Scams to Avoid - Community Advisory

Many have heard of scams targeting the elderly, grandparent scams, home repair scams, investment scams, and a most recent scam we had here in Takoma Park called the "pigeon drop" scam, etc. But, did you know that certain scams are more likely to occur during certain times of the year?

January: Diets. Losing weight is the most popular New Year's resolution. But it is also the most likely to get you ripped off: The Federal Trade Commission says that more people are defrauded through weight-loss scams such as "miracle" supplements, "easy" exercising gizmos and "breakthrough" diets than any other product category it monitors.

February: Repairs. Traveling crooks target retiree-rich communities in warm-weather states like Florida and Arizona. Among the most common cons: self-described utility workers or contractors who show up unannounced and ask to enter your home, claiming "the condo association sent me."

March: Ribbon Rip-Offs. Breast cancer charities raise $6 billion each year on research for a cure. Unfortunately, anyone — scammers included — can use that familiar pink ribbon to brand merchandise or solicit contributions. And some "breast cancer" organizations devote only pennies of every dollar they collect to the cause; four, in fact, were among 50 recently deemed "America's worst charities." So before you give, check such websites as Give.org or CharityNavigator.org.

April: Subscriptions. Take a close look at those subscription invoices in your mailbox. Hit with phony renewal notices, consumers nationwide are paying for newspapers and magazines they'll never receive. The tip-off to the rip-off: an offer to start or renew a subscription at a hard-to-believe rate. If you're asked to send a payment to a company you don't recognize, call the publisher to verify the offer is legit.

May: Condos. Looking for a choice vacation rental at below-market rates? Beware: Some of those best-deal condos, mountain retreats or beach-front places may not really exist. Stick with bona fide real estate websites or listing agents. And never, ever make any kind of payment via a wire transfer.

June: Security. Summer means open windows, vacations and more home burglaries. It's also prime season for door-to-door scammers whose offer of a "free security inspection" is their way of casing your home for a possible later burglary. Bottom line: Unless you initiate a sales call, don't let anyone into your house. Scammers may produce forged identification. Many certified installers are listed at alarm.org.

July: Free Money. Surprised by an unexpected check? If the windfall comes with a string attached — you have to forward some portion of the money elsewhere, typically by wire transfer — it's almost certainly bogus. Be especially suspicious of amounts just shy of $5,000; scammers know that deposits above that amount are subject to longer bank holding periods.

August: Puppies. National Dog Day is Aug. 26, and if you're among those who love man's best friend, scammers may be out to get you. Amid the legitimate ads for puppies in newspapers and online websites are plenty of solicitations for stolen animals, or for ones that don't exist. The rule: Make sure the seller is legitimate before you agree to buy (or put down a deposit). Otherwise you could find yourself dealing with a dognapper.

September: Home Repair. Beware of the "woodchuck." This home improvement huckster usually starts with an offer to trim trees. Soon the woodchuck points out additional problems, returning day after day to take care of never-ending (and often needless) repairs. These fly-by-day fraudsters sometimes request payment in advance to buy materials for such jobs as roof repair or driveway sealing — but then, with your cash in hand, never return. Remember: Most reputable contractors are too busy to seek business by knocking on your door.

October: Taxes: You're looking for year-end tax breaks. And fraud-minded financial "advisers" are looking for you. Beware of unsolicited offers and invitations that aim to steer you into high-commission investment products (be especially suspicious, for example, of the "free lunch" seminar). Assume a scam when investments are touted as "guaranteed," "risk-free" or "secret." To make sure that you're dealing with a legitimate investment adviser, visit FINRA's BrokerCheck, at www.finra.org/Investors/ToolsCalculators/BrokerCheck.

November: Veterans. Scammers target both active-duty personnel (for their steady paychecks) and veterans (for their benefits and nest eggs). Remember: If an unsolicited pitch plays on patriotism or military service, it usually comes with sky-high interest rates and hidden fees. And veterans should steer clear of any offers that promise lump-sum cash advances or settlements in exchange for their future pension payments.

December: Gift Cards. 'Tis the season to give — and receive — gift cards. But scams abound, from substitution schemes to sophisticated scan-and-clone techniques in which stolen cards are scanned by a magnetic reader, which can render other cards in the same set useless. Always make sure that a card's packaging hasn't been tampered with and that any peel-off sticker over a code is firmly in place — and get a receipt for the recipient.

Below are some other scams that the Takoma Park Police Department have previously warned citizens/residents about. These scams are not all inclusive, and you should always thoroughly research and confirm the validity of any dealings, business or personal, with persons/entities who are not known to you.

