John O’Hara of Brandon is the CEO at Better Business Bureau Serving Mississippi, a nonprofit with a mission of advancing marketplace trust. Born and raised in Bethpage, New York, O’Hara graduated from the University of Georgia in 1988 with a degree in poultry science.
After college, he worked in a poultry processing plant for two years in Athens, Georgia and then spent 19 years working for a computer hardware company in Atlanta, where he worked his way up to become president of the company before it was sold. He moved to Mississippi to work for a pharmaceuticals company in 2010 and after it was sold joined the BBB as CEO in February 2012.
Located in Flowood, BBB Serving Mississippi is the only Better Business Bureau office in the state. It serves 76 counties in Mississippi, with Memphis BBB handling the six counties closest to it.
What are some common scams?
“Fake websites are a big issue. Scam websites increased during the last 12 months. During the pandemic while people were at home and shopping, scammers were building fake websites, using pictures that they steal from other websites. The fake websites started off selling PPE, toilet paper, whatever products we couldn’t get our hands on. We had a fake website reported that showed an address in Hattiesburg, but it wasn’t a valid address.
“If you want to buy something online and it’s not a retailer you’re familiar with, one of the major retailers, do your research. Look up the company at www.bbb.org. Every time we find a fake website, we list it on our website.
“Contact information should be displayed on a website, a physical address and a phone number, so you can get in touch in case there’s a customer service issue. If you don’t see that, that’s a red flag. Look up the IP address that shows where a website is registered and how long it has been registered. Many of the scam websites were just three or four months old.
“The advice we give to people all the time is do not use a debit card when making purchases online. Use a credit card. With a credit card, you can contest the charges. I am contesting the charges from a website I used to send flowers to my mother. She never received the flowers. Because I used a credit card, the charges were reversed and returned to me.
Did you see an increase in other scams because of the pandemic?
“The offshoot of fake websites has been the pet scam, the fake websites where people list pets for sale. A lot of people in the bigger cities in upstate New York and Minnesota lost money during the pandemic due to pet scams. Mississippi and Alabama addresses were used but they were fake addresses. Pet scams used to occur around Christmastime, but during the pandemic when people were home more, they were buying pets.
“The scammers ask buyers to pay extra money for a special kennel that they’re going to be refunded for when a dog is delivered and they are asked to make payment by Visa gift cards, Green Dot Prepaid Visa Cards or MoneyGram. Those cards are just like handing someone cash. Sometimes they’ll have a phone conversation and want you to give them the card number then and they use it immediately. You may physically have the card but the money’s gone.”
What cell phone scams should individuals be aware of?
“On the phone, the scams are everything from ‘your antivirus protection has expired’ to ‘your Microsoft software needs to be updated.’ I get calls every day about my car warranty and ‘I’m going to jail because I have unpaid tickets, but law enforcement will give me one last chance to pay the tickets I owe.’ People do fall for those. Stimulus checks generated cell phone scams with callers wanting to verify personal information. For anything having to do with the U.S. government or state government, you’ll receive U.S. mail and a phone call only if you’ve made a phone call to them.
“Cell phone scams are about getting your personal information. One thing you can do is say to the caller, ‘Let me get a number to call you bank,’ and block the number. They will often call you back on another number because they use a block of numbers to make calls. I must have a couple of thousand blocked numbers in my cell phone.”
How can you detect a government imposter scam?
“Scammers try to get you to act immediately. If you think the message may be real, find the government agencies’ contact information on the internet and contact them directly. Do not reply directly to unknown calls, texts or emails. Do not pay any money for a ‘free’ government grant or program, because it’s not free if a fee is required.”
How can scams be avoided?
“Never send money via a gift card or wire transfer to someone you have never met.
Those cannot be traced and are as good as cash. Chances are, you won’t see your money again.
“Avoid clicking on links or opening attachments in unsolicited emails. Links, if clicked, will download malware onto your computer, smart phone, tablet or whatever electronic device you’re using at the time, allowing cyberthieves to steal your identity. Be cautious even with email that looks familiar; it could be fake. Instead, delete it if looks unfamiliar and block the sender.
“Just because a website or email looks official does not mean that it is. Caller ID is commonly faked. Double check your online purchase is secure before checking out. Look for the “https” in the URL (the extra s is for “secure”) and a small lock icon on the address bar. Better yet, before shopping on the website, make certain you are on the site you intended to visit. Check out the company first at www.bbb.org. Look for a brick and mortar address listing on the website itself and a working phone number. Take an extra step and call the number if it is a business you are not familiar with.
“Use extreme caution when dealing with anyone you’ve met online. Scammers use dating websites, Craigslist, social media and many other sites to reach potential targets. They can quickly feel like a friend or even a romantic partner, but that is part of the con for you to trust them.
“Never share personally identifiable information with someone who has contacted you unsolicited, whether it’s over the phone, by email, on social media, even at your front door. This includes banking and credit card information, your birthdate and Social Security numbers.”
Do many scams arrive by U.S. mail?
“No. Scammers can be more efficient by getting text message, emails and using robo dialing to make cell phone calls. U.S. mail is too slow. They want to make a quick hit.”
What age group falls for scams the most often?
“In 2020, seniors were our most scammed age group. That’s individuals 65 and older. Now, most scams are against individuals ages 19-35. That’s because they use technology and they’re into social media.
“The biggest loss per scam usually involves a senior. The average loss per scam for a senior is $150 compared to $115 for the 19-35 age group. The 19-35 age group doesn’t have as much money as seniors, so they’ll get taken for a quick $100 or $200.”
Is there anything in general to keep in mind about scams?
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Verify. Do your research before you spend. We have something called a scam tracker on our website www.bbb.org/scamtracker and you can use it to report a scam. If you look at our scam tracker, it shows scams and where they’ve been reported. You can narrow it down by putting in a ZIP code. For example, our scam tracker shows on Feb.12 in Ridgeland that someone lost $7,400 in a cryptocurrency scam.”
What information should you be careful about giving out?
“You should never give out your date of birth, Social Security number and personal information about anyone in your family. Your mailing address is fine to give out. You’ll just get junk mail.
“Be careful on Facebook about saying, ‘Today is my 65th birthday,’ for example. You’ve just provided a lot of information for someone. It’s OK to say it’s your birthday on Facebook but keep the year private.
“When people were first getting vaccinated against COVID-19, they would take photos of their vaccination cards. Your birthday is on that card. It’s fine to post that as long as you block out your personal information.
“Eight or nine years ago, I was at Keesler Air Force Base and talked about scams. I passed out a sheet and asked people to provide their name, date of birth, Social Security number and email address, and I would say more than 90 percent of the people completely filled out the form and handed it in. I asked, ‘Why would hand the CEO of the BBB that information?’
“People said, ‘because you asked.’ The people who didn’t fill out the information said, ‘it’s none of your business.’”
What should someone do who has provided personal information to a scammer?
“Put a freeze on your Social Security number and contact the three big credit bureaus to let them know. That’s some of things you can do.”
When should you contact the BBB?
“If you have a problem with a business and you’re not satisfied, contact us. If you receive a phone call, email, text or letter in the mail that seems suspicious, threatening or too good to be true, contact us. You can reach us at 601-398-1700.”