Northeast Times

Steering clear of the scam slam

What you need to know about a PECO scam and oth­ers.

“Who does he think he’s kid­ding?” a North­east Phil­adelphia wo­man said she thought as a man on the oth­er end of the phone told her she had won a $2.5 mil­lion sweepstakes and a Mer­cedes-Benz.

It had to be a scam, she thought, but she played along. She played along the next day, too, when someone else tried to pull an­oth­er con on her.

On Sept. 5, she asked the man, who called him­self Mr. Richard, how she could claim her big bucks and her Benz.

The caller spoke with a heavy Span­ish ac­cent and soun­ded like he was in his late 60s. Mr. Richard gave the Somer­ton res­id­ent a phone num­ber she should to call to claim her prizes.

Still cer­tain this was all crooked, the Somer­ton wo­man, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, made the call. A wo­man who iden­ti­fied her­self as Nena answered and asked her if she lived near a CVS store.

Sure, the Somer­ton wo­man said. Well, go there, she was told, buy a $250 Green Dot Visa deb­it card and call back with the card’s num­bers. She said she asked why she had to pay to col­lect her prizes.

In a phone in­ter­view Sept. 10, the Somer­ton wo­man said could not un­der­stand the wo­man’s an­swer clearly be­cause she had a heavy Span­ish ac­cent, but the best she could fig­ure was that the money was sup­posed to pay the taxes on her prizes.

And she had to do it that day or she would for­feit the prizes.

“What if I can’t get to the CVS today?” she asked as she jot­ted down notes on the con­ver­sa­tion. The wo­man gave her a name and told the Somer­ton wo­man to mail the card to a Vir­gin­ia Beach, Va., ad­dress.

Star re­por­ted two weeks ago that a Mor­rell Park res­id­ent was called on Aug. 28 by a Span­ish-speak­ing man who threatened to cut off the res­id­ent’s PECO ser­vice in a half-hour if he didn’t pay an out­stand­ing bill. He was told to go to a CVS, buy a Green Dot Visa deb­it card and call a phone num­ber he was giv­en to re­cite the card’s num­bers.

The man and his wife knew their PECO ac­count was cur­rent, but they checked any­way and re­por­ted the in­cid­ent to the util­ity’s se­cur­ity de­part­ment.

A PECO spokes­man said the com­pany knows of about a half-dozen al­most identic­al at­tempts to de­fraud people. All in­volved calls from Span­ish-speak­ing men to Latino PECO cus­tom­ers who were told they would lose ser­vice if they didn’t buy Green Dot Visa deb­it cards, call phone num­bers they were giv­en and read out the cards’ num­bers. The dif­fer­ence between the call to the Mor­rell Park res­id­ent and the oth­ers was that most of the pre­vi­ous scam tar­gets lived in south­ern Chester County. One lived in Ben­s­alem.

The Somer­ton wo­man didn’t fall for what should be a very ob­vi­ous scam. But the con artists didn’t stop at that.

The next day, Sept. 6, she re­ceived a call from a man who said he needed dir­ec­tions to her house be­cause he had a Pub­lish­er’s Clear­ing House prize to de­liv­er to her. Be­sides dir­ec­tions, he told her he needed $65 and two forms of ID.

The Somer­ton wo­man didn’t bite.

But oth­er people do, said Steve Baker, dir­ect­or of the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion’s Mid­w­est re­gion, and they get hooked.

Baker knows all about con games, and the FTC tracks scams in a data­base that is made avail­able to law en­force­ment agen­cies.

These schemes, many of which ori­gin­ate out­side the United States, vic­tim­ize people all over the coun­try, he said.

“They’re every­where,” he said.

What’s also com­mon is the mis­con­cep­tion that con games and con men are easy to spot, Baker said. Con artists are really good at what they do. They’re con­vin­cing and really don’t seem to be ly­ing, Baker said. They of­ten have a lot of per­son­al in­form­a­tion about their “marks.”

The un­paid util­ity bill ploy is a new one on him, Baker said in a phone in­ter­view Sept. 10. However, Baker is very fa­mil­i­ar with the sweepstakes gam­bit. The Green Dot ele­ment also is well-known to him.

“Scams are like vir­uses,” he said. “They ad­apt and shift.”

There are all kinds of frauds, Baker said Sept. 14.

