Stories may be far-fetched but trusting people still fall for them
Here at Scambusters, we regularly report heartbreaking stories that seem almost unbelievable because of both how easily the victims get fooled and the sheer nerve the scammers display. Sadly, they are true, and these con merchants get away with their tricks, often leaving their victims many thousands of dollars poorer.
We have just such a tale to report in this week's Scamlines news roundup, when a Seattle woman loses a small fortune after falling for a totally implausible story from a woman she meets in a parking lot.
In another twist on the heartbreak theme, a scammer claims to be the devastated father of a US soldier killed in Iraq, offering his son's car for a tiny fraction of its real value.
We also bring you news of a cheeky cell phone thief, a police bust of a store-card scam and a new phishing warning from the IRS.
1. Kidnap story and bogus bequests cost victim $60,000
The scam: A woman approaches her target victim in a Seattle, WA, parking lot. Claiming she has to fly that day to Africa to save her kidnapped family from otherwise certain death, she says she must give away $180,000 -- bequeathed by an uncle -- to charity before she leaves.
The scammer says she needs two honest people to give away the money on her behalf. She produces what seem to be rolls of money (though, it turns out, they only have genuine bills wrapped around the outside) plus apparently legal documentation to support her story.
A second passer-by, who's actually an accomplice, stops by and listens to the same story.
Now for the sting: The scammer asks the pair -- the victim and the accomplice -- to produce evidence of their own wealth so the supposed donor can feel sure they won't keep her money. The accomplice disappears and returns with a bag of jewelry; the scammer hands over what appears to be $90,000 to him.
The victim withdraws $60,000 from her own bank, gives it to the scammer who then asks her to prove her trustworthiness by driving away for a few minutes. Of course, when she returns, the scammer and accomplice have disappeared.
The solution: Wow. This is one of the most outrageous scams we've come across recently. In fact we'd be tempted not to believe it if it hadn't been reported, with police confirmation, in the Seattle Times.
The bottom line always, always, always, is never to part with money to someone you don't know -- especially someone you just met in a parking lot.
2. Phony father offers Iraq victim's car for knockdown price
The scam: A solider from Detroit, MI, dies in Iraq. An ad subsequently appears on Craigslist offering his $80,000 BMW for sale at a knockdown price. The seller claims to be the soldier's heartbroken father, wanting to make a gift of the vehicle to a worthy buyer for just $2,800.
The "seller" asks buyers to wire payment to a phony escrow company which, of course, is just a front for the scam. Despite the crazy, TGTBT (too-good-to-be-true) price, several people fall for the con and wire the money.
The solution: If you must buy something sight-unseen and without proof of ownership (neither of which we recommend), at least check out the escrow company. Don't just take a website as proof of an escrow firm's authenticity -- check their registration with state licensing authorities.
And, as always, remember, if it looks TGTBT, it probably is.
We wrote about other Craigslist scams here and you can find info about phony escrow companies here.
3. Job trickster harvests a batch of cell phones
The scam: Posing as a businessman seeking new employees, a con artist in Quezon City, Philippines, sets himself up in an empty office building. As each job applicant enters for interview, he asks if he can borrow their cell phone, claiming the battery in his own phone is flat.
Then he asks the applicant to wait outside and send in the next one. The applicant leaves the room believing they'll get their phone back later. And so it goes. After he has played the same trick on a few applicants, the scammer takes them to a restaurant, leaving them and promising to return. He never does.
The solution: Crazy but true. A cheeky variation of the phony job scam. Normally the scammers are after money for jobs but now cell phones seem to have become a tradable currency.
Always check out any potential employer before interviewing and, if you lend your phone to someone you don't know, get it back before it -- and they -- go out of range.
4. Store card team uses stolen IDs
The scam: A team of women travels throughout California buying expensive gifts with store cards. They keep re-encoding the cards with stolen credit card and charge card account information, using equipment legally bought on the Internet and personal information bought from identity theft "clearing houses" in Eastern Europe.
They rack up bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The solution: This is obviously a security issue for the stores involved, but the scammers were also using stolen identities that individual victims clearly had lost and knew nothing about.
Remember it's not just your credit cards that are at risk from ID thieves. Keep close tabs on all your charge accounts, frequently checking them online.
In this case, six people have been arrested and police believe they're on the way to cracking a huge international scamming ring.
We've featured identity theft in many previous Scambusters articles. Learn more and pick up some useful tips here.
5. IRS warns of new wave of phishing emails
The scam: The IRS issues an alert about a new wave of email scams aimed at identity theft. There's nothing especially new or original about most of the messages, which contain a link to a bogus IRS website that requests personal financial information so a tax refund can be made.
But at least one of the emails takes a new tack, supposedly offering a link to an IRS report on the victim's employer. This link then downloads a virus or other malware onto the victim's computer.
At least 700 fresh incidents occurred in just the past two months alone. And that's probably just the tip of a huge iceberg since most people don't report these phishing attempts.
The solution: The IRS does not send out emails about tax refunds or reports on individual companies.
Also, as we always stress, don't click on links inside emails. If it seems to be from the IRS or any other organization you know, check out their Internet address independently and then key it in yourself.
You can find more information about previous IRS scams here.
6. Lottery board scratches thieves' scratch cards
The scam: A couple visit convenience stores in Kangaroo, FL, ordering up a batch of lottery scratch cards. They try to pay with a credit card which is rejected by the store card-scanner, so they go outside supposedly to get cash from their car -- taking the tickets with them! They jump in and drive off.
The solution: One bright store clerk grabbed back the tickets as the couple left. Even if any of the stolen cards turned out to be winners, the Florida Lottery voided them as soon as the theft was notified. The simple lesson for all of us is never to let someone leave with something you own that they haven't paid for.
7. Try saying "No" to baggage handling fee
The scam: Overseas visitors to Shanghai, China, report being asked to pay a fee for loading their baggage on to public buses. If you refuse, the loader becomes aggressive and tries to scare you into paying -- or claims he cannot understand you.
The solution: Some transport organizations do charge for baggage. The giveaway in this case is when local and other Chinese people are not asked to pay -- only tourists.
If this happens -- in Shanghai or any other city -- hold out and don't pay. Look for an official or police officer.
But if worse comes to worst -- you may have to pay up and complain later to the bus company. The price is 100 yuan -- about $15.
Find more information about overseas travel scams here. We also published 10 tips on avoiding travel scams.
8. B&Bs "fined" for lack of safety posters
The scam: A caller tells owners of Virginia City B&Bs they've infringed state laws by not displaying health and safety posters. Claiming to be from the state health department, the caller accuses the owners of ignoring previous notifications and demands immediate payment of $200 for a set of posters.
The solution: This is a familiar trick usually targeted at small firms. It's easily circumvented by contacting the health department yourself and checking out the authenticity of the claim.
The new outbreak of tax scams and the use of stolen identities for cloning store cards underlines the need to protect your personal financial information. The fact is that scammers will never give up trying to steal your ID.
And, in all sorts of other scams, they're happy to try old tricks over and over again because there's always someone who'll fall for them. Don't let your guard down. Don't let them in.