Watch your wallet!
Cons, identity thefts hit local residents
From identity theft to online and phone scams, Facebook schemes and Internet dating websites, the ways are many and varied when it comes to channels criminals use to try and take your money and sometimes your financial identity.
And according to Madison County Sheriff's Investigator Doug Martin, the methods criminals use are changing all the time, often faster than law enforcement can keep up with.
"All these things, like online shopping, dating, social media, even pre-loaded credit cards from the IRS at tax time are making things more convenient for us - but there is a price, and that price is that it is opening us all up to more fraud," said Martin, who spends most of his time investigating these crimes. "It's ultimately making us and our money less secure."
Martin has been with the sheriff's office for 18 years and has spent the last six as an investigator. As time went by and identity theft and fraud crimes in the county increased, he's moved to working on these crimes full-time.
In Madison County, the primary crimes of this type are financial crimes like credit card fraud, identity theft, forgeries and scams. "That's the bulk of my case load right now," Martin said. It's complicated and time-consuming work, tracking down leads and it's all very paperwork intensive, Martin said. For example, when someone reports their credit or debit card information has been used without their permission, Martin has to make a formal request to the financial institution(s) involved to get information to compile a case. It helps, he said, that he's been on the job for a while now and has developed relationships that allow him to gain access a little quicker, but it still takes time. Much of the time now, the victim still has their actual credit/debit card in hand when they discover their card information has been used somewhere without their permission. "Their number, pin, etc., could have been obtained by a wide range of methods," he said. One way is through a "skimmer" (credit card reader) that can be placed at a gas pump or an ATM to steal information when a card is swiped, another is that many businesses have had their computer systems hacked or a third party credit card processor has been hacked. A personal computer may contain malware or a virus that picks up information as an online transaction is made. Martin says another common method is that a waiter or waitress who collects a card for payment at a restaurant could have a credit card reader on their smart phones. A recent case at a restaurant in the county involved a restaurant worker simply snapping a photo of credit cards with his/her smartphone. "That case is still pending," Martin said.
Another thing is that the further away from Madison County a fraudulent purchase is made the harder it becomes to make a case. "If it's in Atlanta, I can maybe go to Atlanta to investigate, but if it's Los Angeles, etc. it's harder to get anywhere with it," Martin said.
Companies and banks also have "thresholds," or a loss amount they are willing to "let go" rather than spend the time and resources to investigate. "If it's fraud, you'll get your money back or it'll be credited back to your credit card account eventually, but we'll all pay for it in terms of higher interest rates, more fees, etc.," Martin said. "It all comes back to the consumer in the end."
Martin's advice is to be aware - check your account balances and financial information regularly and if you note anything suspicious, contact the financial institution immediately. And use a credit card, if you can pay back the balance regularly, instead of a debit card. "Credit cards have a limit, and you're not responsible if they're used without your authorization," he said. "Debit cards are tied to a bank account. You'll get that $500 back, eventually, but in the meantime, you can't use that money." There's also overdraft and other fees to consider that may occur before you are aware your bank account's been compromised.
The most "popular" scam in this area is the lottery/sweepstakes scam, Martin said. "You get a phone call, you've won $10 million in a lottery drawing or a sweepstakes but the caller needs you to send $5,000 in taxes or 'processing fees' to get your money," Martin said. "That's a big red flag. Hang up. It's a scam." The scammers usually want those funds sent by Western Union loaded onto a Green Dot card that can be purchased at a local department store or pharmacy. "Most of these are foreign based," Martin said. "These folks are in Nigeria or Jamaica, even though your caller ID may show a local phone number." Martin said local numbers are easily obtained through voice over Internet protocal systems, like Vonage.
The seccond biggest scam is one Martin refers to as "the lonely hearts club" and it particularly targets the elderly, especially those who live alone. "They go online to a dating website, they are lonely or they just want some compansionship, they set up a profile, and begin communicating with someone,: Martin said. Most of the communication is electronic, he said, starting out as emails, then maybe texts as the "relationship progresses". "This 'person' tells them everything they want to hear, at first," he said. "They want to visit, but can't, they work overseas or are on an oil platform in the
Gulf of Mexico or something like that." Then there is inevitably a crisis. "They are robbed, they are in Dubai and there is a mishap at their construction site, they are sick, something that puts them in dire straits," he said. "They need money." They usually ask that a "loan" of a particular amount be sent through Western Union, or deposited into an account at a major well-known bank (that has worldwide offices). Martin says these types of scams are on the increase.
The third most "popular" scam is the work-from-home scam. "You find these on Craigslist, Monster.com, maybe even a newspaper ad," said Martin. In this scam, you do work for a company and they send you a check for more than you earned and expect you to cash it at your bank and send them back the difference. "The check turns out to be fraudulent and you, not them, are on the hook for the difference," Martin said. "A question to ask yourself, 'would you do that?'" The same logic applies if you sell something online. "If you sell a chair for $100 and a buyer sends you a $500 check, telling you to just 'take out shipping' and send them back the rest, think about it - who does that," he said. "That's a clue. Be aware, be vigilant."
Scams on social media, especially Facebook, are also growing, Martin said. Consider these very recent reports from the sheriff's office. A man reported that he received a friend request from someone he knows on Facebook. He accepted the request and got a message from the man who told him he saw his name posted somethwhere as a sweepstakes winner and urged him to "friend" someone else he named and message her about his winnings. He did this and his new "friend" told him he was a $50,000 winner in a sweepstakes and she could help him collect his winnings if he sent her his name, birthdate, address, email address, driver's license number, and $1500. He complied, giving the woman all this information so he could get his $50,000. He told the investigator that he did not, however, send her the $1500. Needless to say, he realized too late he had been scammed and his "friend" had all his information that could now be used to open fraudulent accounts.
Similarly, a woman also reported a Facebook scam to the sheriff's office. In this case, she said someone claiming to be her aunt messaged her and began to tell her about programs for people in debt. The "aunt" advised her to send all of her personal information to another person on FB in hopes of getting some money. Too late, she realized her mistake and reported the scam. She was advised by the sheriff's office to contact the Social Security Administration and the IRS in case a fraudulent tax return should be filed in the upcoming tax season.
Martin says if your Facebook account is hacked, change your password immediately. If someone sends you a suspicious message, do not respond and again change your password.
"If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Martin said.