Scams: If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is

By: Russ Allen

Tim Depin. RUSS ALLEN PHOTO

CHATHAM – It began innocently enough – a $1 charge appeared on a bank account on the Saturday of Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend and disappeared two days later. Then, a month later on the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend, $660 was charged by eBay to the same account. A quick series of phone calls revealed that someone had used stolen credit card information to purchase a camera from a Canadian citizen who claimed, probably falsely, that he was about to send it to the buyer’s brother in the Philippines. Fortunately, the scam was discovered early enough to allow eBay to cancel the purchase and refund the money, all due to the account owner’s habit of daily checking the account's balance online.

Similar personal experiences led some 15 people to attend a program held at the Eldredge Library in last Thursday led by Tim Depin, program manager of the Community Engagement Division of the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General. “Every Day Scams and Identity Theft: How to Avoid Being a Victim” consisted of an hour packed full of information on various types of scams, how to recognize them and what to do to avoid being their victims. Though Depin also discussed the potentially more serious issue of identity theft, it was on a limited basis.

Most scammers, Depin said, are primarily interested either in obtaining money from their subjects immediately or in gathering the personal information that will allow them to gain access to their victim’s financial assets later. In the instance mentioned above, the scammer previously obtained the necessary credit card data, tested the waters with an innocent $1 charge, and then under cover of a three-day weekend made the purchase from which he hoped to benefit. The account owner never learned who the scammer was, how he obtained the information needed for the scam or planned to benefit from the eBay sale, or if the scammer was charged with a crime.

Scamming takes a variety of forms utilizing different ways of gaining a target’s personal and financial information and thus to their actual assets. Telephone calls, emails, the internet, texts and surface mail all can be used to these ends, often with an air of authenticity, legitimacy and even legality with which the scammer hopes to ensure compliance and vulnerability. In his presentation, Depin identified many of these, such as the “Short Con,” intended to obtain funds immediately, and the “Long Con” designed to gain personal and financial information for use later. Among the types of scams are phishing, which asks the victim to verify information that the scammer claims already to have, and pyramid schemes which recruits the target to participate in multi-level marketing arrangements in which they buy products and invite others to make purchases with the promise of financial rewards.

“Letter Scams” often consist of promises of lottery or contest prizes that require the winner to pay money upfront in order to receive the funds. They may also offer unsolicited credit cards or checks that ask for a return of part of their face value when cashed, only to be rejected by the bank as fake. Because scammers want to avoid leaving a paper trail, Depin said, they will discourage their targets from any effort independently to verify the offer being made. He warned those attending to be suspicious of anyone promising to give them money or services without a contract.

Among the more extreme examples mentioned by Depin are telephone calls claiming to be from the IRS demanding payment of back taxes, promising immediate arrest by the FBI, purporting to be a relative in personal danger, or even threatening blackmail. Scammers have been known to send authentic-looking emails supposedly from a bank asking for verification of the recipient’s personal data or claiming that the recipient’s computer protection has expired and needs to be renewed. They will offer free trips that require the recipient to pay money up front or get-rich schemes that end up costing the victim instead of benefiting them. Contact is often made at times of personal or technological vulnerability, incorporating a risk factor and the need for immediate response either financially or in terms of personal information.

Depin urged caution in response to any contacts made by whatever media.

“Step back, take a deep breath, and look carefully before deciding if and how to respond,” he said. “Don’t sign anything unless you have read and understood the document, including its fine print. Always guard your personal information and ensure that the person asking for it has a legitimate reason for the request. Research any offer before agreeing to it.” To those who receive attractive proposals with a catch, he added: “A free trip is not free if you have to pay anything for it.”

Depin recommended a pro-active response to any potential scam. His advice: “If it sounds too good to be true, chances are it is a scam.” Monitoring credit records and reviewing credit reports regularly, immediately reporting suspicious activity to the bank or credit card company, in some cases contacting the local police department, and especially utilizing the services of the Attorney General’s Office are steps that can stop a scammer from succeeding in gaining the funds or information he is seeking, ensuring he cannot do further damage to his target and even protecting others from becoming victims.

Depin’s discussion of identity theft focused on ways to protect a potential victim from the actions of someone who has gained access to their personal information such as their Social Security, bank accounts, or driver’s license numbers, and therefore their financial resources. Unfortunately, the damage that can be done by an identity thief can be much broader than just the illegal use of a victim’s money. It can be difficult for those whose identities have been stolen to undo the damage beyond freezing their credit and changing numbers. Nevertheless, those who experienced identity theft can protect their financial assets by first filing an ID theft complaint and a police report that together constitute an ID theft report, Depin said. Then they should to obtain a free credit report and contact a credit bureau to file a fraud alert or request a security freeze on their credit.

“Scammers want to find the path of least resistance to your money or personal information,” Depin said, and the best advise he offered was to “Take a step back before responding.” Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein called it “TANSTAAFL!” – “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!” Being cautious, pro-active, educated and aware are keys to identifying a scam, protecting personal and financial assets, and avoiding becoming a victim, according to Depin.