01/03/06 — Scams capturing residents' identities

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Scams capturing residents' identities

By Jack Stephens
Published in News on January 3, 2006 1:51 PM

"Win up to $50,000,000," screams the big headline on the flier.

"You may have won $100,000 in the Swiss lottery," says the letter.

"Buy a 2005 Cadillac Escalade for $12,000," offers the caller.

These are just a few of the scams making the rounds in Wayne County, and there are many more.

Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Tom Flores has a large drawer filled with the evidence of scams that he has received from perceptive Wayne County residents.

But other more gullible residents have succumbed to the lure of the ads and have sent thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars in an attempt to cash in.

"It's aggravating for us, but it's frustrating for the victims," Sheriff's Detective Lt. Tom Effler said.

Flores and Effler said it is very difficult to prosecute the crooks because so many are not only out of state but out of the country.

"Most of these crimes originate overseas or in Canada," Flores said. "It's hard enough to prosecute cases across county lines, but it's even harder if they cross state lines, and it's impossible if they're in another country."

Flores said Wayne County officials will not pay for him to go to California -- much less to Romania, where one scam originated -- to investigate a case.

Flores said the federal government will not step in and help with the overseas crimes, because Washington authorities investigate only cases with at least $500,000 involved.

The poor are hurt the most by these scams, Flores said.

The detectives said financial and identification fraud cases are growing at an alarming rate. If a citizen discovers that his identity or credit cards have been stolen, they said it might take years to get the records straightened out.

Flores gave these examples of recent scams:

*A local woman was notified that she had won the European lottery and had to send $2,500 by Western Union to China to cover the taxes. She talked to someone by phone and was asked to send $3,000 more. The woman should have known that the offer was fake, because she had never entered the lottery -- which does not even exist, just like the Swiss lottery. At that point, her husband brought her to the Sheriff's Office. The money order was picked up by someone with a Nigerian passport in China.

*About 150 people who paid their bills at a Mexican restaurant with credit or debit cards were victimized, because the entire 16-digit number was printed on the receipts. An unscrupulous employee took the numbers and bought items on line or over the phone. The detectives noted that it's against the law to print the entire number on the receipts; only the last four numbers should be on the copies.

*Another person was asked to send $6,000 to buy the $12,000 2005 Cadillac Escalade and then send the other $6,000 when the car arrived. A new Escalade tops out at more than $50,000.

Flores said the scammers will cultivate a friendship with a resident on line and then send merchandise, bought with a stolen credit card, to the resident in a UPS business account. The resident is just the first link in a long chain and will be asked to ship the property to another person. Sometimes it winds up in Houston, where there is a big Nigerian community.

Effler and Flores urged citizens to safeguard their personal information and to refuse to give out Social Security or credit card numbers over the phone or in the mail.

"You better make sure who it is and you better know why they need the information," Flores said. "Be a miser with your information. Once it goes into a data base, it takes only one bad employee at a hospital, a doctor's office, a supermarket, a restaurant or a store to make $10,000 by selling your information. You should never let your credit card out of your sight."

Flores said 70 percent of ID theft starts with an employee stealing the customer's information from a data base. If people pay their bills with checks, he said, they should mail them from the post office. He said 23 people have had checks stolen from their mail boxes.

Banks and credit card companies are not allowed by law to send e-mails that ask for personal information, Flores said. If someone enters information on one of these e-mails and nothing happens, then they have been victimized, Flores said.

"I feel for the victims," Effler said after a recent case involving a car, "but people need to use common sense. ... People should be more diligent on their own."

Some scammers have even put a false front on an automatic teller machine, inserted a card that reads the customer's account number and then removed the card filled with the information. That information can be sold to other scammers for thousands of dollars.

Flores says his biggest problem is not with the courts or the defendants but with the credit card companies that have issued fraudulent credit.

The victim files a police report, authorities investigate it, but Flores said the credit card company then requires a search warrant or a court order to check its files. He said he sent three search warrants to a company in Virginia before he could investigate a complaint and discovered that the account was been flagged months earlier and the card holder was in Bucharest, Romania.

"They could have told me that two months earlier," the detective said. "They hide behind privacy statutes when they knew all along the account was fraudulent."

Flores urged people to check their credit histories every six months. The history can be checked for free once a year with any of three major companies.

He suggested that citizens carry only the credit card needed for that day and leave the other cards and their Social Security numbers at home. He urged people to close accounts that are not being used or have been tampered with.

"Be vigilant of anyone you let in your house," Flores said, naming repairmen and health-care workers.

Credit card and identification fraud is "a very rampant crime," he said, "not just because it's Christmas, but it's getting worse. People are just getting greedier.

"The Internet allows you to be more anonymous. The average amount taken in a bank robbery," Flores said, "was $1,700. With a computer, thieves can steal millions. You have a better chance of winning a multi-state lottery than the thieves have of getting caught."