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Scam artists turn to new tactics to try to fleece victims

April 3, 2018 GMT

Scam artists turn to new tactics to try to fleece victims

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Tax time provides just another avenue of deceit for online and over-the-phone con artists bent on trying to take your money.

But it’s always open season for bamboozlers who continue to find new and innovative variations on tried-and-true methods, especially ones that seem to work on senior citizens.

“We are in the middle of a bunch of effective scams, and people are still getting ripped off,” said Sheryl Harris, Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs director, who has made a career out of exposing fraud, now and earlier as a newspaper reporter.

Currently, crooks will pose as agents for the Internal Revenue Service and call demanding money for back taxes -- telling people to go out and make a large-scale purchase of gift cards for payment.

“No government agency accepts gift cards as a form of payment, nor do they accept money wires,” Harris stated.

Harris noted that after a lengthy wire fraud investigation, the Federal Trade Commission has entered into a $586 million settlement agreement with Western Union to provide refunds to people who were tricked into wiring money to scammers between 2004 and last January.

While that settlement in itself is a lot of money, Harris noted that it goes back 13 years. A MetLife “Study of Elder Financial Abuse” estimates that nationwide, older Americans lose about $2.6 billion a year to fraud -- and that’s possibly a conservative amount.

Victims seeking reimbursement from Western Union have until May 31 to file a claim with the U.S. Department of Justice. More information is available at this website https://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/refunds/western-union-settlement-faqs

In the meantime, scammers have since shifted their preferred methods of payment elsewhere, earlier with Green Dot cards, then to iTunes and Amazon gift cards and most recently with cards obtained at “big box” retailers.

Fairview Park Police Chief Erich Upperman says that while scams have become “pretty much ongoing” occurrences, a recent increase in fraud complaints prompted him to warn residents about the danger in the city’s April newsletter.

Don’t give out personal information over the phone

Aside from reiterating Harris’ point that no government agency or financial institution will ever seek payment or settle any issue through money wires or gift cards, Upperman also urged people never to give out personal information over the phone.

This includes Social Security numbers, account numbers, PINs or passwords, which criminals can use to access your finances -- saving you the trip to the local big box store to buy them gift cards.

Upperman pointed out that scammers from out of state or country have found a way to use “spoof” numbers that look like local exchanges or “official” institutions on caller I.D. screens when they are really not.

The county Consumer Affairs Department has also formed a “Scam Squad” uniting nonprofits and social service agencies with local, state and federal law enforcement in the fight against fraud.

Three important rules of thumb are listed on Scam Squad cards telling people to “Hang Up If:”

-- The caller threatens or scares you

-- Asks you to wire money or pay with iTunes cards

-- Claims to be a grandchild who needs bail money

Grandchildren scam targets senior citizens

The last scam is almost more sinister than the rest of them, in that the callers initially pose as grandchildren who call, often weeping, and claim they are in jail.

In the old days, it would be for something like a drunken driving offense across the border in Mexico or Canada.

But, as Harris noted, “scams morph,” with this new routine now including a fabricated “texting-and-driving” offense, possibly hitting a police cruiser.

On the other end, the phone gets handed off to someone posing as a bailiff, prosecutor or public defender, who now wants payment in gift cards, either for bail or for hospital bills for a fake victim -- or both.

And the big refrain is always “whatever you do, please don’t tell my parents” what’s going on.

“When you’re in the middle of a scam call, it may be hard to spot, because of the amount of panic they’re building into it,” Harris said. “There are red flags, but sometimes, the victims don’t see them until afterwards, when it may be too late.”

In one recent instance, an unidentified store clerk saw the red flags and told an elderly couple as much. But they insisted on buying the cards.

They took the cards back home and read off the serial numbers over the phone, but then received word from the scammer that they weren’t working.

The grandfather went back to the store to complain, while the grandmother stayed behind. She started to suspect something was awry and called family members to check on the grandchild -- who was safely accounted for.

As it turned out, the clerk had never activated the cards, prompting the grandfather to hug her when the information was relayed to him and he realized he’d nearly been taken.

Noting that this is becoming a “prevalent problem throughout all jurisdictions,” Hunting Valley Police Chief Michael Cannon asks that “family members communicate with their elderly parents and relatives to always verify with them any purported demands for money.”

Cannon also recommended a link to the Ohio Atorney General’s fraud website at http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Individuals-and-Families/Seniors/Elder-Fraud 

Garrett Perry, a corporate spokesman for Best Buy, noted that the retailer is now taking precautions with its employees to help prevent further gift card scams.

Those measures are outlined in an article put out last year by Best Buy that can be found at https://corporate.bestbuy.com/best-buy-warns-gift-card-scam/

There are also scammers who call up posing as Microsoft or Outlook computer technicians.

“A real computer tech will never call you out of the blue and tell you there’s something wrong with your system,” Harris said. “And you should never grant them access to your smartphone.”

Scammers ask victims to make up difference

In this month’s Fairview Park newsletter, Upperman also addressed another popular scam tactic.

“Never cash a check for or from someone where it is more than the amount of the transaction and the person tells you to send the remainder somewhere else,” Upperman noted.

An example he cited would be “selling an item online for $200. Then the person sends a check for $1,000 and asks you to send the remainder to them or to another account.”

In most cases, the money is drawn from the victim’s own account once the fraudulent check bounces.

Strongsville Police Chief Mark Fender said that while he has not come across any recent scams going around town, there are “different cycles and crime waves” that come and go.

“And with tax time, people need to remember that the IRS is not going to call your house,” Fender said. “These are people posing as the IRS looking for things like confirmation of your Social Security number.”

For more information about the Cuyahoga County Scam Squad, visit the website at 

https://consumeraffairs.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/Scam-Squad.aspx

And for a rundown of numerous and ever-popular scams themselves, please visit https://consumeraffairs.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/Scams.aspx