People who bought pre­scrip­tion drugs from phar­ma­cies in for­eign coun­tries over the In­ter­net were tar­geted, Baker said.

They got calls from people claim­ing to be agents from the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion and told they had to pay fines for their over­seas medi­cine buys.

In Pennsylvania, ac­cord­ing to FTC stat­ist­ics, more than 54,000 people were vic­tim­ized in 2011.

“I tell people, ‘If you haven’t been ripped off in the last year, you prob­ably have a friend or re­l­at­ive who was,” Baker said.

Tar­get­ing Span­ish-speak­ing people also is not un­known to law-en­force­ment, Baker said, adding that the FTC is see­ing more and more scams in Span­ish. Many ori­gin­ate in the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic, he said.

Many of the sweepstakes schemes, which Baker called “in­cred­ibly com­mon,” are based in Ja­maica.

Older people of­ten are tar­geted. Baker es­tim­ated 40 per­cent of the vic­tims are older than 60. The Somer­ton wo­man who didn’t take the bait last week isn’t His­pan­ic, but she has a name that could be read as Span­ish, and she is older than 60.

Pub­lish­er’s Clear­ing House runs sweepstakes con­stantly, said Chris Irving, vice pres­id­ent for con­sumer and leg­al af­fairs at the Port Wash­ing­ton, N.Y., com­pany.

There are win­ners of some kind every 15 minutes, he said. However, the house­hold products and magazine sub­scrip­tion seller nev­er no­ti­fies win­ners by phone. That’s done by re­gistered let­ter or in per­son, Irving said. The com­pany nev­er charges people to claim their prizes.

When some­body claims that a pay­ment must be made to col­lect a prize, that should be the tipoff that a con is be­ing worked, Irving said. Be­sides, such a charge is il­leg­al, Baker ad­ded.

Us­ing pre­paid deb­it cards to quickly get money from vic­tims has be­come pop­u­lar with con artists, Baker and Irving said in sep­ar­ate phone in­ter­views.

The pay­ment meth­od of choice had been West­ern Uni­on money­grams, Baker said, but widely avail­able Green Dot Visa deb­it cards are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar.

Once the scam­mers get the cards’ num­bers, they can use the in­form­a­tion to turn that in­to cash. They can go to any store that sells the cards, turn over the num­bers from the cards’ fronts and back and cash in the value. Or, Baker said, they can just down­load the value of the card in­to oth­er cards.

But why be so spe­cif­ic in what kind of deb­it card to get?

Spe­cif­ic de­tails can make vic­tims feel com­fort­able, said Visa spokes­wo­man Sandra Chu. Provid­ing de­tails like ex­actly what kind of deb­it card to buy helps the con artists win their marks’ con­fid­ence.

The FTC es­tim­ated in a re­port on scams that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of vic­tims each year who lose more than $1 bil­lion.

Com­plaints about sweepstakes cons went from 20,000 a year in 2007 to al­most 50,000 by 2010, ac­cord­ing to FTC fig­ures.

About $79 mil­lion was lost be­cause of that ploy in 2010, and sweepstakes fraud is only a small por­tion of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of scams per­pet­rated on con­sumers an­nu­ally.

In 2011, Baker said, there were 990,000 fraud re­ports made, ac­count­ing for about $1.5 bil­lion in losses. “And that’s just what was re­por­ted,” he said.

Barely 10 per­cent of vic­tims make any kind of re­port, Baker es­tim­ated.

He en­cour­aged any­one who is vic­tim­ized to tell law en­force­ment. The FTC will try to get their money back, he said, and even fail­ing that, the vic­tims’ in­form­a­tion might help au­thor­it­ies track down the cul­prits.

“Com­plain! Com­plain! Com­plain!” Baker said.

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

Any­one who is the tar­get of any kind of

tele­phone con game can re­port it to the FTC at 877-FTC-HELP. This also can be done on­line at www.ftc.gov. Click on Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion and then click on File a Com­plaint.

Any­one who wants to re­port a sweepstakes scam in­volving Pub­lish­er’s Clear­ing House can call the com­pany at 800-645-9242. Callers should fol­low a series of prompts to make their re­ports.

Visa has in­form­a­tion about con games and tips to avoid them at

ht­tp://www.visase­cur­ity­sense.com.

The site is also in Span­ish:

ht­tp://www.visase­cur­ity­sense.com/es­_US/in­dex.jsp.

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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