Crime doesn’t always sneak into your home through a broken window or an unlocked door. It doesn’t always need cover of darkness. Sometimes it enters your home by telephone or the mail, or strolls up to your front door in broad daylight. Perpetrators of fraud are simply a different form of robber or burglar, but the results of their handiwork are the same: You’re a victim of crime. Con artists are as varied as their victims—they are men, women, even children who work alone, in pairs, or in groups.
As a detective, fraud was one of the most difficult crimes I worked. There was little satisfaction from investigating these cases, because the perpetrator was usually long gone by the time the victims realized they had been conned. The crimes are detailed and complex, often difficult for even astute attorneys to understand fully, let alone juries. Perpetrators move quickly from one jurisdiction to another. Convictions are few and far between, and victims rarely recover what they’ve lost.
Nobody wants to think they could fall victim to a con artist, but most of us have been scammed about something at least once in our lives. The first time I was scam med was by a carnie at the local county fair. He claimed he could accurately guess my weight, and I took the challenge. What I didn’t know was that I was standing on a scale hidden in the ground beneath my feet.
It’s difficult to resist an offer that sounds too good to be true, but you must remember the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The people who perpetrate these crimes are smart, pushy, flamboyant, and usually quite charming. They’re smooth operators, conning people with college degrees as easily as those without. Anyone can fall victim to their thieving charms, from the elderly to teenagers, from the poor to the very rich, from individuals to institutions. Their line is so good, the same con games keep working over and over, year after year.
Classic Cons and Why They Still Work
Clever cons are coming up with new schemes and scams all the time. Some classic con games, however, never seem to go out of style. As long as people fall for them, they’ll always be around.
The most well-known and successful cons are:
The home improvement swindle.
A “contractor” comes to your door and offers a free service, anything from checking your air-conditioning system to inspecting your roof, plumbing, or heating system. During the inspection, he discovers that something is broken, worn, torn, or otherwise in need of repair or replacement, sometimes actually breaking something when you’re not looking. Through various means, he offers visible “proof” to you. You hire him to make the repair, and are charged a large sum of money for nothing. Either a repair isn’t done, or none was needed in the first place. The bogus contractor is long gone when you discover the scam.
The zip code scam.
You get a phone call from someone who says he’s with the post office. He’ll ask you to confirm your zip code. When you tell him, you’re then told that you’re eligible to receive gift vouchers or some other premium. You’ll be asked to verify your home address and zip code so your gifts can be sent to you special delivery. He’ll also ask when someone will be home to accept delivery. Now he knows where you live, and when will be a good time to break into your home.
I’ve seen this scam done with a general “survey” designed to elicit enough information from the victim to stage a burglary, or even steal credit card numbers. Victims are sometimes told the survey is anonymous, but be assured that they know exactly who you are. Believing it to be anonymous, gullible victims answer all types of questions they might not normally answer, such as: Do you have a home security system? What is you annual house hold income? Do you have a VCR? (Or home computer, thirty-one-inch television, DVD player, professional camera equipment—a complete inventory of potential loot.) Always be leery of surveys.
The bank examiner.
The con artist poses as a banking official or government agent and tries to enlist your help in catching a crooked bank teller. Either in person or on the phone, you’re asked to take money out of your account and give it to the “official” so the money can be marked and the serial numbers recorded. Anyone who does this will not see his money—or the bogus official—again.
“Take over payment” scams.
The advertisement says something along the lines of: “Having problems making your car payments? We can help!” You’re told that your lease or purchase problems are over:
The company will take over your payments, sell your car for you, and settle your account, sometimes for a small fee. You might get a call like this if you’re advertising your vehicle for sale in the paper. If you agree to use the service, you’ll receive an agreement to sign in which you give the con artist permission to take your vehicle, either to sell it or to arrange a takeover of payments. Once you hand over the vehicle, that’s it—you’ve been had. The con artist sells the car or ships it out of the country. You may get a call telling you the vehicle has been stolen and you should file an insurance claim. This could actually cost you a bun die if you owe a large sum and the vehicle’s value is less than what’s owed.
The pigeon drop.
You “fortuitously” stumble upon a lot of “lost” money, jewelry, and other valuables in the street at the same time as two other strangers, who supposedly don’t know each other. They offer to share the stash with you and rely on greed to get you to give in to their way of doing it. This involves you giving them some “good faith” money while they go off to sell jewelry and other noncash items. They allow you to hold the cash portion of the found loot as “insurance.” But what you’ve really got is a bag of newspaper cut to resemble money. The strangers—and your money—are long gone when you discover the switch.
The pyramid scheme.
You’re offered what sounds too good to be true: a once-in- a-lifetime chance at an investment that’s allegedly risk-free and guaranteed to pay a gigantic return. All you have to do is invest and get others to do so, too. Each time you bring a person into the fold, you get a cut of his investment. He, n turn, brings more people into the investment. Of course, the money from investors at the bottom of this pyramid is being used to pay the “investors” at the top. Once the money runs out, the pyramid collapses, and only those crooks at the top make out like the bandits they are.
