The Ripoff Alert is a new series appearing once each week on Fridays. It alerts you to the latest scams and ripoffs trying to get between you and your money, and gives you information you need to stay safe.
Websites Posing as Government
Your driver’s license expires in a few weeks and you know you need to renew it. So you get online and type “DMV” and your state into the search engine.
You click on the first link without thinking – because who impersonates the government, right? Isn’t the government protecting its citizens by looking out for stuff like this?
Scamsters are now creating legitimate-looking websites and using SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to make their sites appear before the actual government website you’re looking for. Both federal and state government agencies are being impersonated in this scam.
In some cases they ask for money in return for access to forms you’re supposedly required to fill out. In other cases they’re just after your personal info, which they will later use for identity theft.
In addition to the DMV example, another red-hot scam involves the US Diversity Visa (DV) program. This program was enacted by Congress in the early ’90s to encourage people from countries with low rates of immigration to the US to come and live here. It’s a particularly lucrative target for scamsters because the demand for them is so high, but the US government only grants 55,000 diversity visas each year. These websites offer help filling out the forms or try to extract payment from applicants. Some even claim to increase your chances of winning the lottery but the truth is, winners are selected randomly. There isn’t anybody you can pay to increase your chances.
These and other fake websites often have a “support” phone number you can call, which might route you to a call center overseas. You might think you’re dealing with a legitimate organization, but it could be anybody on the other end of the line.
The best way to protect yourself when looking for government websites is to make sure the URL ends in “.gov”. If you’re asked to pay a fee for access to government forms, you know you’re about to be ripped off. Never give your personal information unless you know exactly why it’s needed and whether the website is secure. Secure websites will start with “https” and have a lock icon.
The web provides easy access to a wealth of information for just about any topic. But this also makes it easy for criminals here and overseas to set up shop and take advantage of unsuspecting users. Be careful out there!