Immigrant Scams Cash In on Ignorance of Language and Regulations

Immigrant scams, a new Bernie Madoff scam, and advice on what to do after you use a credit card in a restaurant: Internet Scambusters #374

There are lessons for us all in the wave of immigrant scams currently sweeping the US.

The kind of tricks that currently exploit unfamiliarity with language and regulations can also be applied to other, everyday situations. For example, everyone should be sure to check out the prepaid phone cards scam described below.

In this Snippets issue, we detail three of the latest scams aimed at newcomers to the US, as well as the lowdown on a con using the name of arch-scammer Bernie Madoff and a new angle on credit card theft.

Now, here we go…

Immigrant and Ethnic Scams Cash In on Ignorance of Language and Regulations

A number of immigrant scams — con tricks specifically aimed at newcomers to the US, particularly Hispanics — have surfaced in recent weeks, prompting state and federal agencies to issue alerts.

And although they may be targeted at those newly arrived in the country or ethnic groups who don’t speak English, it’s as well for everyone to be aware of them, since experience suggests they’ll turn up in a different guise at some point in the future.

Scammers play on language barriers and unfamiliarity with laws and regulations to fool victims into handing over their money.

These types of scams have been around for a while, particularly targeting ethnic communities with phony lottery and investment schemes.

The three latest immigrant scams focus on driver’s license fraud, bankrupt banks and bogus language classes.

  • The International Driving Permit scam. We covered this from a different perspective in an earlier issue, focusing on sales of phony permits to people planning to travel abroad.In the latest version, the same kinds of licenses are being sold, sometimes for hundreds of dollars, to newly arrived immigrants, who are told that is all they need to drive in the United States.The reality is that visitors to the US are allowed to use their foreign driver’s license for up to a year in the US, after which they must have a US license.

    During the initial 12 months, they can carry an International Driving Permit as well, which can be helpful with insurance issues, but by itself is not a license and anyone using it as such may be breaking the law.

    For more details on driver’s license requirements, contact your state Department of Transport.

  • Prepaid phone cards scam. These cards, which enable you to pay for calls upfront, are very popular with US residents with families in Central and South America — though, of course, anyone can buy and use them.Their appeal often is that they seem to offer substantial discounts on regular call charges and can be used on public phones without the need to keep pumping in coins.But, hidden in the fine print may be all sorts of perfectly legal restrictions, surcharges and even automatic recharging if bought with a credit card. Or the cards may simply not deliver the number of minutes they claim to offer.

    Of course, there are many prepaid phone cards, especially from the big telecom firms, that do deliver the savings and minutes they claim. But to people less familiar with the US marketplace, it’s easy to fall for what appears to be the best price deal but is really a scam.

    The non-profit Hispanic Institute, for instance, has been reported as saying the average calling card delivers only 60 percent of the minutes promised — cheating consumers out of $1 million a day.

    Best advice is to read the fine print on a card, monitor and be alert to how much time you’re actually getting and, if in doubt, stick with the big providers with established reputations.

  • Bogus language classes. Scammers phone non-English speakers pretending to be from a non-profit immigration agency offering free English language courses.If they accept, a few days later the scammer calls again to tell the victim they didn’t qualify for the free lessons and must now pay $500.If the victim refuses, they’re told they made a legally-binding, verbal agreement to take the course. The crooks threaten to sue and may even call back later to say a date has been set for a court hearing.

    Of course, all of this is untrue. There is no such potential for legal enforcement.

After the Madoff Scam — the Madoff Scam

It’s bad enough that literally thousands of people lost a fortune in the Madoff Ponzi scheme scam, but now scammers have found another way of using his name to sell other stuff: Scamlines 37: Big Investors Lose $50 Billion in Largest Ponzi Scheme Ever.

It’s a simple trick: Since almost everyone knows that Bernie Madoff was a collector of antiques and that his ill-gotten gains are being disposed of towards repaying some of his losses, why not pretend to be selling them?

In fact, there have already been several legitimate auctions of Madoff’s possessions, which, of course, all help to add to the credibility of the scams.

The scam auctions and sales mainly offer inferior and knock-off items masquerading as the genuine quality stuff that the crooked financier once owned.

In other cases, auction firms sell legitimate products but not from the Madoff stash. They simply use his name and skirt around the law by saying in the fine print that they don’t guarantee the items were actually owned by him, claiming instead to be selling items on behalf of Madoff’s victims.

But, says the Better Business Bureau, it’s still a scam if people are misled into believing they are buying items from the Wall Street rogue’s private collection.

The wisest approach, if you’re an auction or online buyer interested in this market, is to establish beyond a doubt the authenticity and provenance of any collectible you’re thinking of buying, whether it purports to come from Madoff’s “loot” or not.

Pay the Dinner Bill — Then Check Your Credit Card

Seeing your credit card disappear into the hands of a restaurant server is always a worry.

What’s to stop them from noting down the number plus the crucial security code from the back?

Answer: Not a lot. It’s one of the risks we credit card users have to live with. The best we can do is to keep a vigilant eye on our accounts to ensure they’re not being abused.

But here’s a new, sneaky credit card trick that you can do something about: Credit card swapping.

In a couple of recent incidents, diners who paid their restaurant check with a card were given back the wrong one.

The cards they got turned out to be expired, while the originals disappeared and were maxed out by the thief.

It’s not clear whether the crook was a waiter on a one-night stand-in or if someone else did a back-stage swap.

The crime wasn’t discovered until some days later when the owners tried to use what they thought were their credit cards.

Action: Preventing this scam is a matter of commonsense. Check your card when it’s returned to you.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!