Consumer advice: That secret sister is no secret Santa

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With the festive season upon us, stay away from the Yuletide Facebook secret sister scam. Facebook seems to be a favorite delivery method for this one, probably because it’s easier for scammers to reach out to our large social connection network.

The scam works like this:

You receive a chain letter asking if you’d be interested in a holiday gift exchange. Doesn’t matter where you live, all you need to do is buy one gift valued at $10 or more and send it to one secret sister. You’ll receive 6 to 36 similar gifts in return. Only comment if you are IN and you will be sent a private message.

Chain letters are essentially pyramid schemes. Great if you’re at the top, not so much if you’re near the bottom.

Keep this in mind: Chain letters don’t work because the promise that ALL participants are winners is mathematically impossible. But what is going on here is even worse: Scammers are looking for you to give them your personal information so they can steal your identity. They ask for your name, address and phone number at a minimum for this to appear legitimate for possible gift exchange purposes. A little snooping around on your Facebook page and now they have your birth date and other valuable information. There’s also a risk, maybe to a lesser degree, of using the U.S. Postal Service to mail these “gifts” could be considered gambling, which is a prosecutable offense, because you are being promised a substantial return.

My advice: Stick to the secret Santa and give the secret sister the ol’ boot by hitting the delete button.

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THE PITS OF ZELLE: Zelle is a digital payment service that’s backed by many banks. It allows customers to send or receive money (up to $2,500 per day — without sharing your account number) to anyone with a U.S. bank account with just an email address or mobile phone number. Unlike wiring funds, there is usually no fee involved even though the funds are immediately available.

Unfortunately, some customers are learning the hard way that Zelle does not offer the same protection as PayPal. Scammers know this too. Using Zelle for anonymous transactions seems appealing because unlike PayPal, the service is free.

Here’s how the scam works:

The seller will ask the buyer to pay them through Zelle instead of PayPal — the latter which has long been the standard for anonymous transactions. The scammer exploits Zelle by telling the customer they can avoid paying all those PayPal fees and use this free service offered by the customer’s bank instead. Because the service is offered through the customer’s bank, customers are lulled into believing that if anything goes wrong, their bank will step in and cure it. After all, they are sending money directly to the seller’s bank account, which should be easy enough to track down if they attempt fraud. Right?

Not so fast. Once the transfer is made, the seller, before delivering on the goods, collects the money and immediately closes the account. When the buyer goes to their bank to complain, the victim’s bank just tells their customers there’s nothing they can do since the customer had authorized the Zelle transaction.

A practical application for Zelle is to send money only to family and friends you know. Avoid sending money through Zelle to anyone you don’t personally know, as this could be putting your money at risk. Remember, it is better to pay a fee to secure the transaction than to go the free route that offers you no protection in the event something goes wrong.

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RV SHOPPING ALERT: Thinking about purchasing an RV? Consider visiting the Inland Northwest Spokane RV show coming up Jan. 24-27 at the Spokane County Fairgrounds. There is an $8 admission fee to enter the show but the potential savings might be worth it.

RV manufacturers offer many extra incentives to the dealers to sell more units through the show, so prices offered can be much better than at other times of the year. For example, two years ago we purchased a trailer in November and the dealer was adamant that the price would not be any lower at the show. Well, guess what? We went to the show and the price was $2,000 less than what we paid. Naturally we were upset because we would have waited to purchase to get the extra savings. As it turns out, we were able to work out an agreeable solution with the dealer. But the moral of the story is wait until the RV show and get your best price there with minimal haggling.

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REMEMBER: I’m on your side.

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If you have encountered a consumer issue that you have questions about or think our readers should know about, please send me an email or give me a call. As The CDA Press Consumer Gal, I’m here to help. You can either email me at terridickersonadvocate@gmail.com or call me at 208-274-4458. Please include your name and a phone number or email. I’m available to speak about consumerism to schools, and local and civic groups. I’m a copywriter and consumer advocate living in Coeur d’Alene.

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