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Crime Prevention

Scams

Every day, thousands of people are taken advantage of by professional criminals and con artists using slick and sophisticated methods to steal people’s money. Often, even as the crime is being committed, the victim is unaware of the scam. Too often, the victims feel ashamed because they placed their trust in people who stole from them – and they are too embarrassed to report the crime. If you have fallen victim to a financial scam, you are not alone.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from financial scams is to be informed. The
St. Petersburg Police Department has created this brochure to include information about some of today’s most common scams, as well as helpful tips to protect yourself and your money.

Keep in mind that, with every opportunity, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!


The Grandparents Scam

A grandparent receives a frantic call from someone they believe to be their grandchild. The supposed grandchild sounds distressed and may be calling from a noisy location. The supposed grandchild claims to be involved in some type of trouble while traveling in Canada or overseas, such as being arrested or in a car accident or needing emergency car repairs, and asks the grandparent to immediately wire money to post bail or pay for medical treatment or car repairs.

A variation of the scam may involve two scammers -- the first scammer calls and poses as a grandchild under arrest. The second scammer, posing as some type of law enforcement officer, then gets on the phone with the grandparent and explains what fines need to be paid.

A common theme of the scam across the nation is the caller’s request for the grandparent to wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram or to provide bank account routing numbers. Wiring money is like sending cash; there are no protections for the sender. Typically there is no way you can reverse the transaction, trace the money, or recover payment from the telephone con artists.

Protect Yourself

  • Be suspicious when you receive a telephone call where:
    • A grandchild calls you from a far away location.
    • The grandchild says, “It’s me,” or “It’s your grandson,” or “It’s your favorite grandchild.”
    • The grandchild is in some trouble or some type of distress.
    • The caller asks for money to be wire transferred
  • If you receive such a call, you should hang up and call another family member who can confirm your grandchild’s whereabouts. Try calling your grandchild at the telephone number through which you normally reach him or her. Stay calm and avoid acting out of a sense of urgency. Do not wire money unless you have verified with an independent third party that your grandchild is truly in trouble.
  • In addition, never give out any personal identifying information such as bank account or credit card numbers to anyone who calls you on the phone.

Pay Up Front Scam

Advance fees, or upfront payments, are an instant “red flag.” Advance fee con artists pose as representatives of companies that seem real. They use slick presentations to trick their victims into paying large upfront fees for bogus loans, loan modifications, loan refinancing or credit cards. They frequently target individuals with poor credit histories by promising easy or “guaranteed” approval. However, in order to take advantage of the offer, the victim must pay high but seemingly legitimate fees for the application, insurance or other “services.” In the end, the scam artist takes off with the fee and the victim gets nothing in return.

People encounter advance fee scams in a variety of ways, including telemarketing calls, text messages, emails, well-designed documents, classified ads and the Internet, including social media.

Protect Yourself

  • Avoid any credit offer that requires an upfront payment. Although a lender may charge application, credit report and other fees, they are generally subtracted from the loan amount after it is approved
  • If you are asked to pay fees via a wire transfer or prepaid debit card, especially to someone in another country, exercise caution. Such payments are extremely difficult to recover or trace
  • Know who you are dealing with. If you have not heard of the person or company, take the time to learn more about them

Ponzi Scam

Ponzi schemes are named after the early 20th century swindler Charles Ponzi, whose most infamous modern successor is Bernie Madoff. Ponzi schemes take many forms, but they all depend upon a steady stream of investors who are promised regular, abnormally high rates of return. Without a steady stream of new investors, the Ponzi scheme becomes a “house of cards” that collapses under its own weight, with the scam artist long gone with investors’ money.

Ponzi schemes can be difficult to spot, but here are some of the “red flags”:

  • Victims are urged to cash in on a quick, speculative scheme.
  • Investors are promised that their investment is “risk free.”
  • Ponzi promoters often depend on social circles: early investors unwittingly line up their closest friends, relatives and professional associates as new victims.
  • Early investors are paid off handsomely. This is the “proof” that later, more skeptical investors insist on seeing before they jump in with both feet.

Protect Yourself

  • All legitimate investments involve a degree of risk. Beware of promises of high, guaranteed, “risk free” profits.
  • Avoid promoters who refuse to provide clear and detailed explanations of their investment vehicles.
    Don’t be rushed into making a decision. Beware of sellers creating a false sense of urgency to immediately invest.
  • Check out the promoter’s background through FINRA’s Broker Check (Page 14).
    Make sure the investment is registered as a securities offering with the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Ask for detailed information in writing and verify the promoter’s claims.
    Be cautious of deals that cannot be checked out in person.

IRS Scam

You have received a phone call or email from someone claiming to be working for a government agency like the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. Treasury. Even though you have not received any notices from the government, the caller claims that you owe money for unpaid or back taxes, or that you missed a paperwork deadline.

The caller then threatens you with arrest or lawsuit if you do not pay them or give them personal information (for example, your Social Security number or date of birth).

