Credit and debit card fraud was already a big problem when COVID-19 hit. Although how much payment card fraud increased in 2020 depends on the source, most experts agree that, like most types of fraud, it flourished during the pandemic. COVID-19-related prevention and treatment scams and increased online shopping likely contributed to this rise.

If you become a victim, it’s probably good to hear that the law protects consumers from serious losses. But to reduce financial liability, you need to follow the reporting rules carefully.

Unauthorized credit card charges

If your credit card is lost or stolen and you report the loss to the card issuer before your card is used in a fraudulent transaction, you can’t be held responsible for any unauthorized charges. If you report it after unauthorized charges have been made, you may be responsible for up to $50 in charges.

Some card issuers have decided not to hold their customers liable for any fraudulent charges regardless of when they notify the card company. And if your account number is stolen but not the actual card, your liability is $0. But either you or the card issuer must identify the fraudulent transactions for them to be removed.

Compromised debit cards 

If you report a missing debit card before any unauthorized transactions are made, you aren’t responsible for any unauthorized transactions. If you report a card loss within two business days after you learn of the loss, your maximum liability for unauthorized transactions is $50.

If you report the card loss after two business days but within 60 calendar days of the date your statement showing an unauthorized transaction was mailed, your liability can jump to $500. Finally, if you report the card loss more than 60 calendar days after your statement showing unauthorized transactions was sent, you could be liable for all charges. This includes money taken from accounts linked to your debit account.

What if you notice an unauthorized debit card transaction on your statement, but your card is still in your possession? You have 60 calendar days after the statement showing the unauthorized transaction is sent to report it and avoid liability.

Action steps

When reporting a card loss or fraudulent transaction, contact the issuer via phone. Then follow up with a letter or email. This should include your account number, the date you noticed the card was missing (if applicable), and the date you initially reported the card loss or fraudulent transaction.

Because liability levels depend in some circumstances on your card issuer, it pays to find out your issuer’s policies — before you’re subject to them. Also take steps to protect your payment card and personal information. The Federal Trade Commission provides a good list of fraud protection practices at consumer.ftc.gov (search for “credit card fraud”). Contact us for more information.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

To generate revenue and foster customer loyalty, many businesses, including retailers, airlines and credit card companies, create loyalty and reward programs. Such programs can help companies attract and retain customers, but they may also be subject to fraud and abuse.

ATO risk

Loyalty programs are particularly vulnerable to account takeovers (ATOs). In these schemes, a criminal assumes control of a customer’s loyalty or rewards account and monetizes it. The thief redeems points for goods and services for personal use or sells them on the black market. These days, the information usually ends up on the dark web.

ATOs often are successful because many loyalty programs lack the robust fraud controls and dedicated teams of investigators to prevent and investigate them. Often, companies don’t understand the extent of fraud and abuse taking place in their programs to justify the investment.

3 steps

To help minimize fraud risk and limit financial losses, consider taking the following steps:

  1. Conduct a risk assessment. Review your loyalty program’s terms and conditions, structure, and activity to ascertain the potential for fraud and abuse. Think about engaging a suitably qualified fraud professional with experience evaluating loyalty programs to guide your efforts. 
  2. Gather and analyze historical losses. Establish a central location for employees to report fraud and abuse. Dissect each loss to identify its root causes and develop a list of potential control failings for remediation. And, if you don’t already have one, establish an anonymous hotline for employees and customers to report suspected fraud.
  3. Evaluate technology solutions. Use the results of your risk assessment and historical analysis of losses to pinpoint potential weaknesses for technology to address. For example, technology can help authenticate customers to prevent ATOs. It can also monitor transactions for activity indicative of fraud. 

Watch your customers

Although ATO schemes involving criminals are common, your company can’t overlook the potential for legitimate customers to abuse your loyalty program. For example, customers may redeem points, then deny doing so and ask you to credit their accounts. Sometimes unethical customers sell their points to online brokers and deny having done so when challenged. Customers could also open multiple accounts under their own or assumed identities to receive new account sign-up bonuses.

Finally, don’t overlook the fact that employees may compromise loyalty accounts. Make sure managers are aware of the possibility and keep an eye on workers with access to the accounts.

Maintain strong security

Contact us for help assessing the security of your loyalty program. If you suspect a widespread fraud problem, we can devise controls to limit thefts and losses.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Concert, sporting and other event tickets can go for astronomical prices — when they’re even available. Hoping to find reasonably priced tickets (or to find tickets at all), many consumers turn to the online resale market. But while most resale transactions are legitimate, some involve ticket scammers. Buy from one of these sellers and you may end up with stolen or counterfeit tickets.

Playing defense

Ticket scams generally succeed because they exploit a common desire to bag a bargain or gain access to something that isn’t easily obtainable. But you can avoid getting tricked. Here’s how:

Buy direct. Whenever possible, buy first-release or secondary market tickets from the event’s official ticketing agent. The ticket may cost more, but buying from a reputable agent comes with peace of mind.

