A college graduation ceremony. Courtesy Pixabay

Americans receive millions of emails, texts and phone calls dangling all sorts of temptations. The latest version is contained in a recent email that carried an enticing offer out of Henderson, Nevada, to forgive student loan debt.

Given the proliferation of these annoying messages, normally an offer gets no more than a glance. But this one, from a company calling itself Marketing Services, is different. What catches one’s eye is this surprise: “It l‎ooks‎ like your stu‎d‎en‎t loa‎n m‎ay ‎b‎‎e ‎el‎ig‎i‎ble‎‎ for the ‎r‎e‎‎c‎‎ent‎ s‎ti‎mu‎lus‎ ‎forg‎‎ive‎nes‎s‎ and ‎relief‎ ‎l‎e‎g‎i‎sl‎ation ‎(‎CARES ‎Act).”

The email, sent to this reporter, widens its appeal with another element: “T‎his ‎ap‎plies t‎o a‎‎‎‎ll ‎l‎‎o‎an ‎‎sta‎t‎‎uses ‎includ‎i‎n‎g those‎ loans i‎n ‎defa‎ul‎t and g‎‎arnis‎hment.” It adds, “‎P‎le‎a‎s‎‎‎e ‎b‎e‎‎ awar‎‎e ‎‎t‎‎h‎‎at‎ ‎t‎hes‎e b‎e‎n‎efi‎t‎s ‎c‎o‎‎m‎e ‎o‎‎n a‎ ‎‎f‎‎‎irs‎t c‎o‎m‎e ‎‎‎‎f‎‎i‎rs‎t ‎se‎‎r‎‎‎‎‎ved‎ ‎‎‎bas‎is though.”

The county’s Computer and Technology Crime High Tech Response Team director took a look at the offer. San Diego Deputy District Attorney Brendan McHugh said he hadn’t seen this particular offer before but the template is familiar.

“This is new,” he said. “Since student loan debt is a topic in the news now, it doesn’t surprise me that they have latched on to that as a topic to entice people to click on their link.” McHugh points out that “even during the height of COVID, we had the COVID-specific type scams.”.

Expediency was certainly on the mind of the manager at the toll-free number provided in the email. He said the application needed to be completed now with my  information. He did exactly as McHugh predicted, using some “sense of urgency, in order to get people to provide personal identifying information, or credentials to accounts.” 

First, the “manager” wanted a date of birth, full name and addresses to check eligibility to get started. A request to delay the decision on providing personal information led manager “Oscar Garica” to go off on a rant about the email recipient not being man enough to make the decision right then and there. 

I had no plans to provide him my personal information, so I can’t report what else Garcia would ask for. But It appears to be a confidence game.

A check of business licensing in Henderson shows none for this business in that city. In addition, a Google search reveals it’s located in a complex of small business suites and its address is also the location of a different company in health services industry.  The phone number for the business is not working. 

But it’s not unusual to hit a dead end trying to find out who is behind a questionable offering says McHugh.

“It’s very unlikely it’s legitimate,” he said. “The telephone number probably goes to a voice-over-IP type service, like a Google phone or something like that.”

While the subject matter, student loan forgiveness, is a new angle, fraudsters phishing for victims is not. In fact this type of consumer fraud continues to grow. In 2020 there were 2.1 million consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission.

The agency says “impostor scam” crooks pretending to be someone else as in this case led to nearly $1.2 billion in losses. That’s far more than the second-ranked ripoff, online shopping fraud, which contributed to $246 million in losses.

McHugh advises “anytime someone gets an unsolicited email, text message, or phone call, be suspicious”.

“And if there’s any sense of urgency to it,” he said, “or if they’re asking for any personal information, then its not only suspicious, but assume it’s fraud.”

 He also says you should check your credit reports once a year — it’s free and alerts you to any unauthorized activity in your accounts. 

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.

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