Officials: Be wary of new versions of old scams

Posted Feb. 10, 2009, at 10:04 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Beware an online valentine bearing gifts.

That’s the advice from the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, there is a new Internet scam designed to find its way not into your heart but into your computer and your personal information.

“It’s difficult not to give in to the temptation to open an e-mail that’s declaring undying love for you,” said Assistant Attorney General Jim McKenna. “But don’t do it.”

If you click on the e-mail, it can open a portal into your computer through which the sender can find your passwords and other personal information. It is one of many Valentine’s Day Internet scams being used to bilk people out of their money. And it’s not just on the Internet.

Local investigators are warning businesses to be wary of a Boston-based company that is running a scam in the area.

The business, “School Booster Company,” is trying to get businesses to spend $89.50 to buy an ad in the Ellsworth High School spring schedule poster. Although the school’s athletic department does put out a poster, it does not do business with the company and the offer is a fake, according to Detective Dorothy Small of the Ellsworth Police Department.

This is one of the latest of the scams to hit the area. Although this one targets businesses, scammers increasingly are targeting individuals as well, by mail, e-mail and telephone, in an effort to con people into turning over their money for nothing.

Nigerian free money offers, loan advances for a fee, Internet auctions, offers for government grants for a fee, job opportunities overseas, online dating, foreign lotteries or sweepstakes, and fake check scams from Canada — the list goes on, all offering you something that seems too good to be true. And that, as the adage says, is because it’s not true.

“It’s always a new twist on an old game,” said Detective Alan Brown of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. “But people should know: You don’t get something for nothing.”

Add in the calls about identity theft and stolen credit card numbers, and these types of consumer fraud cases appear to be on the rise, according to Small.

“We hear it almost every day,” Small said. “We’re getting five or six calls a week at least. That’s increased in the last six to eight months. I think it has to do with the economy. People are concerned about money.”

Because of that concern, she said, people who normally would have thrown away junk mail solicitations now are taking the time to read them.

McKenna said the complaints to the Attorney General’s Office are pretty steady, but added that it is hard to ignore the impression that those types of cases are on the increase.

“The Internet makes it so easy to e-mail everyone,” he said.

The scams, whether by mail or e-mail, seem to fall into two categories, where the scammer attempts to get the intended victim to send either personal information or money. Often, McKenna said, they will tie into a current news story, such as the recent debate over the federal stimulus package.

According to the attorney general’s Web site, the scam involves an e-mail supposedly from the IRS informing the subject that they are eligible to receive a stimulus payment. To receive the payment, a form must be downloaded and filled out. The Attorney General’s Office warns that this is the latest version of the scam to get you to disclose personal financial information.

According to Small, one of the most prolific scams comes through the regular mail from Canada. It informs you that you have won a lottery or a sweepstakes valued at thousands of dollars. Enclosed is a check for a very small portion of those winnings, some of which, you are told, will allow you to pay the required taxes or processing fees.

“The checks look real, because they are real,” Small said. “They’re printed on real check paper which you can get anywhere. They include a bank number, but they include the wrong routing number.”

That makes it more difficult for a bank to trace the check after it has been deposited. By the time the bank discovers the check is no good, the depositor often has sent money back to the scammer and also has spent some of the rest of the money from the fake check.

Local bankers are becoming pretty savvy, Small said, and there have been few instances where people have lost money. But Detective Brown noted that the Sheriff’s Department investigated one case in which a local man lost $5,000 in a similar scheme.

“The bank told him he was responsible for the debts,” Baker said. “He disputed that with the bank, but I don’t know how it was resolved.”

In another scam, a Veazie woman was solicited to become a secret shopper. Enclosed with the letter was a check for $3,800 that she was to use to purchase items at different stores and also to send a moneygram to the company as a way to rate the moneygram company’s customer relations. The check, although a real check, was no good.

In the old days, McKenna said, con men would stand on a street corner and wait for someone to come by. Now they can send an e-mail to thousands of people with one stroke of a computer key. And they can anticipate that at least some of those who receive them will respond.

“If I’m sitting in a room somewhere and I send out 3,000 of these things, and if even just one sends me $500 or $1,000; that’s a pretty good day’s work,” Brown said.

As easy as it is to start an e-mail scam, it is extremely difficult to investigate the cases. With many of the scams originating in foreign countries, Brown said, it is impossible to complete an investigation. Even with the Canadian scams, it’s hard to track them down from Ellsworth, he said.

Small said she keeps track of the cases the Sheriff’s Department is handling and also tracks cases in other agencies, but none of the departments has the resources to try to pursue the scammers.

The Attorney General’s Office works with the state police and local agencies and also cooperates with attorney general’s offices in other states. But McKenna agreed that, while they can still vigorously pursue scammers who are going door to door in Maine, it is very hard to track down the modern-day “fraudsters.”

“The Internet makes it very difficult to track them down,” he said. “We rely on education. With an e-mail, who knows where it came from? Even with the Canadian letters, we know they’re from Canada, but who knows where they are? It’s extremely difficult.”

Protect yourself from a scam

The law enforcement agents offer advice:

• Never open an e-mail unless you know whom it is from.

• Be wary of any mail from Canada.

• Never provide personal information over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact.

• If you get an e-mail from your bank requesting personal or account information, it’s not from your bank.

• Don’t deposit any checks from people or companies you don’t know. Take it to the police first.

• Carefully examine bank and credit card statements to ensure that all the charges are charges you have made. Do it quickly when the statement arrives.

• If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true.

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