Knowledge, the best defense against scams

Once again it’s time for a reality check. In our mail, our e-mail, at our door, delivered by UPS, Fed Ex and over our phones — we get good news. You have won a Canadian Lottery. You have won a sweepstakes! An ousted politician in an African country has chosen you to help him get $50,000,000 in oil money to the United States.Your debt can be eliminated. You have been chosen to be a mystery shopper and receive free goods and cash.

These scams and many others are coming at us from all directions. The scammers are getting smarter, more creative and more aggressive. Meanwhile, with the cost of living, raising kids and the current economic crisis, we are more than ever looking for that lucky break, the answer to our prayers, that golden opportunity. We are ripe for the picking. These people are not stupid; they are criminals, some are very clever and some are even dangerous to more than just your bank account. They play on our greed, desperation, sympathies and hopes. Pagosa area residents are falling victims to these scams in ever-greater numbers, at times when most of us can least afford to be parted from our hard earned paychecks.

In the past, scammers would seek you out by mail, phone or e-mail. Now scammers are lurking in places like Internet chatrooms, MySpace, Facebook, eBay, Craig’s List or even at your vacation destination. They are waiting for you to find them.

It may surprise you to know that for years, terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda have been using Nigerian-type scams to fund their terrorism. Nigeria is reported to be 50-percent Muslim, many of the residents with a very unfavorable view of the United States. I have personally investigated a handful of scams that had ties to Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Iran.

Here are some of the more common scams. Keep in mind that new scams and old scams with a new twist are appearing daily.

Phishing scams. These scams are usually in the form of emails or web sites, asking you for personal information, trying to trick you into giving out your credit card number and even your mother’s maiden name and your PIN. They might come at you disguised as trusted companies you’ve done business with before, or even the government.

Lottery / Sweepstakes scams. These scams commonly originate out of Canada, claiming that you have won a sweepstakes that you probably don’t even remember entering. You are asked to pay up-front taxes or fees to facilitate the delivery of your winnings.

Nigerian or 419 scams. We all know the story about some Nigerian businessman or government official who was given your name by an associate as someone “trustworthy.” Your help (and your banking information) is needed to get millions out of their country and they are more than happy to pay you a healthy percentage for your troubles. These days, imaginative variations on the Nigerian scams are now endless and almost entertaining.

Reshipping scams (usually Nigerian). Someone who develops an on-line trust with you one day asks you to help them. You are given some excuse or lame reason why they need you to receive a package, repackage the item and then forward it on. If you do it, you are an unwitting accomplice, helping the scammer get his ill-gotten gains into his hands.

Work from home scams. There are a variety of these. These positions often involve reselling or reshipping merchandise to destinations outside the United States. Cashing checks or money orders (which are forgeries) and wiring the “overpayment” back to the scammers is sometimes also part of the deal. In other variations people are recruited to sell high end electronics from home. There is no real merchandise and once again, participants are unwittingly helping the scammers to rip-off other unsuspecting victims.

Here are some red flags to watch for:

• Be wary of cashing any unsolicited or unexpected check or money order, especially if you are asked to send back any “overpayment.”

• Be extremely cautious of anyone asking you to send a money order overnight delivery or to send money by Western Union. You will have no recourse for getting your money back.

• Beware of any correspondence from, or asking you to send anything to Nigeria and other West African countries. Other scams are originating from Russia, Middle Eastern countries and Canada. Many scammers are finding ways to disguise their true locations by using U.S. based shipping companies or unsuspecting U.S. citizens to facilitate their scams.

If you lose money to a scam, especially an overseas scam, there is very little that law enforcement (especially local law enforcement) can do for you. Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating to a cop than a bad guy who is seemingly “untouchable.” The truth is law enforcement doesn’t have the resources or the manpower to to pursue these high-tech criminals. A “run of the mill” Internet scam investigation can easily become more complex than a homicide. What’s more frustrating is that for local law enforcement, these cases almost certainly come to a dead end.

The problem is getting to be an epidemic and is getting worse instead of better. People are falling victim across the globe, but we here in the U.S. seem to be a favorite population of victims for the scammers. In the coming weeks we will take a closer look at these scams and discuss some even more henious scams. Until then, be on your guard! The best defense against these scammers is knowledge, education and not letting our false hopes overrule our common sense.