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It's all too easy to fall for scams

Published August 07. 2010 09:00AM

I'm lucky.

Or maybe it's just my computer that's "lucky".

Last week, for instance, someone who writes with very bad English wanted to send me the million dollars that for some unexplained reason is sitting unclaimed in a foreign bank account with my name on it. All I have to do is send him money for his expenses.

Then, this week, I was notified that because of my "lucky" email, I have won $1,750,000 GBP from a Honda International promotion. I have no idea what GBP means and I'll never find out because I never respond to email like that.

We all get those telephone calls or emails telling us we won a free vacation or some other goody. Sometimes, it's simply deceptive marketing but often it's something worse. It's a total scam.

If it's true that there's a sucker born every minute, then it's also true that every minute there's more than one scam artist born. And lately, we seem to have more scam artists and more phony schemes than ever before.

"What they all have in common and why they often succeed is because they appeal to our greed or our need," crime prevention specialist Dale Phillips said.

If you get a check in the mail for no reason at all, will you cash it? After all, what's the harm in getting free money? Even if it's not real, what can you lose?

Phillips warns that con artists use the phony checks to get your bank account information from the checks sent back to them.

"I have a stack two feet high of these phony checks sitting on my desk," said Phillips. "Destroy every free check offer," she stressed.

She also advises us not to respond to any telephone solicitation, even if it's for charity. "You have no idea where the money will go," she said. "You are better off sending your charity bucks to local charities."

She said most of the telephone solicitations for the police department, sheriff's department or firefighter's association are phony. "Others are paid telemarketers. For every dollar you give, only 15 cents goes to the organization. The rest is for expenses. You are better off never responding to telephone solicitations."

The "grandparent scam" is another way many are being duped.

"I had a call from a 65-year-old woman who had received an emergency call from her "granddaughter" in Virginia. She needed $1,500, she said, to get back home. I told the grandmother to call her daughter and make sure it was legitimate. It wasn't. Her granddaughter was at home. It's amazing how many grandparents fall for this."

Her tips: Never send money through Western Union because it can't be traced and never give any personal information over the phone, especially social security number, date of birth or bank account numbers. If you have questions or concerns, contact your local police department or the FCC at 1-877-438-4338.

Sometimes, even after people are told they are being scammed, they refuse to believe it, Phillips said. She told of one elderly woman of German descent who was told she was selected to be part of a covert operation in Germany. She continued sending money, even after Phillips tried to convince her she was being conned.

"Some people don't want to believe they are being scammed,' she said.

I experienced that first hand when a young woman showed me a letter saying she and her husband won a lottery in the United Kingdom. All she had to do to claim the prize was to send $500 for handling expenses.

She and her husband were on the way to their bank to wire the money. When I told them it was a scam, her husband got angry with me and angry with his wife for telling anyone about their windfall. He sent the money and I never heard from either one again. But we all know the outcome.

Not all scams are so obvious. Despite her expertise, the fraud prevention specialist said she came within "a hair" of being scammed when she responded to an email from a friend in another part of the country.

In an email that appeared to be from her friend, Dale was told of her friend's medical crisis while traveling out of the country. She was asked to send what she could to help.

"I wrote back saying I would send $700. Just as I was about to send the money, I noticed my friend's email address was off by one letter. Some con got a hold of my friend's address book and was using it to con money from her friends."

Her number one tip: "Guard your social security number with your life," she said. "Never give it out over the phone or Internet and even when you must give it to a doctor's office, ask how their files are protected."

She said some stores ask for a social security number before they will give someone a store card. "There is no way you can be sure that information is private. Plus, there is no reason why a store needs it."

While I listened to her, I realized I did something stupid when I called the credit department of a local department store. When asked to punch in my social security number "so they could access my account," I did. Then I learned the call center is in India.

It just goes to show we all have a lot to learn when it comes to identifying theft and fraud prevention. Now, more than ever, we need to be extra cautious.

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