Despite warnings, victims swindled on Internet, telephone and Craigslist
Picking through Craigslist puts an extraordinary amount of options at one’s fingertips: listings of items for sale, wanted goods and offers for any kind of trades imaginable.
A section dedicated to Colorado’s Western Slope lists a 1994 Ford F-250 for $1,800 alongside the offer of a 2012 Audi Q5 with five miles on its engine for $45,000.
Skip to another section, and homeowners and real estate agents have taken to selling homes and apartments. Someone is always looking for a roommate. A jobs section posts a number of openings from bookkeepers to dental hygienists, cosmetologists to geologists. A spool of ribbon is up for grabs for $1, lambs in Montrose are available for $2 a pound, and a hideaway, queen-sized bed is yours for $800.
In keeping with the anonymity of cyberspace, the identities of sellers and buyers are kept somewhat hidden. While that might be helpful for legitimate users conducting commerce, the site’s international reach invariably lures scores of swindlers aiming to make quick and easy money.
Craigslist offers a full page of warnings to users of its site, especially when entering pages where scammers tend to post fake offers, such as the vehicle, housing and jobs section.
Stories abound on the Internet about people who thought they were buying vehicles at a fraction of the Blue Book price, only to lose money. Other schemes include apartments offered by scammers who pull listings off the Internet and put apartments or time in a vacation home up for sale, without owning them.
One of the most grisly examples of a Craigslist scam surfaced earlier this month when an ad for employment turned out be a fatal rendezvous for at least one man. A South Carolina man responded to an ad to work as a farmhand in Ohio but found not a job waiting for him, but a freshly dug grave, according to news reports. He was shot and wounded by the two suspects who took him to the presumed job site. The man escaped, and the two suspects are in custody. Authorities said they have found the bodies of three other job seekers in a grave nearby and are looking for other graves in the rural, wooded area.
Colorado’s Office of the Attorney General has received 33 complaints about Craigslist scams this year, but that number reflects only a portion of the fraudulent activity that dupes Colorado residents, attorney general spokesman Mike Saccone said.
“Most cases are check-fraud or wire-fraud-based,” he said. “Most of these scams are not based in Colorado. In fact, they are typically based out of the state or out of the country.”
As far as fraud goes, people in Colorado either are some of the most targeted or the most likely to report instances of abuse.
A study released in March by the Federal Trade Commission showed Colorado residents reported the highest per capita rate of fraud, 21,012 complaints, or one complaint for every 417.8 people. The state’s total number of complaints, including identity theft and other consumer complaints, was 24,973.
Debt-collection schemes garnered the largest number of complaints last year, 2,357, followed by imposter scams and Internet-related scams.
Mesa County residents have become better at reporting scams if they haven’t fallen for them, Mesa County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Heather Benjamin said. Still the subtle changes in fraud and the ways crooks steal personal information over the years snares innocent people every day and keeps the department’s property-crime unit busy, she said.
One such example occurred earlier this week when a Montrose man found himself out some cash and a new trailer after purchasing it through Craigslist. Upon taking the trailer for a VIN inspection at the Montrose County Sheriff’s Department, the trailer came back as stolen out of Oklahoma City. The trailer was impounded, and deputies are working with Oklahoma police to locate its original owner.
While the Internet age offers buyers and sellers some level of anonymity, the best practices for steering clear of online fraud rely on old-fashioned principles, according to Amy Nofziger, director of AARP’s Elderwatch and a partner with Colorado’s Office of the Attorney General on fraud prevention.
People should purchase items only after personally viewing them. Deal with local buyers and sellers. Never pay for any items through a wire transfer. Question why a seller insists you purchase an item or enter into an investment without having the time to consider it. Doesn’t it seem strange that someone would pay more than the asking price for an item?
“Read the warnings,” Nofziger said. “There’s a red flag in every one of these.”
Preying on good intentions
One scheme that never seems to fade away preys on the elderly and their willingness to be helpful. A swindler calls senior citizens claiming to be a granddaughter or grandson, sometimes even knowing the correct name. If the grandparents ask which grandchild, a caller replies, “Which one do you think?” prompting the grandparents to guess and giving the caller an easy in.
The caller then weaves a story that follows the general outline of being stranded or in trouble in another country and needing money wired to them quickly. The caller, playing the role of the grandson or granddaughter, urges the grandparents not to call the grandchild’s parents.
This scenario played out in Grand Junction last month when an elderly couple was defrauded of more than $700, thinking they were helping their grandson out of a bad situation in Canada.
