Scam artists exercise creativity


News staff writer

June 24, 2006

Hood River Police Detective Stan Baker finds himself constantly amazed by the cleverness of scam artists.

In fact, the latest phony paperwork brought to his desk is the best he’s ever seen. And it is no small feat to impress Baker, who routinely handles cases involving fraud and identity theft — most related to methamphetamine addiction.

“I can understand why people might fall for this one,” said Baker, thumbing past the professionally designed letterhead to the neatly printed evaluation and rating forms.

The hook from the “Secret Shopper” is the lure of a $250 payment for scrutinizing customer service during a MoneyGram transaction at Wal-Mart.

The victim was asked to cash a $3,450 check that appeared to have been issued by a national investment firm. He was instructed to use the capital to cover his wages and service charges before wiring the balance to a woman in Canada.

Baker said the offer appeared to be legitimate to the recipient, who had recently posted his resume on craigslist, an Internet classified ad site.

It wasn’t difficult to believe that he had been chosen as a market researcher for the region. Especially since the information about the employment opportunity arrived via mail at the address listed with his posted work history.

The problem, said Baker, was that the check had fake routing numbers. The irony was that it listed a telephone number for inquiries and a watermark ensured its authenticity.

“If he had cashed this check and done what he was asked to do, then it would have bounced and he have been out that much money,” said Baker.

He said, fortunately, the check recipient learned that it was fraudulent while in the process of making a deposit at the bank. The intended victim then turned the information over to Baker, who learned about the new angle on an old crime.

He recently dealt with another Internet-based scam. A Hood River widower was solicited in a chat room to help make a purchase more convenient for his new “friend” from a foreign country. He agreed to accept a shipment of goods bought in the United States and then forward them on to the address provided. The man later learned that the credit card used to purchase the electronic equipment had been stolen. And, with his name listed on the invoice, he had come under suspicion.

“It’s like they bait some type of a hook and then just reel the victim in little by little,” said Baker.

He said a new cell phone scam is somewhat more sophisticated — and preys on people’s emotions. The identity thief apparently takes time to compile a call list of the intended victim’s primary family members. The methodology, said Baker, is for a “company representative” from the cell phone service provider to initiate a call to the client.

The official asks for the phone to be shut down for an hour to accommodate network programming. Once the device is turned off, the caller then reaches a relative and pretends to be a police officer. The family member is told the cell phone holder might have died in a tragedy and that personal information is needed for verification.

Since the phone of the named individual has been turned off, the traumatized relative is unable to connect right away – which gives the identity thief time to work.

“Not only do you have some poor family member freaking out, but he/she is handing over information out of grief that can then be used for criminal activity,” said Baker.

He said scammers using a laptop in a WiFi zone, the latest technological advancement, are difficult to track down. But it is virtually impossible to arrest someone operating out of a foreign country.

“There are literally millions of cases out there that will never be solved,” said Baker. “The best advice that I can give people is to use extreme caution when doing business with people they don’t know.”

He said it is very important for people to safeguard their personal information as much as possible. Giving a check — or personal data — to the wrong person could result in identity theft crimes that take years to clear up.

Baker recommends that citizens routinely check their credit report and make inquiries about any activity that seems suspicious. “I tell everyone who calls here that they need to keep on top of what is happening with their credit. The quicker you catch a problem and shut the account down, the quicker you’re going to recover financially,” he said.

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