Several weeks ago an Edgartown man lost thousands of dollars he wired to the Dominican Republic, in a desperate attempt to help his granddaughter. More recently, a woman in Edgartown was duped in a check-cashing scam and lost $1,500.
These are a few of the latest examples of scam phone and Internet solicitations that unfortunately continue to flourish and to dupe Islanders, according to local police departments.
The incident that involved the Edgartown grandfather happened about a month ago, according to Edgartown Police Detective Sergeant Chris Dolby. A caller who identified himself as being from the consulate in the Dominican Republic told him his granddaughter got into some trouble while visiting the country and needed money.
The grandfather followed his instructions and wired about $4,000 by Western Union to a number he was given. When his wife came home, however, they checked and found out that their granddaughter, who is in college, was away, but nowhere near the Dominican Republic.
“He was given a number to call back, which I did call, but of course no one answered,” Detective Dolby said. “Once he wired the money, it’s gone. I contacted Western Union, but there’s no recourse for that; it’s just gone.”
In the check-cashing scam, a woman working on the Island for the summer answered a classified ad in The Times for a housecleaning job. The person she contacted gave her an email address to contact another person, who asked her to get a check for $2,500 cashed, with the promise she would get to keep 10 percent of it.
“The check was no good, so she is out the money,” Detective Dolby said. “The email address and phone number she was given for further contact was bogus, so there is nowhere to go on it.”
The Times and the Vineyard Gazette have both been the victims of scammers who place classified ads. In days gone by, many Islanders placed ads in person at the newspaper offices and were known by someone on the staff. Now that ads can be submitted online, the process is anonymous and potential scams may not be obvious.
In February 2012, for example, an individual placed a scam help wanted ad in The Times classified section for a “personal assistant” at a salary of $630 per week. The ad had all the attributes of a legitimate ad. Payment was by credit card and the contact telephone number was legitimate, but the ad included only an email contact. People who responded were told the job had been filled and were referred to a man who tried to get them involved in a check-cashing scam.
Billing and rental scams
Detective Dolby said another scam has cropped up recently in which a caller says he or she is from NSTAR, and claims the intended victim didn’t pay a bill or offers enrollment in a new program of some kind. Some of the scammers give people an address and instruct them to send a check, and others ask for private information they can use to access credit card and bank accounts, he said.
“Also, rental scams are very prevalent,” Detective Dolby added. “Someone drives down the street, takes a picture of your house, and puts up an ad that it’s for rent on various websites.”
Mr. Dolby advises everyone against responding to any unsolicited phone calls or email offers.
“Even if you get something that seems legit, take a name and phone number, and say you’ll contact the police department to verify it first,” he said.
Oak Bluffs Police Detective Nicholas Curelli said his department hasn’t dealt with too many scams lately, but in the past, most of the ones he did hear about involved the Internet.
“Every once in a while, I hear from someone who got an email where a person says he is off Island and needs to cash a check he got from an Islander, but can’t, because it’s not from a local bank,” he added. “The scammer says, write me a check and send it to me, and I’ll send you this check. Luckily, I don’t know anybody that has fallen for that one lately, though.”
Common Internet crimes
Unfortunately, many of the scams that Islanders continue to fall for are among the most common, according to the 2012 report of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), which is run in partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National White Collar Crime Center.
“The Grandparent Scam” is one of the most frequently reported Internet crimes and has continued to resurface over the years, the IC3 report says. And the recent Edgartown incident is not the first time an Islander has fallen for it.
In March 2012 a Tisbury grandmother was defrauded of $4,600 after receiving a phone call from a man who sounded like and pretended to be her grandson. He told her an elaborate story about being arrested and held in a local jail in New Hampshire. In order to get him released, his supposed attorney convinced her to wire money by Western Union to a man in China that he said was the victim of the car accident her grandson caused.
In November 2011, Tisbury police warned residents about a phone scam received by at least two Tisbury residents. In each case, when the resident answered the phone, the caller pretended to be the person’s grandson, and said he was in distress in China and needed money.
Phony computer advice
Another one of the IC3’s most reported scams involves telephone calls from people who claim to be employees from legitimate well-known software companies. They warn potential victims that viruses were detected on their computers. Once they log on, the scammers direct them to the computer’s utility area and appear to demonstrate how the computers were infected, the IC3 website explains.
The scammers then offer to rid the computers of the viruses for a fee. When victims agree to pay, they are directed to a website where they enter a code or download a software program that allows the scammers remote access to their computers.
Luckily, skepticism and awareness about identity theft led Susan Gomez of Chappaquiddick to foil a variation of that scam just last week. Ms. Gomez called The Times on Monday to report that she received a suspicious call at 1:45 pm last Friday from a man whose ID came up on her phone as “unknown name and number.”
Without any preamble, he told Ms. Gomez her computer was about to crash. He asked if she was using it at the time, and when she said no, he requested that she turn it on. Instead, she asked who he worked for, and he said, “Windows.” Ms. Gomez said it raised her suspicions when he gave the name of a software program as his employer, rather than Microsoft, the company that makes it.
“He said, ‘We’re getting error messages and warnings because you download a lot of stuff from the Internet,'” Ms. Gomez said. “But that’s not true; I barely use my desktop. I use my Smartphone, but that uses Safari, so I knew Windows isn’t an issue.”
The man said if she turned her computer on, he would tell her where some questionable files were located. She said no. She told him she was very familiar with her computer, and asked him to tell her where the files were, and that she would look at them herself, later.
“He kept trying to get me to turn my computer on, and after we’d been on the phone for about six or seven minutes, I said look, this is an unsolicited phone call and I don’t know who you are,” Ms. Gomez said. “I said send me an email. I’m not turning my computer on. He said, ‘Go to hell,’ and hung up.”
Ms. Gomez said she knew if he got access to her hard drive, he could obtain personal information such as account numbers and personal identification numbers.
“He might be trying to contact other Vineyarders,” she said. “If somebody falls victim to that, there goes their identity. You have to get the word out about not giving out information in unsolicited phone calls like these.”
Don’t be duped
“Internet crime schemes that steal millions of dollars each year from victims continue to plague the Internet through various methods,” the IC3 website says.
In April this year the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a statistical survey of fraud in the U.S. during 2011, which showed that an estimated 25.6 million adults — 10.8 percent of the adult population — were victims of one or more of 17 specified types of fraud.
“Crooks use clever schemes to defraud millions of people every year,” the FTC website says. “They often combine sophisticated technology with age-old tricks to get people to send money or give out personal information. They add new twists to old schemes and pressure people to make important decisions on the spot.”
The FTC website offers a list of Internet crime prevention tips by type and 10 ways to avoid fraud at www.consumer.ftc.gov. Among them, the FTC advises consumers to know who they are dealing with.
“Try to find a seller’s physical address (not a P.O. Box) and phone number,” the website says. “Do an online search for the company’s name and website and look for reviews. If people report negative experiences, you’ll have to decide if the offer is worth the risk.”
The FTC also warns consumers against sending money to someone they don’t know, agreeing to deposit a check and wire money back, or replying to messages asking for personal or financial information.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley warns in regard to consumer scams on her agency’s website. She advises consumers to always ask anyone who requests personal information for their name, organization, phone number, and address before providing it to them.
“Confirm this information through an outside source, such as the company’s website or a telephone directory,” the attorney general’s website says. “You may be contacted by credit card companies or banks if they notice unusual transactions or suspect someone else of using your account, but in these cases financial institutions will never request the account number or other identifying information. Rather they will only inquire about specific usage.”