Authorities see modern twists on old shams

Kim Whiteside was four digits from losing five.

Or worse.

An early-evening phone call in April warned of trouble with her account at a local credit union. The automated voice explained she had no immediate access to her money, her account “deactivated because of billing issues.”

She was told she could solve everything by providing her account number.

The other end of the line was impatient.

“Your number please?” the voice repeatedly asked.

The Grand Junction resident said she started tapping her account number into the phone, before nagging questions made her hang up.

She stopped four digits short of giving away her complete account number.

“Intuitively, I just felt what I was doing was wrong,” Whiteside said. “I decided if there really was a problem with my account, I can call and talk to a real person the next business day.”

A call to staff at Sooper Credit Union, one of several local financial institutions warning of various scams, confirmed her fears but failed to answer some basic questions.

“How did (scammers) know I had an account there?” Whiteside asked.

They don’t have to, law enforcement officials say.

Mesa County and state authorities in recent weeks have warned of an uptick in several scams, some they’ve seen for a while and others popping up with a new twist or two.

Text messaging and phone scams similar to what Whiteside experienced are sent out by perpetrators “millions” at a time, according to Jan Zavislan, a prosecutor with the Colorado
Attorney General’s Office, who heads up the agency’s consumer protection unit.

“It’s a scale issue,” Zavislan said. “It’s cheap to send these things out, and if they find 10 people who happen to belong to this credit union, maybe they’ll hit on three or four.”

Dan Kester, president and CEO of Sooper Credit Union, said losses to customers hooked by the scam over recent years top $20,000.

“It comes and goes, and the most recent wave started in March,” said Kester, who urges customers to apply common sense.

“We know your account number,” he said. “We’re not going to be asking you for it.”

The case of a Grand Junction husband and wife hooked for 10 years by the so-called Nigerian letter fraud scheme still haunts John Harrison, an investigator with the Internal Revenue Service in Grand Junction.

The couple, from modest means, shipped money overseas for at least a decade and absorbed massive debt for the promise of riches that never arrived.

This, despite pleas to stop from family, friends and law enforcement.

“Greed is key in almost every case where there are victims,” Harrison said. “And at a certain point, you see denial. They’ve pumped so much money into this that they just refuse to realize they are not going to get it back.”

Internet fraud was the source of more than $264 million in losses last year, generating more than 275,000 complaints to law enforcement, according to the FBI’s annual crime report for 2008.

“No matter how hard we educate, there will always be those looking for that pot of gold, stock tip or whatever, that someday they believe they’ll hit,” Zavislan said.

Other low-tech scams have resurfaced on investigators’ radar.

Mesa County Sheriff’s Department investigators in April worked one of the larger at-risk-adult fraud cases in recent memory, which involved an 81-year-old man who paid $18,500 for repairs to his home that were never done.

An arrest warrant for the scheme’s suspected perpetrator, 40-year-old Christopher Robert Dumas, was issued in early April. Authorities allege Dumas worked with several other unknown men.

While an arrest affidavit says the victim “didn’t trust the male”— at one point he refused to let Dumas into his home— he still felt compelled to pay for the bogus roofing project.

The “work,” an extensive foam and sealant treatment project on the home’s roof, supposedly took about 15 minutes, the victim recalled for investigators.

“I worry it’s happening a lot more, and people just aren’t telling us out of embarrassment,” sheriff’s investigator Mike Piechota said.

Harrison said the fraud relies on isolated victims.

“Communication is the biggest defense,” he said. “Are family members talking to them a couple times a day to check in?”


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