Watch out for “clone-site” scams

By Mike Weland

FrustrationThe Internet can simplify many tasks for you, but scammers have figured out how to get you when you go online to do such routine tasks as fixing a balky electronics device or submitting a change of address to the U.S. Postal Service when you move. I know, I’ve been twice-bitten doing just those things in the past couple of months, and I’m supposed to have a keen eye for scams. But on these I call cloned-site scams, you don’t realize you’ve been hooked until you get the bill.

And even then, you may walk away blaming the people you thought you were dealing with for exorbitant over charges when the fault isn’t theirs. Most legitimate customer service websites have authentication measures to make sure who you are, but none have developed a method by which a customer can ascertain that the site they’re on is where they’re supposed to be.

My first experience with a clone site scam came when getting two Alexa virtual assistants that had gone wonky fixed. I Googled “fix Alexa” and thought I was on the official site, and I got the help I requested; I called a number, a “tech” informed me the warranty had expired and the fix would cost $79. I grumbled, but put in my card info and he walked me through the steps and resolved the issue, friendly and professional the whole way.

Then I saw the debit entry, which went to a business in India, and I went back through my history and checked the address of the site I’d assumed was Alexa’s … not even close. I realized then I’d been duped, but the Alexas were working and I didn’t feel up to contesting it. The price to pay for my ignorance.

After moving in the middle of last month, I went online, Googled “USPS change of address” and clicked on the first link that popped up. Never having visited the official USPS website, it looked pretty official to me, and I gave my credit card info, filled out the form and clicked “submit.”

Nearly a month later, no mail forwarded to my new address, I looked up the number to the Bonners Ferry Post Office, which came up with (800) 275-8777. I dug deeper and found a number with the local 267 prefix and called, but no answer, even after several attempts. I called the 800 number and eventually learned that no change of address had been submitted, so I went back online today, gave my credit card info again. I once again filled out the info and clicked submit.

Not long after, the bank fraud unit called … had I authorized a $179 payment for an address change? They noted the same payment to the same company in the middle of last month, but that one had been turned down for lack of funds and I hadn’t been notified.

I told her my tale. Payment on this one, she said, couldn’t be stopped as I had requested the service so there was no overt fraud, only a dispute over price. She gave me a number to call. It was answered on first ring by a gent with a heavy Indian accent, and he seemed ready.

“Yes, Michael Mike, you call for refund?” he said immediately. “Why, yes,” I stammered.

When entering the info for the address changed, I entered my first name Michael “Mike” and the questionnaire included my phone number.

I was assured my refund would be in my account within two days. I learned later (again via Google) that the USPS change of address scam was fairly common, but it’s not, precisely speaking, a scam. The scammers do provide the service they say they will, though they don’t inform you who they really are, the price they’re going to charge you or the fact that you now have to personally verify identification before an address change will be accepted by the U.S. Postal Service.

If the payment goes through, they actually do transpose your information onto an official Post Office Change of Address Form, which can be submitted for free, and mail it in. They even send an email confirmation after you click submit, from which I gleaned part of their website URL, usp.com, telling me for certain I’d been had.

Few people change their address often, so it’s understandable they might not be aware of the most current procedures and protocol. Last time I changed mine, I filled out a postage-paid card and dropped it in the mail box. Now, your identity has to be verified, with a photo ID if in person, with a $1.05 verification fee if online. Done right, you get a verification number to use if things should go awry.

I wish I’d known that earlier, because I was asked to enter that verification number the first time I called that East Coast USPS customer service center, and I had no clue what the machine was talking about. We got stuck at an impasse, the machine won and I had to hang up, call again and try a different option. When I finally got through to a real person on the 800 number, each of my oft repeated attempts to call the good folks right here in the Bonners Ferry Post Office gone unanswered, she had no idea what I was talking about.

“I’m sorry, but you don’t have a change of address in our system,” she said sweetly. “You just need to go to your post office or online and submit a form.”

As I can’t walk and had heard about the long lines at the Bonners Ferry Post Office as folks rush to get their Christmas packages mailed in time, combined with the chill of a gloomy day, the idea of riding my cripple cart south across the KRB and to the post office was unpalatable, so I again turned to the internet, but much more carefully this time.

In the results I got today, the official USPS change of address site, https://moversguide.usps.com, comes up second in sponsored Google results, which I tend not to use, and fifth in non-sponsored sites, but I’ve looked it up so many times of late I’m certain my results are now more favorably skewed toward accuracy than when I first searched.

And I was impressed when I got there. At first glance, the official site looked identical to the sham site.

But when you at last get it right and click submit, you get a confirmation page giving the amount you paid and soon after a confirmation email from usps.gov with that @#$! authentication number. According to the email I got, I should be able to tell you if I needed it in a little under two weeks.

If only there was a number these days by which we could reach our good neighbors who work for the United States Postal Service behind the counter at our local post office. If only I’d have checked the URLs of those sham websites. If only scammers didn’t expend so much effort to get out of more productive work. If only …

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