The caller demands that you wire them money, purchase a prepaid debit card, or otherwise arrange to send them money in ways that cannot be traced.

The caller sounds demanding and authoritative. What are you supposed to do?

Protect Yourself

  • Remember: No U.S. government or state agency is going to call you out of the blue and demand money or information.
  • While they may contact you via phone, the U.S. government and state agencies will always send important legal information by mail.
  • If you do not recognize a telephone number on caller ID, you do not have to answer the phone (even if caller ID says it is the IRS or some other government agency).
  • Legitimate callers will leave you a message.
  • If you think it may be legitimate, take the caller’s name and hang up. Don’t call the number the caller provided, rather look the up telephone number in a directory and be sure that you are calling the actual agency and not a scam artist.

The “Microsoft Scam”

You have received an unexpected phone call or an email from someone claiming to work for Microsoft or some other computer software company. This person claims that they have identified your computer as being infected with a virus, and offers to fix the problem. In order to perform the “fix,” you will be asked to pay a fee by providing your credit or debit card information (this could be $50 or more). This person – a scam artist -- will ask for access to your computer’s systems and software from wherever they are located.

While performing the so-called fix, you will see movement of the cursor on your computer screen, controlled by the scammer. This person may even pop open a window on your screen showing all the viruses and malware supposedly discovered during the “fix.”

What is actually happening is that software, malware, and even viruses are being downloaded to your computer. Your system, files, and information have been compromised.

You may not discover that your computer has been taken over by a scam artist for days, weeks, or even months – and during this time, the scammer has been watching your every move on your own computer. The scam artist may even have downloaded “ransomware” onto your computer – you will not be able to access your computer files until you pay a ransom to the scammer. And once you’ve paid, you still may not get back access to your computer files.

Protect Yourself

  • Make sure you have current, effective anti-virus software installed on your computer.
  • If a person calls claiming to work for specific company, like Microsoft or Norton, tell them you will call them back. Call that company using a phone number you have verified as legitimate (from the telephone book, or actual company website).
  • If you have received an email, contact the company’s customer support website and ask the company to verify that this person is actually one of their employees.
  • If you believe your computer is infected, avoid using the Internet and:
    • Run a scan using your anti-virus software; or
    • Contact a reputable computer repair technician or company and have them check your computer.

Counterfeit Cashier’s Check Scam

There was a time when cashier’s checks were considered the next best thing to cash. Today, sophisticated forgeries of this once trusted payment method are being used to bilk private sellers out of big cash.

This scam targets individuals selling expensive items such as cars, apartments, or even horses, through classified advertising and online auctions. The counterfeiter, who is often in another country, poses as an interested buyer and offers to pay with a cashier’s check. After the victim presents the check to the bank, the buyer suddenly backs out of the deal and asks for a refund. Because the funds from the check are available from the bank after a few days, the victim assumes the check has cleared and agrees to return the money. By the time the bank discovers the forgery, up to 60 days later, the bogus buyer is long gone and the victim must now repay the bank for the amount of the fake check.

In other cases, the counterfeiter may send a cashier’s check for more than the asking price of the item and then ask the victim to wire the “overpayment” back or to a third party.

Protect Yourself

  • Understand that although the bank may allow you to withdraw money soon after depositing a cashier’s check, that does not mean the check has cleared.
  • Remember: You are responsible for the funds you deposit until your bank has received the money from the institution where the check originated or the true account holder of the originating check reports the fraud (this could take more than 60 days).
  • Be cautious of transactions with strangers who pay with cashier’s checks. Make sure to tell the buyer that you will send the item only after the check has cleared. If you do not know the person presenting the check, hold the funds in your bank account until your bank confirms that the check has cleared.
  • Avoid any situation where someone overpays for an item and demands that the extra money be returned.

The Romance Scam

You have met someone in another city, state, or country online through an online dating profile or social media. WARNING! This person may be “catfishing” you – a person on the Internet not being who they claim to be.

This person makes him or herself attractive to you, and begins texting, emailing, or even calling you regularly. He or she claims to have fallen in love with you quickly, thereby forming a swift emotional attachment.

Next thing you know, this new love interest has experienced some type of crisis and needs your help quickly. Or maybe you have made plans to marry, which will require travel, a visa, or other wedding-related expenses.

This person needs money and asks for your help – through a money transmitter like Western Union, Money Gram, or by loading up a prepaid debit card. Or you may be asked to provide access to your bank account to make money transfers more easily.

He or she will stay in touch with you and promise anything as long as you keep sending money. You will never actually meet this person and you will not be able to trace the money you sent.

Protect Yourself

  • Avoid giving too many personal details about yourself until you are confident that you have come to know the person who is interested in you.
  • Do not accept everything he or she tells you at face value.
  • Google your “new love” and pay attention if his or her photo shows up with multiple names attached to it.
    If the person’s profile disappears from your dating website within a few days, there’s a good chance it was a fraud.
  • Ignore out of the blue requests from potential spouses who are just looking for a free ticket.