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Watch Out for These Spring Scams

Con artists are as dependable as tax bills this time of year

Scam alert - flood cars


Avoid buying dud 'flood cars' sold to unsuspecting dealerships with free online vehicle ID number checks.

Tax scams

With tax day in mind, beware of emails supposedly from the IRS or other tax collectors. They may tout nonexistent refunds or warn of audits and incomplete filings. But the real goal is to get your personal information or load your computer or smartphone with harmful programs known as malware. And crooks, of course, use the tax-filing deadline to add validity to one of the nation's top scams — phone calls from IRS impostors who threaten arrest or deportation unless "owed taxes" are immediately paid by wire transfer or prepaid debit card.

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Always remember: When the real taxman reaches out to you, it's by U.S. mail, and notices have phone numbers that you can authenticate in public directories. The IRS will not demand instant payment or pummel you with breathless threats. Unless you initiate a call, the tax agency won't ask for personal details such as your Social Security number.

Free-lunch seminars

Does your final tax bill have you thinking of ways to lower it next year? Skip the invitations to free-lunch investment seminars that so many older investors get by mail or phone at this time of year. Too many entail misleading claims, risky investments and outright fraud.

If you do go, never buy on the spot. Take time to think things out. To check if a seller is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, go to For financial advisers, go to (800-289-9999). Don't be swayed by business cards boasting capital letters after the person's name; there are 140 designations and certifications for these advisers, and some can be had for $50.

Vacation scams

Watch out for offers for a free cruise, resort stay or airline tickets. Emails may appear to come from travel industry titans, but if you click for details, you often get nothing but malware. Or the aim may be to bring you to hard-sell presentations for travel and vacation clubs. Assume a scam in any "free" offer that requires a credit card deposit or sensitive personal information.

See also: Watch Out for Vacation Rental Scams

Another April biggie: rental scams, in which crooks lift photos and property descriptions from real estate websites to create phony online and newspaper ads that aim for your upfront deposit or personal information. Rental property owners are also targeted. Posing as an interested renter, a scammer sends you a check for a higher-than-discussed rent deposit. After you return the difference, the deposited check proves counterfeit — and you've lost the money you sent.

Flood cars

Sales of cars heat up after winter's chill, including "flood cars" — vehicles with water damage from storms. In this con, cars that insurers declare a loss are bought by unscrupulous vendors at auction. After some quick cleaning, the vehicles are sold to unsuspecting dealers or individual buyers.

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The cars may initially be drivable, but they typically soon break down. Reduce your risk with a free vehicle identification number check at VINCheck, or order a more detailed vehicle history at Carfax and AutoCheck. If you're tempted by a particular car, insist on an inspection by a trusted mechanic. Red-flag warnings: strong smells; carpeting that's discolored or looks too new; water stains or silt in door panels, inside glove compartments or under seats; and condensation in headlights and dashboard gauges. Under the hood, wires should bend easily; water submersion can make them stiff.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.