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Beware: scams galore in Pagosa Country

Although a recent phone scam (as reported in the March 25 edition of The SUN) apparently did not snag any local victims, other scams currently being reported to the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department have led to local residents to lose thousands of dollars, according to Sheriff’s Det. Rich Valdez.

The online purchase scam

According to Valdez, one of the most recent — and most expensive (for the victim) — scams involves online purchases from sites like eBay or Craigslist. “The one we probably hear about the most is online purchases,” Valdez said.

Generally, those scams involve the sale of a high-value item (such as a car or boat) that the seller is willing to unload for a bargain because, the seller claims, a divorce or recent death in the family has put the seller in circumstances where they’re willing to sell the item well below market value.

Oftentimes, the scammer creates a replica of an eBay or Craigslist web page, directing the victim from a legitimate site to a place where, unbeknownst to the victim, business can be transacted far from any security protocols — a variation of “phishing” scams (where victims are contacted via e-mail regarding banking discrepancies and then directed to a site resembling the bank’s site).

Valdez said that, in the case of eBay pages, members should be able to click on an icon on the top right-hand side of the page to display account information — a feature not available on a bogus site. “That should be an immediate red flag,” Valdez said.

Unfortunately, a similar feature does not designate legitimate Craigslist pages and a clever scammer can fool even the savviest online purchaser.

Common to the online purchasing scams, however, is triangulation, Valdez said. “The seller will claim to be in Michigan or something but claim that the item is Houston and ready to be shipped from there. And the money needs to be sent to Texas to cover the shipping. “If you’re not dealing directly with the seller, that should be an immediate warning sign,” Valdez added.

In fact, both eBay and Craigslist sites recommend only face-to face transactions for high-dollar purchases — stay local, they say. Furthermore, the sites warn against using Western Union for purchasers and that, if a seller insists on the money being wired, the buyer should immediately cancel the deal. Finally, if using an escrow account for transactions, it should be the buyer who sets up the account, never the seller; too often, scammers use bogus escrow companies to provide victims with a false sense of security.

According to Valdez, most of the scams involving vehicles are in the $3,500-$3,800 range.

Craigslist provides a comprehensive guide to known online scams that can be viewed at www.craigslist.org/about/scams.

The fraudulent check scam

Recently, some local residents have received overnight-delivery packages from Federal Express or UPS containing a check (usually from a university or a foreign lottery) with directions to deposit the check and then mail or wire a percentage of the check to cover taxes or handling charges. The victim deposits the check and sends out the percentage only to learn, several weeks later, that the check was bogus.

Unfortunately for the victim, their money is long gone while they are also responsible for any problems the bogus check may have caused to their bank account. Fortunately, according to Valdez, “Banks have caught on to that one,” and, in recent cases, have made victims aware that they are attempting to process a fraudulent check.

The simple lesson in the fraudulent check scam should be: why would anyone send you free money, out of the blue? Nonetheless, apparently too many local residents have been swept up by the allure of something for nothing, only to find out, too late, that their greed has come at a tidy expense.

Instead of attempting to deposit the check, residents are advised to take the check (and package) to either the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department or the Pagosa Springs Police Department.

Nonetheless, sometimes the checks slip by the bank. PSPD Det. Scott Maxwell said that recently a money order was received by a local resident and taken to the bank, “The bank called the issuing bank, gave them the numbers and the other bank said it was a legitimate money order. Of course, several days later, the bank learned that the money order was a counterfeit and they were out that money,” Maxwell said.

The Canadian lottery scam

A variation on the fraudulent university check scam is the Canadian Lottery scam. A check is likewise delivered via Federal Express or UPS with an accompanying letter claiming that the recipient has won the Canadian Lottery and that, after depositing the check, the recipient needs to mail a check for a small percentage for handling fees and taxes. Of course, the deposited check bounces while the money sent to handle the fees has long been spent.

Again, one needs to ask, “When did I ever enter the Canadian Lottery?”

The IRS identity theft scam

With tax season just around the corner, e-mails are beginning to appear, purporting to be from the IRS, claiming either that a rebate is due “for early filing” or that the filer’s return is being audited and that the filer may be able to avoid the audit by providing information. As in all classic “phishing” scams, the e-mail recipient is directed to a site (through a link in the e-mail) that closely resembles the IRS Web site, where the victim is directed to enter in personal and banking information.

As with banks (a common lure in phishing scams), the IRS will not send unsolicited e-mails. However, scammers are also using phone calls in an attempt to get personal and banking information. Again, the rule of thumb is to remember that the IRS will not make an unsolicited phone call and ask for either personal or financial information.

The stranded relative scam

Another phone scam (usually targeting elderly residents) involves a “stranded relative,” usually someone claiming to be a grandchild or a niece or nephew. Although there are numerous variations of this scam, the general premise is that the relative is stranded (their car is in need of repair, they’re in jail on false charges, etc.) and they need money to get home. Usually, the call originates from a “scratchy” phone so that the recipient has difficulty hearing the voice of the caller (and so, unable to determine the authenticity of the caller’s voice).

The common thread in this scam is that the caller asks for the victim to wire money (usually to Canada) so they can get home, get their car repaired, bond out of jail or whatever, with a promise to repay the money after the they’ve returned home.

