounts. All the time she feigned a senior citizen’s lack of tech savviness. Then she asked Mona to return the extra $400 once the transaction was done.

Mona was distracted and acquiesced. She got a PayPal email confirming a payment to her account that would be available in 5-7 hours. Then the buyer began harassing Mona to send the $400 dollars back.  

Mona was rattled. She responded by saying she’d send the $400 once she could access the sale amount in her account. She grew suspicious because PayPal deposits are usually ready to access immediately upon receipt.   

Mona and her husband examined the “PayPal” email, and realized it was a clever fake – designed to extort money from sellers. She called off the transaction. The buyer disappeared when Mona tried to question her. 

Anyone can get scammed

In San Francisco, Arjun, a young engineer got scammed on Facebook Marketplace trying to sell furniture. Fortunately, his bank, Wells Fargo, tagged his Zelle transaction as suspicious before execution and averted the scam.

Both Arjun and Mona are tech-savvy and well-educated, but they almost got conned. That’s because scammers are smart, said the Federal Trade Commision (FTC) at a March 30 EMS briefing in San Francisco.

“Scammers are everywhere. They’re not just on the phone anymore. They’re in the mail, they’re in advertising, they’re online,” said Rosario Mendez, an attorney with the FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“The reality is that scams happen every day, and it doesn’t look like a scam because we don’t feel like victims,” added Desiree Nguyen Orth of the East Bay Community Law Center.  “It’s being taken advantage of.  It’s being tricked into doing something that you did not want to do. It’s important to know the signs and recognize the issues that come with being defrauded, because a family member will likely be very embarrassed about what happened to them.”

Fraud happens all the time

Consumers lost over $8 billion last year, said the FTC – more than they’ve ever seen before.

In the San Francisco Metro Area, the top fraud categories included Imposter Scams, Online Shopping and Negative Reviews, Investment-related Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries, and Internet Services. 

“One of the biggest things that we’ve seen in 2023 ….people invest their entire retirement, along with other people’s retirement into investment scams upwards of $100,000, only to lose that. We’ve seen cryptocurrency scams,” said Nguyen Orth.

Different communities experience frauds and scams in different ways, said Denise Oki of the FTC Western Regional Office. “They may speak your language, they may know something personal about you again to gain your trust in order for you to send the money. One red flag to watch for is the type of money that they’re asking you to send whether it be cryptocurrency or wire transfer or having you buy a gift card.”

Gift cards are a common method for money transfers because they cannot be traced.

“There has been a whole cottage industry of so-called immigration consultants who purport to be able to provide immigration legal services, but in reality, are literally just taking money from our community members for $5000- $6,000 at a time, providing no helpful legal advice, in many instances, actually causing those immigrant families to be put into deportation proceedings, ”cautioned David Chiu, the city attorney of San Francisco giving the keynote address at the FTC briefing.

Elderly immigrants and people of color fall for housing scams

Many AAPI homeowners fall for equity stripping scams, warned Maeve Elise Brown of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA). They result in forcing the sale of a family home, or in taking value equity out of the home by a loan for an amount much higher than the monthly repayment amounts the homeowner expected to pay.

Vulnerable older adults are more likely to be targeted because they have more equity that can be stolen. 

Brown described home improvement scams targeting older adults who are susceptible because they feel their home “is aging along with our bodies.” She said people had made a cottage industry out of reaching out to homeowners, and offering great services, and then pressuring them into taking bigger loans. “They’re getting flatly lied to about what the repayment amount is going to be monthly. And I think that’s actually part of why it works because you can’t believe somebody would look you in the face. And flatly lie.”

HERA provides free legal services across the state of California, to both low and moderate-income people for free. They singled out DocuSign as a tool being used to falsify signatures and advised homeowners to be careful, get documents in writing, and reach out to HERA for help.

“Be mindful of the fact that just because something looks like it might have your signature, somebody else may have signed on your behalf without your permission.”

An Indian student fell for a predatory imposter scam

Renee Coe who works in consumer protection for Bay Area Legal Aid, shared the story of a young Indian student who fell victim to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) imposter scam.

The girl had been in the United States for about a year. She got back-to-back calls supposedly from ICE and the San Francisco Police Department, warning that her name had been connected to a crime. They threatened to deport her if she didn’t pay a bond of $18,000 immediately. The caller IDs matched the actual phone numbers for ICE and the San Francisco Police Department. The scare convinced the student girl to transfer $18,000 using cell payment transfers and Target gift cards – her entire savings to get through her semester.

What scammers warned Coe is to emphasize the urgency of the situation. They don’t offer leeway to review the demand or ask important questions about whether this is real. By the time they do, it’s too late. That’s how scammers get away with fraud.

The Indian student cable recovered about $700 after contacting local law enforcement, the FBI, and even Target. The rest was irrevocably lost. 

Scam at a Safeway self-checkout

On a post on NextDoor, in a story verified by India Currents, a Palo Alto resident who prefers to be anonymous, wrote:

Watch Out! A scammer is using self-check-out at Safeway San Antonio, Mountain View to scan Amazon gift cards and then walk away, so when you approach a scanning station to enter your purchase, you are unaware that the thief has left the charges on the machine for the unsuspecting next customer. You must check your receipt or you are toast! 

I had one item to scan ($7.99)  and I was in a rush. My card was charged $ 82.99 for  three $25 Amazon gift cards also charged to me, and so the thief left with validated cards! Fortunately, I looked at the receipt and saw it immediately and asked a service person to help. This is a new scheme and it took service a while to figure out how to remedy the problem. Another lousy thief $75.00 richer. So when you do self-checkout, it’s up to you to double check before leaving!

Avoiding and averting scams

San Francisco city attorney David Chiu wants victims to tell him about it. 

“The creativity on the part of scam artists who are looking to steal money from our communities, particularly our low-income immigrant communities can’t be underestimated and is constantly evolving,” admitted Chiu.

He added that most victims are low-income, non-English speakers. “In many instances, they cannot afford the scam that is victimizing them. One email scam could be completely catastrophic at destroying the lives of families in our communities.” 

Immigrants who’ve been defrauded are also less likely to ask for help because it embarrasses them, said Chiu. However, agencies like the FTC or the San Francisco city attorney’s office cannot target scammers effectively unless they have evidence of wrongdoing, in partnership with the community, he added.

Chiu’s office recently opened a hotline for residents to report potential scams because of the flood of cases that they have documented. The portal is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog. 

Chiu and the FTC want everyone to know that “ it’s not your fault. You are a victim of fraud, you are a victim of a scam. You need to have your rights vindicated.”

Sign up for Consumer Alerts from the FTC or Tell them, if you spot or are a victim of a scam.  

Have you been a victim of a scam? Tell India Currents about it.

Image by Riki32 from Pixabay

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is the Development Manager at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She brings her passion for community journalism and experience in fundraising, having...