Identity theft, imposter scams on the rise

Internet scams are designed to cheat people of their hard earned dollars. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

This is what a victim of consumer fraud looks like, and how he lost his money: The scam artist contacted him by email. He stole his identity by tricking the victim into revealing personal information. He managed to get more than $2,000 of the victim’s money. The thieves took his money by using his credit card information, buying something over the phone or online, or cleaning out a bank account. The victim is 55 years old, and he is hearing about more and more people who are victims of fraud much like him.

The profile of a victim comes from the latest statistics on consumer fraud compiled by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC gathers reports of consumer fraud in a massive database used by law enforcement investigating fraud. The reports come from a variety of sources, including police, state attorneys general, state consumer affairs officials, wire transfer vendors, and others.

Last year the FTC collected 1.8 million complaints, up 24 percent from the previous year.

Taking names

Identity theft was the number one individual complaint reported to the FTC. It amounted to 15 percent of all complaints.

Massachusetts ranked 28th of the 50 states in the percentage of consumer fraud complaints reported, with 401 complaints per 100,000 people, according to the FTC. Colorado, Delaware, and Maryland topped the list, while Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota ranked lowest in the percentage of complaints reported.

Massachusetts ranked 29th in the number of identity theft complaints.

Of those reporting identity theft, 17 percent said the identity theft involved credit card fraud. The same percentage said their identity was used by someone else to get government documents such as a birth certificate or driver’s license, or to get government benefits.

Identity theft ranked second on a list of complaints to the Massachusetts Attorney General in 2011, behind foreclosure relief scams.

Fake and take

Imposter scams made up five percent of the fraud complaints. The FBI reports a recent increase in this kind of scam, where someone pretends to be a relative in distress, or person planning a party who needs catering services.

“Imposter scams are particularly insidious,” Leonard Gordon said in a news release. Mr. Gordon is director of the FTC’s Northeast region. “These scammers also tend to know no bounds when it comes to their efforts to convince consumers to hand over their cash, whether it’s targeting seniors claiming to be grandchildren stranded in a foreign country or someone looking for a connection on an online dating site.”

That mirrors recent warnings from local police departments, who caution residents to be skeptical of any unsolicited call or email that asks for money.

In February, scam artists defrauded a 75-year-old Island grandmother of $4,600 by convincing her that her grandson was in jail on a drunk driving charge, and needed money to pay for damages to another vehicle.

In February 2011, Edgartown police linked a common scam to sell non-existent merchandise on craigslist to an Island resident.

Several Island restaurant owners report an e-mail scam that has been circulating for at least two years, in which someone wants to hire them for a large catering job, but then asks them to wire money to cover a bogus financial transaction.

Consumer advocates also warn scam victims that they may be targeted more than once.

One of the most common scams is to call someone who has been victimized by fraud, and promise to get their money back.