Scam alerts commonplace in uncertain times

Posted Feb. 27, 2009, at 6:21 p.m.

I suppose it’s a sign of the uncertain times in which we live that nearly every day readers can find a scam alert in the morning newspaper warning about slick bunko artists gaming grandiose government economic stimulus proposals in order to make a run at our bank accounts.

There were two such notices in the business section of last weekend’s paper. One, from the U.S. Small Business Administration, cautioned against responding to letters falsely claiming to have been sent by the SBA asking for bank account information in order to qualify for federal tax rebates. Only a numbhead would send such sensitive data to a complete stranger — or, for that matter, to an incomplete stranger — the SBA suggested. So smarten up, people.

The other news story reported that Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection loan regulators had received numerous telephone calls from out-of-state consumers reporting fraudulent advance-fee loan offers from a company named Westbrook Lending falsely claiming to be located in Maine.

On its Internet site the outfit offers to market loans to consumers in exchange for upfront money ranging from $800 to $1,600. Send the scam artist the money and you never hear from him again, although if you listen closely you can probably hear him laughing all the way to the bank.

When I turned on my computer Wednesday to retrieve the overnight e-mail, I found what looked suspiciously like a bogus offer purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service (“a bureau of the Department of the Treasury”), complete with fine print quoting several IRS code subsections to lend an aura of legitimacy.

After “the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity,” the IRS had determined that a tax refund of $189.60 was mine for the asking. Since the e-mail was addressed to no one in particular, rather than to me personally, everyone who received the notice apparently had the same “annual calculation of fiscal activity” that I did, and therefore a similar $189.60 refund due. Odd, that. And odd, too, that the notice should arrive the day after President Obama addressed Congress and the American public to talk about the largesse soon to flow our way from his trillion-dollar economic recovery plan. The Internet bamboozlers know fertile ground when they see it, I’m thinking.

All I had to do to apply for my refund was “Click Here.” Certifiably dumb, but not dumb enough to fall for that old line at the end of a message that had exhibited all the trappings — including the usual misspellings — of a fraudulent operation possibly aimed at somehow separating me from my life’s savings, I rang up the Internal Revenue Service in search of clarification.

Alas, the Presque Isle IRS office wasn’t answering its phone, and the Augusta IRS office was answering only with a recording featuring a disembodied voice telling me, in effect, that although IRS Augusta might discuss some matters over the phone, this was not one of them. So I gave it up as a bad job and moved on, figuring that if my e-mail bearing glad tidings is not a hoax the Internal Revenue Service certainly knows where to find me to fork over the $189.60 I allegedly have coming to me.

The con men plying their nefarious trade on the Internet are a nuisance, to be sure. But no more so than the seemingly more legitimate hucksters who try to sell us something by implying that they know all about us and are there to help us improve our sorry lot in life.

“Dear Old Dawg,” a sales pitch from an Internet marketing firm reads. “If you’re wondering why your online business is not doing as well as you would like, the answer is Web traffic …” Since I don’t have an online business, I am not wondering at all, of course.

On the same day, another Internet hustler writes, “Dear Old Dawg: We like your [Web] site, but we noticed that you are missing out on key Web traffic …”

I can only imagine how much more my newfound pen pal might like my Web site if I actually had one.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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