Beware the scam slam
— As the old saying goes, "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is." Here's why:
“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 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.
VARIATION ON A THEME
The Northeast Times 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.
AN OBVIOUS SCAM
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.
STAYING OFF THE PHONE
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.
DON’T BE SILENT
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. ••
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.