Look out for crooks. Ticket scammers often use spam email and fake websites to impersonate legitimate ticketing agents. Don’t click on links contained in unsolicited emails and don’t buy tickets from sites until you’ve researched their authenticity. Plug the ticket agent’s name into search engines and look at the agent’s social media accounts. Pay close attention to how the agent interacts with customers and handles disputes.

Ask questions. When buying from individuals, ask them to disclose how they received the tickets and why they want to sell them. If their story sounds suspicious, look elsewhere.

Verifying and reporting

It’s only when they’re turned away on game or concert day that many ticket scam victims learn they’ve been conned. So if you have any doubts about your tickets’ legitimacy, call or present them at the venue’s box office for confirmation as early as possible.

And if you’ve indeed been sold stolen or counterfeit tickets, notify law enforcement and report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission. You may not get your money back, but you’ll help prevent criminals from fleecing other unsuspecting ticket buyers. You can protect yourself from losing money on ticket scams by buying tickets only from agents that accept credit cards. In the event of fraud, most credit card issuers will refund the cost of your tickets and pursue collection with the seller. Contact us at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Tax planning is a year-round activity, but there are still some year-end strategies you can use to lower your 2018 tax bill. Here are six last-minute tax moves business owners should consider:

  1. Postpone invoices. If your business uses the cash method of accounting, and it would benefit from deferring income to next year, wait until early 2019 to send invoices. Accrual-basis businesses can defer recognition of certain advance payments for products to be delivered or services to be provided next year.
  2. Prepay expenses. A cash-basis business may be able to reduce its 2018 taxes by prepaying certain expenses — such as lease payments, insurance premiums, utility bills, office supplies and taxes — before the end of the year. Many expenses can be deducted up to 12 months in advance.
  3. Buy equipment. Take advantage of 100% bonus depreciation and Section 179 expensing to deduct the full cost of qualifying equipment or other fixed assets. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, bonus depreciation, like Sec. 179 expensing, is now available for both new and used assets. Keep in mind that, to deduct the expense on your 2018 return, the assets must be placed in service — not just purchased — by the end of the year.
  4. Use credit cards. What if you’d like to prepay expenses or buy equipment before the end of the year, but you don’t have the cash? Consider using your business credit card. Generally, expenses paid by credit card are deductible when charged, even if you don’t pay the credit card bill until next year.
  5. Contribute to retirement plans. If you’re self-employed or own a pass-through business — such as a partnership, limited liability company or S corporation — one of the best ways to reduce your 2018 tax bill is to increase deductible contributions to retirement plans. Usually, these contributions must be made by year-end. But certain plans — such as SEP IRAs — allow your business to make 2018 contributions up until its tax return due date (including extensions).
  6. Qualify for the pass-through deduction. If your business is a sole proprietorship or pass-through entity, you may qualify for the new pass-through deduction of up to 20% of qualified business income. But if your taxable income exceeds $157,500 ($315,000 for joint filers), certain limitations kick in that can reduce or even eliminate the deduction. One way to avoid these limitations is to reduce your income below the threshold — for example, by having your business increase its retirement plan contributions.

Most of these strategies are subject to various limitations and restrictions beyond what we’ve covered here, so please consult us before you implement them. We can also offer more ideas for reducing your taxes this year and next. Call us at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA

Online shopping enables consumers to buy almost anything from the convenience of their own homes. But comfortable surroundings can lull online shoppers into a false sense of security. You wouldn’t leave your wallet unattended in a busy shopping mall or enter a sketchy-looking shop, yet you may be taking similar risks on the Internet.

One of the biggest risks is shopping on fraudulent sites or making purchases from crooked marketplace sellers who have no intention of shipping the goods you’ve paid for. Here are three suggestions for protecting yourself:

  1. Use feedback features. When shopping in online marketplaces such as eBay or Amazon, pay close attention to ratings and comments provided by previous customers about individual sellers. Bear in mind, however, that some online review platforms allow sellers to request the removal of negative reviews. And while reputable marketplaces and review sites do their best to block fake reviews, it’s possible for sellers to boost their profile by paying “customers” to post five-star ratings and raves.
  2. Perform basic research. Before making a purchase from an unfamiliar retail site, plug the site’s name into a major search engine. Because negative information may not appear at the top of search results, look beyond the first or second page. In some extreme circumstances, disgruntled customers set up their own sites to air grievances about an online retailer or you may find news of legal action. Also be wary if you find almost no information about a retailer. Some scam artists frequently change the names and addresses of their sites to stay one step ahead of the law.
  3. Always pay with a credit card. Credit card companies generally allow their customers to dispute fraudulent charges and get their money back if they don’t receive the goods they purchased. So beware of online sellers who ask you to pay by check, ACH or wire to avoid credit card processing fees. Online marketplace scammers sometimes ask customers to skip the site’s payment system and pay them directly. This is dangerous because it places a transaction beyond the reach of the marketplace’s fraud detection and prevention systems.

Most online merchants deliver on their customer commitments. However, a small percentage take advantage of the Web’s anonymity to commit fraud. Be sure to check out any site or seller you intend to do business with and, just as important, listen to your gut. If something makes you uneasy, don’t proceed with the transaction. Contact us for more information at 205-345-9898.

© 2018 Covenant CPA