Scamlines 38: Police Scam Turns Tables on Crooks

61 arrested in Chicago sting, plus more recession-driven tricks and a new lottery scam

When might it be acceptable, even worthwhile, to scam someone? Never, we hear you say. How about when it’s the cops fooling a bunch of crooks?

That’s the subject of our lead-off story in this first Scamlines issue of 2009. And it make for heartening news.

Sadly, that’s where the good news ends. As we already predicted several times, scammers are using the downturn in the economy to trick people into giving away their financial details or paying for non-existent or unnecessary services.

We also have word of a new lottery scam in Australia, phony monks in Cambodia, and a bogus pay-off for Nigerian scam victims.

Plus, there’s the mystery of the Massachusetts hoaxer who wants to make drivers see red. Let’s begin…

1. Police turn scammers for fugitive sting

The scam: We just couldn’t resist starting our 2009 edition of Scamlines with a news of a clever table-turning scam conducted by Chicago Police.

Always hard-pressed for manpower, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart hits on the idea of luring crooks into his net instead of going out to hunt them. He sends scratch cards to their last-known address in the name of a bogus marketing organization.

Of course, like so many bogus scratch cards, all of these are winners, with a $1,000 cash prize that has to be collected from an airport hotel, with the extra enticement of a chance to win a big-screen TV.

Sixty-one fugitives turn up and are promptly arrested, and, by using reservations made by no-show guests, a further 169 suspects are rounded up.

“We tried to tap into the Christmas spirit,” says Dart.

Indeed. Cheers sheriff!

2. Bogus credit card caller offers low interest rates …

The scam: In several parts of the US, people receive what seems to be an automated phone call with the message: “Your credit card expires soon, and you can now get a lower interest rate. Please hold the line for the next operator.”

The call connects to an individual who repeats the offer of lower card interest rates, then asks victims to give the numbers of any cards that are due to expire in the next few months.

These are phishing scams. Numbers gleaned this way are immediately used to buy goods.

The solution: Never give your card number to an inbound caller unless you know 100% who they are. If someone claims to know your card is about to expire, ask them to tell you the number. Usually, they’ll just hang up.

More about phishing here.

3. … while a CT scammer says he can slash mortgage rates

The scam: In a similar ruse to the one above, victims receive calls which show up on caller-ID as an organization named Debt Free. The caller offers to drastically reduce mortgage rates or cut credit card debt by at least 50%.

In this case, it’s thought the scammer may be seeking a fee rather than personal financial information. Either way, the intention is to rip-off the victim.

The solution: If you need help with debt, speak to your credit card company or bank. It almost never makes sense to pay an upfront fee to someone who says they can help you cut your debt — it’s usually a scam.

If you want to know more about mortgage scams, check out this Scambusters article.

4. Florida stores fall for fake gift checks

The scam: With Christmas still on their minds, stores and other businesses in Destin and Fort Walton Beach, FL, suspect nothing when a couple turn up to spend numerous gift checks.

The $100 Bank of America / American Express Travelers Gift Checks turn out to be fakes but lots of firms are hoodwinked before the scam is rumbled.

The solution: These checks apparently did not contain the requisite 14-digits that genuine check numbers have. But anyway, police advise stores to double check the authenticity of any traveler’s gift checks presented to them.

5. Oz lottery scams targets Chinese

The scam: What police call an “old style scam” resurfaces in Australia targeting residents of Chinese extraction.

It’s a variation of the lottery scam where victims are told they are entitled to a large payout but they have to pay for membership of a club before they’re entitled to collect winnings.

The calls originate from Hong Kong. So far, victims have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The solution: Scambusters readers are already wise to this type of con but we always urge you to pass the word on to others who may be less well-informed: never pay upfront fees for promised winnings.

We covered foreign lottery scams in depth in Scambusters issue #115. Read it here.

6. Don’t pay to file unemployment claims

The scam: In Washington state, websites offer to help unemployed workers collect benefits — for a fee. They charge $10 to file unemployment claims.

The sites are not necessarily illegal but as the state’s Employment Security Commission explains: “People who have been laid off can’t afford to be spending money on services they can get from us for free.”

The solution: Rising unemployment due to the recession opens the door to this type of scam. You don’t have to pay to file an unemployment claim in any US state.

If you do pay someone else to do it for you because you think it will save you time or effort, you have no way of knowing for sure if the claim was filed or that the information you’ve given may be used for identity theft.

7. Taiwanese beggars pose as saffron-clad monks

The scam: A new travel scam warning from Cambodia: Men dressed as monks or women dressed as nuns hang out in popular tourist spots, either begging for money or selling worthless items like “lucky bookmarks” for inflated prices, usually around $20.

The scammers look like the real thing, dressed in saffron (monks) or grey (nuns) robes but they are in fact Taiwanese cheats.

The solution: As in the US, if you give money to panhandlers, you should know that the person you’re giving to may not be as needy or as genuine as they appear to be.

Preferably, don’t donate at all, but if you must, never allow yourself to be intimidated into parting with more than a dollar.

Wherever you travel, scammers are out to snare you. Read more about their travel scams and tricks here.

8. Phony $2m pay-off for scam victims

The scam: Your name is on a list of Nigerian scam victims and now somebody wants to recompense you with a $2m payoff! Syracuse, NY residents get an email with this enticing offer; all they have to do is provide bank details so the money can be paid direct.

The solution: Oh yeah? This one was doing the rounds about the same time last year. Whether you’ve been a previous scam victim or not, nobody is going to pay you $2m, or even $2 in compensation. Sorry.

Wise-up to Nigerian scams with this useful article.

9. Ignore the red, stay with green

The scam: Massachusetts drivers get a leaflet warning them that their old-style green license plates — issued more than 25 years ago — are being phased out. If they don’t exchange them for modern, red versions, they’ll be fined $65.

The leaflet is so convincing even police in Salem take it seriously and spread the word. But it’s a fake and there’s no such change in the law.

The solution: Not all scammers are after money. Some just make mischief for the heck of it, as seems to be the case here. Many drivers made the switch. Others did check with the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles first to learn the truth. But not, apparently, Salem Police!

That’s it for today — we’ll see you next time… Happy 2009!