The couple figured out they’d been had when a caller, probably the same one, telephoned the following weekend, but this time claiming to be in Peru and needing more money. Initially the caller asked for $2,100 and then raised it to $5,900. That’s when the Redlands grandmother hung up the phone, according to a report in the case.
After a third call for cash, the couple called their grandchildren’s parents, who confirmed their children were not in trouble and that they would never call them asking for money.
The scheme appears to be working because it plays on people’s sympathies, said spokeswoman Heather Benjamin of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department.
“They take an old scam and slightly twist it over and over,” she said. “It was grandson from Canada. Now it’s a granddaughter from Mexico. They might call thousands of people, but they just need a handful of people to be duped for it to work.”
The types of fraud that tend to befuddle most Grand Valley residents occur after people use their debit cards, Benjamin said.
“We have a fair amount of people who were victimized, but they don’t know how,” she said. “They still have their debit card in their hand, but now it’s being used. In some cases, it’s hard for people to determine where or how it was taken.”
The practice called skimming often occurs when consumers make legitimate transactions using their credit card or debit card. A worker who takes the card out of view of a customer can swipe the card in a handheld device that captures its information and withdraw funds from the account. Skimming also can occur if devices have been installed illegally at any place that accepts debit and credit cards, including gas stations and ATMs.
Using just one card may help consumers avoid the situation. Also, consumers should check their accounts and credit scores regularly to search for any unauthorized activity. Consumers should maintain a line of sight anytime someone else swipes their credit or debit card. Some restaurants now use hand held credit card machines that servers bring to your table in an attempt to ease diners’ concerns.
“We recommend using one card and not a debit card,” Benjamin said. “As soon as they have your number, they can drain your account. Then you can start racking up overdraft fees. If you have a credit card, there is some coverage.”
In a different type of scheme, Grand Valley residents reacted with horror recently after receiving phone calls from a person claiming to be a representative from Microsoft. The person informed them their computers contained viruses that were compromising the software giant. But the problem could be fixed, the caller told the computer users, for $150 plus $50 a month in service fees. After getting people on board, the caller requested remote access into peoples’ computers and pulled up a screen showing a fake screen of offending viruses.
Anthony Cabral, owner of Aspen Street Computers in Fruita, said he assisted six customers in October who signed on for the fraudulent services after their computers started running slowly.
“The sad thing about that is once they remote into your computer, the virus is there,” Cabral said. “They have a back door link. Once they remote in, they can get anything they want.”
Cabral said one woman who signed up for the services noticed her computer’s mouse moving by itself in the middle of the night, evidence that someone was remotely searching around in the programs on her computer. Another one of Cabral’s customers signed up for the phony service on a work computer, and hackers compromised the company’s system.
“She thought she was doing it in the good graces of Microsoft. Now she’s going to lose her job over it,” Cabral said.
At first Maria Molnar of Grand Junction was livid about losing $12,000 in a timeshare scam out of Mazatlan, Mexico. Then, she felt foolish. Now Molnar, a local Realtor, doesn’t hesitate to warn others against what appeared at first blush to be a solid investment opportunity.
“We did something stupid,” she said. “It was kind of running our lives for a while. Now, I just want to get it out.”
For the past decade, Molnar and her husband have traveled to Mazatlan around Christmas. A few years ago, they attended a conference about obtaining a timeshare at Boutique Resort La Jolla in return for payments and the promise that the resort would sell their current timeshare. A downgrade in timeshares could save the couple some money, they reasoned, and the deal was attractive, Molnar said. However, the new resort did not sell their timeshare, and the couple was stuck paying Bank of America $12,000 in fees, Molnar said. Molnar said she inquired about negative publicity the resort had received about prior dealings, but Boutique La Jolla resort officials assured her those problems and the former staff had been replaced.
“When you go there, they put pressure on you,” she said. “It was all lies, lies, lies. A very expensive learning experience.”
Reporting fraud is important because it can offer authorities clues on trends and help others from falling into similar traps, Benjamin said.
Most victims probably don’t report the abuse and “just chalk it up to bad judgment,” she said.
Reports of fraud are welcome even if it appears a suspect can’t be determined or if a credit card was stolen months ago and unauthorized charges recently started appearing on statements. Banking institutions often require a police report on fraudulent charges.
“We’re absolutely happy to take those reports,” Benjamin said.
The likelihood of local police successfully prosecuting suspects from other countries is slim, she said. But some financial crimes that appear to be complex schemes are solved locally.
“If someone went to a local restaurant and their was card skimmed, it’s easier to follow up on,” she said. “We can’t send investigators to England or Jamaica, but we can send them to local organizations. It does get solved sometimes. We certainly can’t solve it if we don’t know about it.”