Scammers target victims through online classifieds, phone calls

Maplewood detectives urge caution

Scam artists have long preyed on the elderly — threatening legal action for tax evasion, promising lotteries worth millions of dollars, and posing as grandchildren in need of bail.

But those apt to keep a landline home phone aren't the only ones being targeted these days.

Young adults who use online classified sites like Craigslist and Care.com are also falling victim to theft by swindle.

In Maplewood, the Police Investigations Unit has tracked an increase in reported cases over the past six months, averaging about one a week, Detective Alesia Metry says. The best way to hedge the trend, she adds, is to remind people to be more cautious. While there are plenty of early warning signs, there's little police can do to prosecute a thief hidden behind a fake name, address and phone number.

"People that are not victims are people that are more suspicious," Metry says. "People in their 40s, 50s, that are tech savvy but also have life experience, know to question things if they seem too good to be true."

Overpaid? Red flag.

Nearly a month ago, a Maplewood 19-year-old looking for a babysitting job connected with an alleged employer on Care.com.

According to police reports, the employer sent the young woman a check for $3,450, claiming they were moving to the area and needed her to help them with the move first.

The victim deposited the check and, upon the sender's request, she sent a MoneyGram worth $2,900 to an address in Texas. When another $3,450 check came in the mail a few days later, however, she did not deposit it.

Then, on July 1, she told police her bank had sent her a letter stating her account was negative $2,500 and that the check she had deposited was fictitious.

Officer Kao Xiong attempted to trace the checks back to the alleged employer, but wasn't successful. He forwarded the case to the Investigations Unit, where it remains pending.

"Overpayment scams are often targeted at Internet job sites and job seekers, including caregivers, and we continuously research processes to improve the safety of our site for our members," says Nancy Bushkin, spokeswoman for Care.com.

The overpayment strategy holds true for a number of recent cases that have come across Metry's desk.

A thief agrees to purchase a product or agrees to pay for a service — like babysitting — advertised online, she explains. Then the thief sends the victim a check for more money than agreed upon in the transaction. The thief requests that the victim deposit the check and send them a money order or cashier's check for the difference. The victim is able to deposit the check, but finds out three days later that it was a fraudulent check, and they have no recourse for getting their money back.

"Up until recently, I hadn't heard anything about scams coming off of Care.com," Metry says. "All of a sudden someone realized here's another avenue."

"The sad thing is we're not talking about people paying $20 for a trinket on eBay. We're talking about thousands of dollars these people are out."

In 2014, self-reported victims of fraud lost approximately $1.7 billion, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. That's an average of $2,000 lost per alleged victim, of which one-third were under the age of 40.

No viable suspects

No matter how sincere a stranger on the other end of a remote transaction sounds, Metry says, it's important to understand these scammers are professionals. They operate under fake names, email addresses, online user accounts and phone numbers. And in some cases, the person on the other end of the transaction isn't the only victim — companies find their checking accounts have been compromised by thieves who send out fraudulent checks in their name.

To make matters even more complicated, a lot of these scams are extending across state lines. Local law enforcement agencies, Metry says, simply don't have the resources to send investigators out of state to pursue scam cases.

The relative security scammers enjoy is underscored by how comfortable they are contacting law enforcement officials directly.

Detective Derek Fritze says he was receiving calls on his work phone from someone with what he described a foreign accent telling him to send in tax money to win a lottery for $3 million. He says he played along with his "best old lady voice" and wrote down the P.O. box number they wanted him to send money to in South Carolina. He called the postmaster, who found a number of checks from other victims in the same mail box. It was shut down, Fritze says, but he continued to receive calls from his mystery scam artist.

"I would just keep calling them back, forcing them to change their numbers," he says, adding this went on for a couple months before the suspect was the one asking Fritze to stop calling.

Do your homework

Investigating another pending scam case, Fritze did a quick Google search on a supposed buyer's home address and found a vacant lot on the map. Sometimes all it takes is doing a little bit of online background research to flag a scam, he says.

State Financial Crimes Task Force investigator, Robert Wilkinson, says online scams are nothing new and the same sound piece of logic holds true: if it just seems too good to be true, it probably is.

"Things like addresses not matching [or] a payment well in excess of the asking price, should all be red flags for people," he says.

Face-to-face cash transactions are the most transparent way to handle online purchases. 

"Anytime a business or person requests you send them money, a MoneyGram, a money order or a cashier's check be alert," Metry adds. "Verify that you are dealing with a real person or a real business. If you have concerns or doubts, contact your police department."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.


If the story sounds familiar, it could be a scam

Over the course of the past few months, the Maplewood Police Department’s Investigations Unit has been collecting more and more crime reports of theft by swindle from online and phone transactions. Be on alert for similar scenarios:

• A 21-year-old Maplewood man tried selling a pair of Google glasses on Craigslist for $1,000. A buyer agreed to the purchase price but sent him two checks totaling $3,700 and asked the victim to send the balance back via cashier’s checks. The thief cashed both cashier’s checks before the Maplewood man realized the $3,700 check was fraudulent.

• A 21-year-old woman attempted to purchase a 2004 Honda Accord on eBay Motors for $1,700. The seller told her to send the initial payment via MoneyGram, along with three subsequent payments for additional fictitious expenses. By the time the victim became suspicious, she was out more than $4,000. The fake eBay address had been made to look official.

• A 52-year-old man thought his computer was hacked. An alleged tech agent for Microsoft called to assist him. They put $3,000 in his checking account and asked him to send back a MoneyGram for $1,500. He sent the MoneyGram and they unlocked his computer. Later, the victim realized the $3,000 had come from his own banking account.

 

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