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A little homework can help people avoid scams

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Francine A. Giani

Francine A. Giani

You've won $1 million! A free trip to the Bahamas is yours!

Surely, you've seen these claims in your mailbox. And, if you're like Utah Department of Commerce Executive Director Francine A. Giani, you're still waiting for your money.

But many Utahns end up shelling out their own money on what turn out to be scams. One woman Giani helped was bilked of $130,000 after apparently being placed on what some indelicately call "the suckers' list," Giani said.

So how to protect yourself from this and other fraud?

"A lot of this could be stopped if people would do their homework and not believe everything their neighbor tells them," Giani said, who offered tips at a Rotary International Club 24 luncheon Tuesday in downtown Salt Lake.

There's no shortage of fraud in Utah, she said.

Unsolicited e-mail, mortgage fraud, identity theft and charity scams are among top complaints coming to various divisions in Giani's department.

Investment fraud in Utah continues to surprise chief deputy attorney general Kirk Torgensen.

"People are more inclined to go get Consumer Reports when they want to get a new lawn mower, but they'll take thousands of dollars and put it in someone's hands" when a quick check of public records shows that person has been convicted of crimes. "People make it way too easy on the bad guys."

Big this time of year: a door-to-door handyman soliciting home repairs, who runs off with your "down payment," Giani said. Same for promissory note fraud, where people are offered an investment, give money and receive a promissory note supposedly backed up by real estate that doesn't exist or has several liens against it.

Maybe you've seen an e-mail supposedly from the IRS on how to get your economic-stimulus check faster — just click on a hyperlink that looks legitimate and fill out a direct-deposit form.

"It's a tax scam," IRS spokesman Bill Brunson said Tuesday. The IRS never sends unsolicited e-mail. If you want to know when you'll get your check, visit irs.gov.

The scam is a form of phishing, seen often in e-mails using real banks' names and logos and notifying you of unusual account activity. A person is then asked to click what appears to be a legitimate link that instead goes to a site that can end up ripping you off.

Greg Feighery, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah, urges consumers to type in the bank's Web site instead of clicking an e-mail link. Banks, which have absorbed losses their customers incurred in phishing schemes, also have worked to offer their own do's and don'ts, said Feighery, who with two others co-authored a chapter on the matter in the book, "New Media and Public Relations."

If you think you've been duped, call the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 1-800-721-SAFE. The IRS also wants you to forward unsolicited information its way so it can go after the bad guys. And you can report identity theft on the Utah Attorney General's system, idtheft.utah.gov, to help authorities investigate crimes.

Also know this: You're not the only one that's been scammed — Giani a couple years ago discovered a hacker had charged $35,000 to her credit card.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com