Grandparent Scam

The victim receives a phone call from a suspect who claims to be a friend of the victim's grandchild. An elaborate story is given explaining that the victim's grandchild is a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over for a traffic violation in Canada or some other far away place. During the alleged traffic stop, authorities were to have found and seized drugs and that all occupants of the vehicle are arrested. The the caller gives a specific amount of refundable money that would be needed to be sent in order to post bail for the grandchild. The victim is instructed to go to a Western Union near their home and transfer the funds to another Western Union. The grandparent (victim) will be concerned for his/her grandchild's welfare, and transfer the requested funds to the location given. After the transaction is completed, the victim calls a number to give the purported official the transaction number. The money gets retrieved by the suspect and the victim never hears from anyone again. This type of scam is known as the "Grandparent Scam" and it's targeting Washington's elderly. If your grandchild called seeking help, would you send money? In the "Grandparent Scam" cons are posing as relatives to try and convince elderly victims to wire cash to help pay for emergency car repairs, medical bills - or even post bail.

Here's how to detect this kind a scam:

1. Don't fill in the blanks for the scammer. For example: Caller: "Hi, it's your granddaughter."

Grandparent: "Which one?"

Most likely, the con will then hang up.

2. Do whatever is necessary to confirm the real relative's whereabouts. Call your grandchild's home, school or work.

3. Don't send money unless you have verified that your relative is really in trouble. If a caller asks for your bank account number or urges you to send money via Western Union or MoneyGram for any reason, that's a good indication of a scam. Cons prefer wire transfers because they are fast, there are transfer agents in most communities and funds can be picked up in multiple locations.

Below are some red flags and tips to help avoid falling prey to this scam. Scammers are tough to track down, so please continue to get the word out to your family and relatives before they become victims.

Red Flags:

- You're asked to send money quickly - and secretly.

- The call or message originates from overseas. However, you should be aware that technology allows scammers to bypass caller ID systems.

- The person can't or won't answer questions that only the real person would know.

- Any time someone asks you to send money by Western Union or MoneyGram, it's invariably a scam. You might also be asked to send a check or money order by overnight delivery. Con artists recommend these services so they can steal your money before you realize you've been cheated. Money transfers can be picked up at any service location as long as the thief/recipient has the confirmation number.

Tips:

- Avoid volunteering information over the phone. Always ask callers to identify themselves by name and ask individuals who contact you to provide information that only you and people close to you would know.

- Call the friend or relative claiming to need your help to confirm whether the story is true, using a phone number you know to be genuine.

If you aren't able to contact the person, call other friends or family members to confirm the situation.

- Refuse to send money via wire transfer.

- If you have wired money and it hasn't been picked up yet, call the wire transfer service to cancel the transaction. Once the money has been picked up, there is no way to get it back.

- Trust your gut!

The Attorney General's Office successfully negotiated agreements with Western Union in 2005 and MoneyGram in 2008 in which the "send forms" used to transfer money have required warnings in English and Spanish. An example of that warning can be found at http://www.atg.wa.gov/uploadedFiles/Home/News/Press_Releases/2008/MoneyG

Warn loved ones about the "Grandparent Scam" and other money-wiring schemes. Elderly residents continue to be robbed of as much as $13,000 because they haven't heard the warning. If you haven't talked to the seniors in your life about this scam, now is the time.

Driveway and/or Roof Repair

 

In the driveway scam, homeowners are advised that their driveway is in need of seal coating. After an exchange of funds, the driveway is either painted black or coated with roofing oil, which does not protect your driveway. In the roof scam, homeowners are advised they need roof work to not void a previous work warrantee or leaks of some kind. Several different crimes are possible here. In some cases, homeowners can be billed for undone work, or in other cases the worker takes up the homeowner's concentration and another criminal enters the home and burglarizes it during the scam. This scam is mostly tried on the elderly.

If workers come to your home and advise you that you need repairs, request to see their License to work. All contractors and businesses must be licensed and bonded. Do not hesitate to call police for assistance when confronted at your home by "business" men who try to hard sell you into something. Do not do business with unlicensed companies or workers.

 

Handkerchief Switch

 

Key element: A stranger with a large amount of money, joined by a second stranger, convinces the victim to hold the money for safekeeping or distribution to a charity after putting the money from all three in a handkerchief or paper bag. After the strangers leave, examination of the package reveals the money is actually cut up paper.

 

Other names for this scam: South African Letter, Jamaican Switch and Country Boy Switch.

 

Example scenario: The victim is approached on the street by the first stranger who will pose as (a) a South African with a large amount of money obtained in an insurance settlement; (2) a Jamaican or other foreign seaman with a large amount of money obtained from wages; or (3) a country boy with a large amount of money from the sale of produce, land, etc. The stranger who approached the victim may play the part of a fool and ask the victim for assistance in locating an address, which is non-existent. In the case of the South African, the stranger may be looking for a church or charitable institution to donate the money, as he cannot take the money home because of political turmoil. He may even show letters from an attorney or insurance company indicating the amount of money and a letter from his home country explaining that he cannot bring the money back. In the case of the Jamaican or country boy, the stranger may explain that he paid several hundred dollars to a woman to "have a good time" and is looking for the hotel (non-existent) where she told him to meet her.

