The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

January 13, 2011

Scammers targeting parents for child's lunch money

It’s not a Nigerian prince calling — it’s someone from your child’s school, asking for your credit card number to keep your kid’s electronic lunch account in good standing.

And like the Nigerian prince, this person isn’t real — it’s a total scam.

The state Department of Education warned school districts last month of a telephone scam in which a caller, claiming to be from the school, informs parents their child needs lunch money. The caller requests a credit card number to add cash to the student’s account.

News of the scam came from the nutrition side of the Department of Education, said spokesman Steve Weitzman. The agency then got out the word to school districts.

Weitzman said the agency hasn’t kept track of cases involving the scam, though it seems to have centered on southeastern Pennsylvania around the Philadelphia area.

Milton Area School District officials alerted their parents to the matter on the district’s website.

“We would never call a parent asking for credit card information,” said Milton school Superintendent Cathy Groller. “The parents know how we maintain our lunch account system, but we wanted to bring this to their attention for their own protection.”

Most local school districts use a cashless system to pay for lunches. The methods vary, but for most, a student is set up with an account that has a cash balance. Each lunchtime transaction debits the account, and the cashier usually can tell the student if the account is running low.

Some school districts will accept a credit card payment to re-up the account. For instance, the Lewisburg Area School District uses Mylunchmoney.com, where parents establish an account and are charged a $1.95 per-transaction fee. The Selinsgrove Area School District uses the mySchoolBucks.com online payment service, which charges a $1.35 transaction fee.

Other school districts don’t accept credit cards, among them Mifflinburg and Milton.

“We’re not set up to take credit cards,” a point that Sharon Adami, food service director for the Milton Area School District, made clear on the district’s website.

Adami added that if the school does call about the lunch account, it’s only to request money be sent in with the child.

Milton parents are encouraged to make regular deposits to the lunch accounts by cash or check that children bring to school.

At Mifflinburg, parents can view lunch balances for their children in ESchoolBook, an online system, and send in cash or a check to increase the balance.

How the scammers choose their targets is unknown, and it’s not clear if anyone without children has been hit.

However, Mitch Katz, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, said that determined scammers can find information for chosen prey.

“There are probably lists online of who goes to what school,” he said, or a system with school information could be hacked.

“Sometimes, organizations just dump data, physical paper data, into Dumpsters,” he said. “We’ve had cases where companies have done that, and consumers’ personal information has gotten out.”

Bob Levine, CEO of mySchoolBucks.com in Sacramento, Calif., said his company purposely keeps account information out of school district hands as a matter of caution.

An independent audit of its accounts is then sent to the credit card companies.

However the scammers pick and choose who to hit, Detective Daniel Embeck, of the Milton Police Department, offers this advice: “Keep personal information personal.”

“Never give out any information: credit card numbers, date of birth, Social Security number, anything,” said Embeck, who has investigated scam cases and noted he received two complaints just this week about a prize scam and identity theft.

In both those cases, none of the people gave out information about themselves, he said.

“You can’t trust anything coming over the phone,” Embeck said.

He offers a second piece of advice that some people may not have thought of: Hang up on the caller.

“If it’s a legitimate business, you won’t hurt anything by hanging up on them,” he said. “They’ll find another way to contact you.”

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