Fraud has been on the rise during the weak economy

Maryland ranks near the top for complaints on fraud and identity theft

April 25, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

If a grandchild calls begging for money because the Iceland volcano has left him stuck in Europe, you might want to check his story out.

This could be the latest twist on the grandparent scheme, in which con artists pretend to be a grandchild who is traveling and needs money wired right away because of an accident or other emergency.

Frauds like this have been on the rise. You have only to check your e-mail to see all the foreign lotteries you won without entering or the pitches for business opportunities that start off with "Hello dear."

The FBI reports that losses from Internet crime more than doubled last year to $560 million compared with the year before. And the Federal Trade Commission received 1.3 million complaints last year, largely about fraud and identity theft, for a nearly 9 percent increase over 2008.

Maryland remains near the top in complaints to the FTC. Last year, the state ranked No. 11 in per-capita complaints about ID theft, a spot it has held for several years. Maryland came in fourth in the country for fraud complaints, down from No. 2 a year earlier.

Why so many Maryland fraud reports?

Angie Barnett, president of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland, says the state's affluence makes Marylanders more likely to own computers and cell phones. And con artists increasingly are setting up bogus websites or sending out fake e-mails and text messages to trick people into divulging personal information.

"We shop online more. We research online more," she says. "It makes us susceptible."

Or, it could be that Marylanders are better at knowing where to complain, says Sid Kirchheimer, the Scam Alert columnist for AARP Bulletin and author of "Scam-Proof Your Life."

"There are a handful of scams that resurface again and again and again," says Kirchheimer, who has been writing his column for eight years. "They keep changing and evolving."

Take the grandparent scheme that popped up about two years ago. Con artists initially called up a senior without knowing the grandchild's name.

Now they troll obituaries and wedding announcements looking for names, Kirchheimer says. They search Facebook and other social networking sites to find out more details, such as where grandchildren work or whom they date. When con artists call now, they know enough to sound convincing.

Two dozen West Virginians were victims this year, and most of them had one thing in common — a death in the family months before where the grandchildren's names were in the obit, Kirchheimer says.

Grandparents can avoid this fraud by checking out the story with the parents and relatives even if the caller begs them not to tell others.

Frauds perpetrated against Marylanders often focus on the weak economy, Barnett says.

Bogus websites have popped up offering debt relief, debt settlements and payday loans, Barnett says. The sites usually require an upfront fee, and once that's collected, the website shuts down, she says.

Other fraudsters prey on job seekers. A popular scheme is hiring mystery shoppers to rate businesses' customer service, Barnett says.

Victims receive a check for up to $4,000 to deposit in the bank and are told to make certain purchases, including wiring $2,000 via Western Union, Barnett says. Thinking they have the cash in the bank, victims wire the money to the con artist. The check turns out to be counterfeit, and the mystery shoppers are out thousands of dollars.

Sgt. Allen Meyer with the Baltimore County Police Department sees many phony lottery cases.

Often older residents get a phone call saying they won a lottery in Jamaica or the United Kingdom, and to collect they must send in a few thousand dollars to cover the taxes, he says. Once people do that, they get another call saying the amount wasn't enough and they need to send more. One victim sent in a total of $120,000, Meyer says.

"You will never pay taxes on something you haven't received yet," says Karen Straughn, a Maryland assistant attorney general.

Con artists also devise schemes tied to what's making news.

Days after health care reform passed, schemers went door to door pretending to be government workers selling health insurance, Kirchheimer says.

And before the April 15 tax deadline, filers received e-mails purportedly from the IRS that said the W-2 form had been changed and they needed to click on a link for the new version, Kirchheimer says. Anyone who did downloaded a computer virus.

"Uncle Sam does not e-mail you," Kirchheimer says.

Yet fraud perpetrated in the name of federal agencies is huge, likely because people will open an e-mail from what seems to be the government, he says.

The FTC, which protects consumers against scams, posted a warning on its home page last week that con artists are claiming to be from the FTC and telling people they won a lottery. The fraudsters use names of a commissioner or staffers.

Kirchheimer warns that you can expect bogus IRS e-mails soon claiming you're entitled to a tax refund but must submit personal information.

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