Auto repair swindles.
Usually these scams occur in out-of-the-way locations or small towns near interstate highways. There are two commonly “needed” repairs. The first is new hoses. (The con artist has a small razor concealed in his hand. As he examines the hoses, he’s actually cutting them.) The second is a new battery. (Yours suddenly doesn’t work. As the mechanic checks the water, he slips an antacid tablet like a Turns into the battery, which neutralizes the acid and ruins the battery.) An old southern “tourist trap” con was to tell northern drivers that they needed to have the winter air in their tires replaced with summer air!
“Work at home” scams.
You’re offered a chance to be free of bosses and commuting and have your own business. All you have to do is send money for a course, instruction book, materials, or supplies to do a certain type of work from home that will supposedly bring you plenty of money. After you’ve sent the money, what you receive in return doesn’t live up to expectations—or you discover that there’s little or no market for what you’re learning to do. Chances of getting your money refunded are slim or none.
Not all work-at-home offers are scams—there are some legitimate ones. Generally these won’t ask for any money up front. As with any other offers, be aware and beware.
900-number credit fix.
The ad says that if you have bad credit, you can fix it or obtain a new credit card by calling a 900 number. If you call, you’ll be charged for each minute you’re connected. (The charges go straight to your phone bill.) After listening to a telemarketer’s pitch or a recorded message designed to keep you on the phone for a long time, you usually end up getting a booklet or pamphlet in the mail that gives general advice to fix bad credit, or a list of institutions offering low-rate credit cards. The cost of the call can be outrageous, often fifty dollars or more, and it’s not easy to get the charges dropped.
Don’t lose a dime to a con artist! To avoid becoming a victim, make sure you follow a few basic rules:
1. Like the old adage says, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So be suspicious!
2. If strangers tell you they’ve found a large sum of money and want to share it with you, leave immediately. If they persist in following you, go somewhere for help. Tell them you’re calling the police now.
3. If someone claiming to be a bank official contacts you either in person or on the phone and wants you to with draw money from your account, call police immediately. Banks don’t do business in this way. Never take money out of your account and give it to the person.
4. If someone calls and wants to verify your credit card number because you’ve won a prize, hang up. Often the con artist tells you that you’ve won if your Visa card number begins with 4 or your MasterCard number begins with 5. The problem is that all Visa cards start with 4, and all MasterCards start with 5.
Some of the newer con games are being played on the Inter net and through the credit system. Let’s look at some of these very modern crimes of fraud.
This fast-growing crime claimed seven hundred thousand victims in the year 2000 and cost businesses billions of dollars. It has attracted added scrutiny after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, because some of the suspected hijackers used false identities. Purloined passports, falsely obtained driver’s licenses, and other official documents weren’t difficult for them to get. Officials said the terrorists actually became the people whose identities they stole.
Are you at risk for identity theft?
Test Your IQ (Identity Quotient)
1. I receive several offers of preapproved credit every week. (5 points) Add 5 more points if you don't shred them before putting them in the trash.
2. I carry my Social Security card in my wallet. (10 points)
3. I don't have a P.O. Box or a locked, secured mailbox. (5 points)
4. I use an unlocked, open box at work or at my home to drop off my outgoing mail. (10 points)
5. I carry my military ID in my wallet at all times. (10 points)
6. I don't shred or tear banking and credit information when I throw it in the trash. (10 points)
7. I provide my Social Security number (SSN) whenever asked, without asking questions as to how that information will be safeguarded. (10 points) Add 5 points if you provide it orally without checking to see who might be listening.
8. I am required to use my SSN at work as an employee or student ID number. (5 points)
9. I have my SSN printed on the employee badge that I wear at work or in public. (10 points)
10. I have my SSN or driver’s license number printed on my personal checks. (20 points)
11. I am listed in a “Who’s Who” guide. (5 points)
12. I carry my insurance card in my wallet and either my SSN or my spouse’s is the ID number. (20 points)
13. I haven't ordered a copy of my credit reports for at least two years. (10 points)
14. I don't believe that people would root around in my trash looking for credit or financial information. (10 points)
15. My driver’s license has my Social Security number on it, and I haven't contacted the motor vehicle department to request a different ID number. (10 points)
Each one of these questions represents a possible avenue for an ID theft.
100+ points: More than half a million people will become victims of ID theft this year. You are at high risk. I recommend you purchase a paper shredder, become more security aware in document handling, and start to question why people need your personal data.
50—100 points: Your odds of being victimized are about aver age. Higher if you have good credit.
0—50 points: Congratulations: You have a high “IQ.” Keep up the good work and don’t let your guard down now.
How did you do? If you had a high score, you’ll definitely want to read on to learn more about preventing identity theft, especially credit card theft.
Credit card theft has essentially become a class of identity theft. It’s really the most basic form. Thieves use your Social Security number, birth date, or driver’s license to get credit cards, loans, and merchandise. They can ruin your credit, or worse. In some cases, identity thieves stole rental cars and took out second mortgages on homes.
