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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Scammers’ most damaging weapon in 2019 was using the internet to steal money and personal information from customers, according to the complaints submitted to the state Attorney General’s Office. 

The office collects complaints of fraud from residents and business owners throughout the state to keep track of scam trends and get law enforcement involved when necessary.

Here are 10 most common scams customers wrote formal complaints about in 2019. 

1. Internet scams

These include issues with service providers, data privacy and security, data breaches and fraud through internet manipulation.

This would include phishing emails, which appear to be from a legitimate source and coax the receiver to provide sensitive information.

Last year, DiBella’s Subs, which operates 47 stores across the U.S., announced that its computer systems were affected by a sophisticated data breach, potentially exposing information from up to 305,000 payment cards. 

What you can do: Customers should be wary of pop-up computer messages asking them to call immediately about a computer virus, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

If you know you’ve given scammers access to your computer, run antivirus software and consider reformatting your computer. Apply security updates as soon as possible and change your passwords often.

The office received 4,436 complaints in this category in 2019.

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2. Consumer scams 

Scams could involve security systems, technology repairs, immigration services and consignment shops.

What you should know: Potential fraud between two businesses often comes in the form of business services.

Food truck and restaurant owners from across the country complained to the Attorney General’s Office about M Design Vehicles, a Rochester-based food truck builder that often didn’t follow through on its contracts to construct food trucks, leaving customers out tens of thousands of dollars.

The complaints, collected by Democrat and Chronicle reporters through a Freedom of Information Law request, bolstered an investigation into M Design’s practices. 

The office received 2,659 complaints of this type in 2019. 

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3. Automobiles 

This includes buying, leasing and repairing vehicles, as well as service contracts and rental agreements. 

Many residents are not familiar with the fine print in leasing or sale agreements, which gives untoward dealers an opportunity to bilk customers into paying out extra cash. 

What you can do: Do not sign agreements that don’t have the numbers filled in, and check over your agreement to make sure there are no extra accessories or warranties present that you did not agree to or ask for. Ask for a copy of every document you sign. 

There were 2,510 complaints of this type in 2019. 

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4. Landlord and tenant disputes 

These include security deposit releases and tenant harassment. 

Tenants in New York were granted a number of protections as part of new rent legislation last year.

What you should know: Landlords can only charge a maximum of $20 for a credit and background check before a lease is signed, and may only charge up to one month of rent for a security deposit or “advance payment.”

There are also additional protections for late fees and eviction. 

There were 1,910 complaints about scams involving landlords and rent in 2019. 

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5. Utility companies and services 

This includes issues with wireless and residential phones, energy suppliers, and cable and satellite providers. 

A man in Geneseo, Livingston County, was sent a mobile phone bill of over $4,000 after his information was stolen and used to buy several iPhones and phone lines on his AT&T mobile phone account.

Others through New York state have found that they’re paying double on their utility bills, sometimes attributable to energy service companies, or ESCOs, that may persuade customers to sign up for unnecessary services at exorbitant costs.

What you can do: Before accepting service through an ESCO, consumers should ask how their rates compare to the rates provided directly from utility companies, the Attorney General’s Office advised.

The office received 1,811 complaints about utility scams in 2019. 

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6. Credit and debt services 

These scams could include debt collection, credit card billing, debt settlement and debt relief, payday loans, credit repair, credit reporting agencies and identity theft. 

Scammers posing as utility or financial agencies may call residents in attempts to steal credit card information.

What you can do: A good rule of thumb is to never give out sensitive financial information over the phone, no matter how convincing a caller may sound.

Debt collection scams often promise to alleviate or diminish debt quickly and easily, or may charge an up-front fee, which is illegal. 

Customers can also sign up for a credit freeze through one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. That allows you to restrict access to your credit report. 

The office received 1,206 complaints of this type in 2019. 

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7. Retail sales 

This could include any sale of goods, food, or clothing, plus rent-to-own services and online orders. Ticket websites may offer expensive tickets for highly anticipated events that turn out to be stolen tickets, seats that are taken or seats that don’t exist at all. 

What you can do: Check the accreditation of ticket websites and only buy if clear information is provided about the the venue, seating, ticket delivery and refunds.

Before entering into a rental purchase agreement, be sure to read and understand all terms and ask questions, including: How much are the monthly payments? What other monthly fees apply? What is the total dollar cost to own the item? Who pays for repairs? Is there a penalty for paying off the item early? 

There were 1,091 complaints came in about scams of this type in 2019.

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8. Home repair and construction 

These include home improvement services that were not delivered or were done poorly.

What you can do: Consumer protection bureaus regularly urge customers to check customer reviews and Better Business Bureau pages before paying a contractor to seal their driveways, renovate their bathrooms or clear ice from their roofs. 

The office received 901 complaints about these scams in 2019. 

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9. Mail order and online catalogs 

These include purchases made via mail order or online catalog or marketplace. 

Negative option marketing is a popular form of sales online, where online merchants treat a consumer’s failure to reject an offer or cancel an agreement as their approval to be charged for goods or services on a recurring basis, according to the Attorney General’s office.

What you can do: Read all terms and conditions before you make a purchase, know when your “free” or “trial” period ends and monitor your credit card and bank statements for any unauthorized or recurring charges.  

The office received 593 complaints about these scams in 2019. 

10. Mortgage services 

These include mortgage modifications, mortgage and loan broker fraud and foreclosures. 

What you should know: Individuals and companies may claim they will make homeowner’s monthly mortgage payments in exchange for temporarily holding the deed to the home, allowing the homeowner to remain in the home as a renter until he/she can resume making monthly mortgage payments, according to the Office.

This may be a scam to steal the deed and attempt to evict the homeowner.  

The office received 493 complaints about these scams in 2019. 

What you can do next: Residents and customers can submit complaints of scams or fraud to the Attorney General’s Office at ag.ny.gov/consumer-frauds/Filing-a-Consumer-Complaint.

They will be asked to fill out contact information, and provide both a description of the alleged scam or fraudulent activity as well as documents related to the case. 

Customers can also call the Office’s Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection’s customer helpline at 1-800-771-7755.

STADDEO@Gannett.com

Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network’s New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses.

Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.

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