Halfdark—Getty Images/fStop
By Martha C. White
July 13, 2016

Impostor scams are the fastest-growing threat to consumers today, according to a new survey from the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.

On Wednesday, the CFA announced the most common and most serious consumer complaints received by agencies around the country. The top consumer complaint category of 2015 was automotive, followed by home improvement. Credit and debt related complaints fell from #3 to #4, while complaints about utilities rose to #3.

The fastest growing complaint was the category of impostor scams, including tax-related scams where criminals pose as IRS agents to get money or personal information out of victims.

“If someone calls or emails you unexpectedly claiming to be from the IRS, your utility company, a tech support company, or even your employer, don’t assume that it’s true,” CFA director of consumer protection and privacy Susan Grant said in a statement. She warned consumers to be especially wary if the person who contacts you demands money or personal information.

Another variation of the impostor scam occurs when criminals hack into a corporation’s email system and send messages purporting to be from the CEO or other executives, generally ordering that money be sent to some foreign partner or vendor (which, of course, doesn’t really exist).

“Scammers are always changing their pitches looking for things that work,” Grant said on a press call Wednesday. The IRS scams are effective because they play on people’s fear of the tax man. “It scares the heck out of people… I think people panic,” she said, and let their guard down. “They’re just scared into it.”

Grant said the organization also observed that iTunes gift cards are a payment method increasingly preferred by criminals. “We have seen for a while now the use of different prepaid cards as a method of payment for scammers,” she said. They’re popular with crooks because they can get the money quickly and in a form that can’t be traced or clawed back once the victim realizes they’ve been scammed.

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