 

If the victim is deemed suitable, he will signal for his "partner" to join in. He will then explain the scenario a second time to his partner. During the conversations, he will display a large roll of what appears to be several thousand dollars. The partner who joined in will tell the stranger that the location does not exist and caution him about showing the money in public, as people will rob him. At this point, a discussion about banks may ensue which will help determine if the victim has money in the bank. At this point, the suspects make a determination whether to play the victim for the cash he has on him or attempt to get money that is in the victim’s bank.

 

If they decide to play for the bank money, the stranger who began the scam may claim ignorance about banking procedures and will not believe that currency can be taken out of the bank. The second scammer enlists the aid of the victim to convince the first scammer how banks work. In some cases, the scammer will tell the victim and his partner that he will match anything they get out of the bank to prove that money can be taken out as an incentive to have the victim withdraw money. The second scammer may or may not pretend to make a withdrawal to show the first scammer. The victim is then induced to do likewise.

 

Pigeon Drop (Two people were recently arrested in Takoma Park for this scam.

 

Key element: Pretending to find a large quantity of money and convincing the potential victim they can share in the money. The offense can be committed on any victim but is normally committed on an older victim by two suspects, females and/or males. However, it can be committed by one suspect acting in concert with someone on the telephone. The initial approach is made in retail shopping areas.

 

Example scenario: The victim is approached by at least one suspect who engages the victim in conversation. The suspect alone (or joined by a second suspect) will find or tell the victim they found a package, wallet, etc. Subsequent examination will reveal the package contains what appears to be a large amount of money. One of the suspects volunteers to check with his "boss" to get advice on what to do with the "found money."

 

The suspect may use a cell phone to contact the "boss" or leave with the package to see the "boss." After consulting with the "boss," the suspect will tell the victim the money came from an illegal source such as gambling, narcotics, etc. and the package contains several thousand dollars (i.e., $100,000.00) and they can split the money three ways. The victim may also be told that the package contained a valuable bond or security worth several thousand dollars which adds to the total they can split. The victim is told the "boss" will help them share the money and cash the bond. He may require each of them to show "good faith" by producing money of their own to demonstrate they can manage large amounts of money without spending it for 30 days or he may offer to make the income derived from the division of the "found money" look legitimate such as proceeds from an investment which he will "postdate."

 

The victim is led through the ensuing process by the suspects who let them believe they will receive a share of the "found money" for just being present when the money was found and doing very little on their part. This may entail the ruse of bank withdrawals by one of the suspects and a trip to see the "boss" with the suspect returning and displaying a share of the money. Eventually, after several temporary set backs, the victim is convinced to withdraw several thousand dollars to be able to receive a share of the "found money." Initially the victim believes they will not lose possession of the money. Eventually the money is taken from the victim and given to the purported "boss." The victim is sent into a business to see the "boss" and retrieve their money and their share of the found money only to discover there is no boss and the suspects are gone.

 

Latin Lotto

 

Key element: Victims in this case are normally Hispanic and the suspects are male and female Hispanics. The suspects normally speak only Spanish while playing this offense.

 

Example Scenario: The first suspect, who claims to be looking for an attorney, approaches the victim on the street. The suspect goes on to say that he has a winning lottery ticket but is afraid to cash it as he is in the country illegally. The second suspect joins the scenario and the story is told again. The first suspect either offers to pay the two a substantial amount of money or sell them the winning ticket at a great discount for assistance in cashing the ticket. Once the victim agrees to help, the suspect claims to want proof that they know how to handle money or needs currency to purchase or redeem the ticket and induces the victim to withdraw several thousand dollars. Once the money is withdrawn it is taken from the victim either in a switch or, more frequently, by sending the victim into a drug store and driving off. In this scenario, one of the suspects feigns sickness throughout the offense and pretends to very ill when the victim returns from the bank. The victim is sent into the drug store for medicine and the suspects drive off.

 

Door to Door Solicitor

 

Example Scenario: As a door-to-door solicitor, the suspect asks for a donation to benefit a nonexistent organization or purpose, or sells a product for a reduced price if the person signs the contract immediately and pays cash at the time of sale.

 

Verify a door-to-door solicitor's identification and permit. If in doubt, call local law enforcement immediately. Tell the solicitor the contract will not be signed until an attorney has reviewed it.

 

Investment Scams

 

In this scam, the criminal contacts you with a great investment plan. While the specific details of the plan can vary depending on who is delivering the pitch, one thing is certain -- it is a bad investment for everyone but the criminal.

 

Lottery Scams

 

Foreign Lottery- In this scam, you receive a call, email or letter -- usually from a foreign country -- telling you about a way to select winning lottery numbers, and you need to call a toll-free number to find out more. There is no need to call that number. All the con criminal has is a winning way to take your money.

 

Lotteries - A person offers to sell a winning lottery ticket or a "law firm" says someone has left you a winning lottery ticket, but you must send money so a computer can verify your identity. The "winning" ticket may be counterfeit or not exist. Be suspicious, do NOT buy a ticket from an individual, and do NOT send money!

If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Don't fall victim to scammers!

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If you see a crime in progress, contact the Takoma Park Police at 301-270-1100. If you need to report an emergency that involves the need for fire or rescue services, call 9-1-1.