While merchants and credit card companies usually pick up the tab, that cost is passed on to consumers. So is the hassle. Cleaning up the mess identity thieves leave behind can take many agonizing years. We use our IDs in so many places that it’s often hard to backtrack and find them all. In a recent case in Florida, a couple whose identity was stolen finally cleaned up their credit reports after six years of fighting off creditors for more than thirty-four thousand dollars in charges. It was astounding what they had to go through when they were completely innocent. Who stole their identity? An employee at their bank, who saw the couple’s pristine credit rating.
Those who steal credit card numbers get them by rummaging through trash for credit card receipts, or by paying restaurant employees to poach numbers. Anyone who works anywhere that processes credit card transactions can steal your numbers. It’s that simple.
What can you do? Decrease your risk of identity theft with the following:
Top Ten Tips to Prevent Identity Theft
1. Use a cross-cut paper shredder to destroy papers you no longer need that contain sensitive or identifying information.
2. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you, or anything else that has your SSN on it. Never write your SSN on checks or give it out unless absolutely necessary.
3. Check your credit reports once a year. Contact all three major credit bureaus. This is one of the best ways to find out if someone is using your information without your knowledge. Reports cost a small fee, less than ten dollars, unless you’re a victim of financial crime or have been turned down for a job or credit due to information in your report. The three credit reporting bureaus are:
TransUnion: 800-888-4213; fraud victim assistance: 800-680-7289
Experian: 888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; fraud division: 888-397-3742
Equifax: 800-685-1111; fraud assistance line: 800-525-6285
4. Reduce the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive. They’re security risks. Call 888-5-OPTOUT to permanently get off the credit bureaus’ lists for unsolicited credit and insurance offers, which is where the credit card companies get your name.
5. Guard your personal information. Carry as little as possible in your wallet. Get credit cards with your picture on them. Be alert to shoulder surfers listening for information.
6. Keep confidential information in a locked place.
7. Keep an eye on your credit card when you give it to a clerk. Make sure your card information isn’t being copied some where, or onto a computer to make copies of the card later.
8. Cancel any credit cards you no longer use. Don’t just cut up the card—call the company to cancel the account, and ask them to send you a letter confirming that at your request, the account was closed with a zero balance.
9. If your credit card is lost or stolen, immediately notify the company, even if someone calls and says he’s found your card and is returning it. Thieves often make such calls. If you don’t cancel your cards, the thief goes on a charging spree.
10. Put passwords on your credit card, bank, and phone accounts. Follow the PIN code tips from section 2 to avoid choosing codes based on easily available information.
Telemarketers—”If their stock tip is so good, why are they working a cheap telephone job?”
A telemarketer called me with a “hot” stock tip. I listened for a moment, only because I wanted to wait for the guy to stop talking so I could ask him why he was working in a telemarketing job if his investment advice was so good.
I get telemarketing calls all the time, and I have a standard way of dealing with them. Here’s what I say: “I don't accept telephone solicitations. If you’d like to contact me by mail, feel free to. Thank you very much. Good-bye.”
As you can see, I don’t give out any information—not my full name, address, nothing. I’m polite, but firm. I use this standard response whether the call is asking me to support my local Police Benevolent Association, or if it’s someone telling me I’ve won a prize. If they won’t put it in writing and sign their name to it, I’m not interested.
I don’t believe there’s really any other way to handle unwanted telephone solicitations, and my way does protect you and your private information. You could just hang up, but if you think that’s rude, try a standard response like I have.
At this point, you might ask: Is there ever a wanted telemarketer? Is there any time you should listen to a telemarketer? For myself, the answer is no. You might completely disagree with me on this, and everyone has to make their own decisions in the end, but I can’t think of one instance in which I need to listen to a telemarketer. If I need something, I’ll go to the store and get it. If someone’s telling me I need something, I probably don’t, or I would have thought of it myself. and that’s why I don’t listen to telemarketers.
Don’t confuse telemarketing calls with legitimate business calls, however. If my phone company calls me with new plans that save me money over what I’m currently using, that’s a business call, in my opinion. I’m already doing business with that company and it’s a legitimate business call. My insurance company, cable TV—anyone I’m currently doing business with isn’t a telemarketing call.
Some telemarketers try to pretend they know you when they call. A lot of older people who have memory problems can be taken by this, then easily swayed into buying things. The telemarketers can be really good at this. Be on alert for this tactic. I have a friend whose phone book listing contains her cat’s name first (Jake) and her name second. If someone calls and asks for Jake, she knows he got her number from the phone book and has no idea who he’s calling.
What to Do If You’ve Been Conned
If you suspect fraud, contact your local authorities, your local or state consumer protection agency, your state or district attorney’s office, or a consumer advocacy group. One such organization is the National Fraud Information Center (800-876- 7060, or on the Internet at http://www.fraud.org/).
Many people who’ve been taken by telemarketers or other con artists don’t report what happened because they feel foolish. It’s important to report frauds to the authorities, so try to get over your feelings. If you don’t report it, how can the criminals be caught? Do your part and report the con.