The consumer affairs department is asking New Yorkers to keep their eyes open for specific scams that they say affect thousands of people a year.
The department kicked off National Consumer Protection Week Tuesday and listed the top schemes New Yorkers fell victim to last year. Cons like phony immigration help centers, ATM skimmers and fake listings for home and products online cost residents and the city millions, according to DCA Commissioner Julie Menin.
"Scams are ever-evolving as criminals prey and take advantage of consumers so remember the age-old adage -- if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," she said in a statement.
In 2014, the DCA received 21,000 complaints and secured more than $4.6 million in restitution.
Lorena Ortiz, 30, of Corona, is one of those victims. A few months ago, she paid $120 to two employment agencies to find work in Queens, but it turned out the job offers she received weren't legit.
When she asked for her money back, one agency said "that's not how the law works."
"I was frustrated that I was giving money for nothing," Ortiz, who is working with the nonprofit group New Immigrant Community Empowerment to rectify the situation.
The Better Business Bureau's New York office also released the top topics its office addressed last year. The consumer watchdog group fielded 4.6 million inquires in 2014; 368,033 more than in 2013, and the top categories were related to financial services publishing and automotive issues.
Claire Rosenzweig, the president and CEO of the BBB of Metropolitan New York, said it was good that people used her organization and other watchdog groups to see if they were scammed..
"We can help identify trustworthy businesses and explain how to recognize scams and substandard business practices," she said in a statement.
City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who chairs the consumer affairs committee, praised the DCA for releasing the list. Although elected officials at City Hall and Albany are working on legislation to further regulate businesses and protect consumers from traps, he said people can greatly benefit from the extra bit of education.
"The majority of people who are affected are people of color and live in communities where they don't have easy access to this information," said Espinal, a Democrat representing Bushwick.
Below are the top complaints for 2014, according to consumer affairs.
1. Employment Agency Scams
A DCA representative said it received nearly 700 complaints related to businesses that claim to help people get jobs. Some people paid fees and other costs for job training and placement in sectors such as construction and hospitality by uncertified groups. The city recommends prospective employees to check the history of the company and their licensing before signing up.
2. Towing Scams
Last year, the DCA handled 1,000 complaints related to an illegal towing of a vehicle. Some tow companies will remove a car from zones where it's legal to park or overcharge for storage. The drop off fee for unhooking a car is $62.60 and it costs $125 for the towing and three days of storage, according to DCA.
3. Immigration Assistance Scams
The agency urged New Yorkers looking for help with immigration issues to go to certified legal agencies and specialists. Attorneys are credited by the Board of Immigration. Notary public can't give legal advice in New York state.
4. Predatory Schools
The city is home to several for-profit schools that help people get degrees in various fields such as medical assistant and electrical technician. The DCA said some of these institutions may mislead students into getting financial aid and give certified degrees. They urged students to research the school's credentials thoroughly.
5. Electronic Store Scams
The DCA fielded more than 1,350 complaints about electronics stores last year. Shady businesses have preyed on customers, especially tourists, by selling them refurbished phones, sim cards and other products and give them unnecessary warranties. The city said consumers should shop at stores with a DCA license.
6. Parking Ticket Scam
There has been a phishing scam that tricks New Yorkers into thinking they had to pay a parking ticket. The email appears to come from the city's finance department but it is actually puts malware on your computer which can be used to steal personal info. People can check up info related to parking tickets at nyc.gov/finance.
7. ATM Skimmers
DCA reminded New Yorkers to remain vigilant when taking out cash from an ATM. Some machines may contain skimmers that can steal pins and account numbers, so it is wise to cover the keypad when using a machine.
8. Phone Scams
There are two schemes to watch out for. In a “green dot card scam” a caller claims to be collecting money from a utility and threatens prosecution if they don’t pay with a Green Dot MoneyPak card. The second type of phone scheme involves a caller claiming to be from the IRS.
9. Grandparent Scam
The elderly have been victimized by a scheme where a caller claims their child or grandchild is hurt in an accident and needs money. The scammers go as far to use fake police officers, lawyers and doctors who provide personal information about their loved ones.
10. Rental Listing Scam
Finding an home in the city is tough enough, but scammers constantly use Internet listing sites like Craigslist to prey on people. DCA reiterated that home hunters should not complete an application for an apartment without inspecting the property first and to do research on the real estate agents.