Of course there is no such relative and the good-hearted grandparent/aunt/uncle is out hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

The Spanish Prisoner (or Nigerian 419) scam

According to Maxwell, the scams Valdez reported have been consistent with the calls he’s been getting. However, Maxwell added a recent anecdote, “I received two calls in two days from two different women, one from Canada and one from London.”

Maxwell said that both women had been in contact with a man from an Internet dating site, their paramour claiming to be from the Pagosa area. Maxwell said he’d told the women that he was involved in the cocoa bean trade and travelled often to Nigeria for business.

After months of romantic messages and exchanges, the man recently called the women, stating that he was in the hospital and needed several thousand dollars to get out. It was after that call that the victims initiated contact with Maxwell, inquiring about the “local” cocoa bean trader. It was then that Maxwell put the two women in contact with each other to compare notes.

The scam Maxwell reported on is a variation on “The Spanish Prisoner” scam, a centuries-old swindle wherein the victim gets access to the prisoner’s hidden treasure, but only if the victim can provide the prisoner enough money to bribe the jailer so he can get out of jail to uncover the hidden treasure. In past decades, “The Spanish Treasure” has become known as “The Nigerian 419 scam” (“419’” being the Nigerian penal code for fraud).

Unfortunately, according to Maxwell and Valdez, some local residents continue to fall victim to Nigerian 419 scams, despite being well-worn, well-publicized, yet, fresh enough to continue having legs.

The mystery shopper scam

Maxwell also cited the “Mystery Shopper” scam, a fraud in which the victim is told they can make money to test customer service (or catch embezzlers) at the local Western Union office. As in the fraudulent check scam, the victim is sent a check with instructions to deposit it, then take a certain amount of money from their account and wire it to a third party with the promise that the victim will get to keep the balance. Again, the check bounces and the victim has sent several thousands of dollars to an unknown party.

Variations on the “Mystery Shopper” also include being asked to give bank account information so the employer can deposit wages into the victim’s account. Of course, no money is ever put in, while the account is usually depleted of funds by the thief.

Problems facing law enforcement

Unfortunately, all of these scams are difficult to investigate, much less prosecute. With thieves using a network of hacked computers, it can be virtually impossible to trace e-mail messages back to their point of origin. Oftentimes, mailing or physical addresses are empty buildings or lots.

“Usually, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Valdez conceded. “We have been lucky, though. We have had a prosecution on one of them.”

Valdez was referring to an online purchase case where investigators in different jurisdictions were able to share enough information to locate and arrest the thieves. “In this last case, we caught one of the runners,” he said.

“Runner” refers to someone hired to pick up funds from a wire-transfer office, post office box or cash checks, for which the runner receives a small percentage.

Even when caught, however, law enforcement finds it difficult to prosecute the offenders. Jurisdiction considerations aside, when the scammers are located within the U.S., the amounts involved are usually well below the threshold to justify extradition. Furthermore, when the crimes originate in a foreign country, prosecution is almost impossible.

Latest scam targeting homeowners

Difficulty in prosecution is all too clear as the latest scam begins to grow in frequency. Preying on homeowners facing foreclosure or bank repossession, the companies contact homeowners promising refinanced mortgages with guarantees to end foreclosure or repossession processes. In the scam, homeowners are told they need to pay an up-front “mitigation escrow fee,” as well as provide bank account information so the company can automatically withdraw monthly mortgage payments. Homeowners are told to not pay their lender as the new company will handle the payments.

Of course, the note to the bank comes up delinquent and the victim’s bank account ends up depleted. Unfortunately, because the amounts of money involved are relatively small, the FBI has not gotten involved (although Dave Joly, spokesman for the FBI said, “They have come to our attention. We’re watching them.”).

Joly advised that homeowners contacted by companies promising to forestall foreclosure should be wary, recommending that they do their homework before signing anything or giving out any information. “Do your research,” he said. “Contact your local Better Business Bureau, federal regulators, make sure they’re licensed, legitimate and have no complaints against them.”

Reporting a potential scam

Despite the difficulty investigating and prosecuting scammers, Valdez advised local residents to contact law enforcement if there is any hint of untoward business.

“I guess what we’d like to say is, don’t be afraid to call us, ”Valdez said, “but don’t be surprised if we cant follow up. We’ll work it as far as we can get it.”

“The problem is,” he added, “we just don’t have the resources.”

Unfortunately, between law enforcement, victims and thieves, the only ones with the resources are the scammers. Fortunately, with a little homework and a lot of common sense, those resources won’t be your own.

Learning more about scams

Online resources for more information on Internet and other scams include:

• en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_fraud (a great resource for learning about various scams).

• www.ic3.gov/complaint/default.aspx (the FBI’s site for scam alerts and a place to anonymously lodge complaints).

• www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect (the Postal Service’s Web site — information on mail, phone and Internet fraud schemes along with a source for reporting).

• www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ (the Federal Trade Commission’s site which includes fraud alerts and a tool for reporting, especially mortgage, lending and banking fraud).

With the resources above, your own resources should stay with you and not end up in the hands of scammers.

jim@pagosasun.com