FBI warns of holiday scams as Western Pa. victims cheated out of $1M in 2019 | TribLIVE.com
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FBI warns of holiday scams as Western Pa. victims cheated out of $1M in 2019

Natasha Lindstrom
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AP
People shop at Macy’s department store during Black Friday shopping, Friday Nov. 29, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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Tribune-Review file photo
The FBI office on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side.
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Photo courtesy of the FBI
FBI Pittsburgh Assistant Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough talks with reporters about how to avoid common scams Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at the FBI’s office on the city’s South Side.

Don’t be fooled this holiday season by scammers posing as charities or fly-by-night websites offering surprisingly steep discounts on popular gifts, FBI officials in Pittsburgh warned Tuesday.

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Chad Yarbrough, FBI Pittsburgh assistant special agent in charge, said at the FBI’s office on East Carson Street in the city’s South Side.

Between January and November of this year, about 500 people from Western Pennsylvania reported being targeted in online scams that cheated them out of a combined $1 million, FBI data show. The frequency of scams reported tends to spike in the months leading up to Christmas, Yarbrough said.

“So often around this time of year, we see victims that fall prey to the scammers because of the hustle and bustle and quick transactions that everyone is trying to get completed,” he said.

Criminals continue to be aggressive and creative in plots designed to steal money and personal information from unsuspecting consumers, Yarbrough said. The two most common schemes involve what the FBI calls non-delivery and non-payment scams.

Non-delivery scams are when buyers pay for goods or services online but never receive them. A non-payment scam is when people send goods in exchange for money but never get paid what they were promised.

Across the U.S., more than 65,000 people were victims of such scams last year, the FBI reported. Their collective loss totaled more than $184 million.

Other types of scams to be wary of include someone posing as a charity and asking by phone or email for a person to send gift cards or prepaid Visa cards. Some scams involve complex data-mining schemes that use information available online to pose as an employer or family member in need. Scammers often target the elderly, Yarbrough said.

The perpetrators can be hard to catch.

“Most of the time, these fraudsters are overseas,” Yarbrough said. “Often times, we see websites pop up overnight.”

Local agents collaborate with federal and international agencies to track them down, but doing so can be a difficult and lengthy process.

The public can take steps to help expedite such investigations.

Officials ask anyone who is the target of a scam or suspected scam to report it to FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov.

Agents nationwide use the digital repository of information to identify and build cases, Yarbrough said.

It’s up to consumers to do their homework and be critical about the websites they use to shop and donate, Yarbrough said.

Consumers should avoid clicking links in emails and instead go directly to an organization or retailer’s website. If a company sounds unfamiliar or something feels off, they should run a check with the Better Business Bureau and read reviews and comments before sending any financial information such as credit card numbers, Yarbrough said.

People should avoid making purchases via money or wire transfers, prepaid cards or bank-to-bank account transfers. The FBI warned that money sent in these ways is almost impossible to recover, and victims are often left with no recourse.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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