Image courtesy of the CLEARWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT
The Clearwater Police Department seeks the public’s help in identifying this suspect in connection to a Craigslist scam.
CLEARWATER – Once people fall victim to scams, it is likely that they will never see their money again, and even catching the criminal is extremely difficult. That is why the Clearwater Police Department is trying to get ahead of the scam artists and shut them down before anyone falls into their trap.
The department has just revealed a new fraud hotline, which the public can call at 562-4424.
“We implemented this fraud hotline, hoping to urge citizens in the community to call in regards to potential fraudulent activity before they fall victim to it,” said Detective Meg Hasty with the Clearwater police economic crimes unit. “We get quite a few calls for service or cases where somebody has paid money for a service or a good and never received that in return. So we’re trying to put something out there where citizens can call and inquire, saying, ‘You know, I got a call or I got a mailing saying that I’ve won money,’ or, ‘I’m looking at something on Craigslist saying I should wire money. Is this legitimate or not?’ We’re hoping to catch those people before they send money out and lose that money.”
Fraud is a big problem, and it is difficult to even gauge how big because of the nature of the crime, she said. But there are five detectives and one sergeant in Hasty’s unit, and there is always at least one of them working at least one fraud case at a time, she said.
The elderly population is particularly susceptible to fall victim to scams, Hasty said.
“A lot of them live by themselves, they may not have family close by, they may be lonely, looking for someone to talk to, but they are also very trusting,” Hasty said. “So if you have somebody coming door to door trying to sell a new driveway, paving a driveway, they can come and say ‘Hey, I’m doing someone else’s driveway in the area and I’m just going door to door seeing if anybody else needs some work. I can get started with just a down payment,’ and they’ll write a check. ‘Hey, great, I’ve been meaning to do that anyway.’”
What ends up happening, Hasty said, is that the scammer will take the money but never complete the work, and it turns out that it was a false company with a false name, and the victim loses the money without getting the service. Even worse, there usually is no way to track where that money went, Hasty said.
There are numerous types of fraud and scams, including IRS scams and identity theft. One that has been around for a while but is still consistently causing problems is the “Nigerian scheme,” Hasty said.
“That is where somebody overseas or posing as overseas will contact, mostly by email, saying that they have a large sum of money that is being held overseas and they can’t get it to the United States without the help of somebody else,” Hasty said. “They say there are processing fees or attorney’s fees, this that and the other but they need, say, $5,000 to free up that money from wherever it’s being held, and they’ll solicit your help. ‘Please help me, and in return, from my million dollars that I’ll be bringing back into the United States, I’ll give you $100,000.’ Someone says, well great, I can give $5,000 and get $100,000 back. That’s a great return on my money. But they never get anything in return.”
Versions of the scam could be that it is a supposed inheritance from a long-lost relative but need money to process the deposit. But whatever form it is written in, people should be wary of any situation where they are told they must pay money to receive money.
Other scams that have been a problem lately involve items listed on Craigslist.
“There have been vehicles that were listed on Craigslist for sale, and when you inquire about the ad, you get an email back with all the specifics about the vehicle – mileage, the condition of the vehicle, with a picture,” Hasty said. “And the seller will say that the vehicle is not local. That they had to move. One that I just saw was that her husband had just died and she is moving in with her sister in, I think it was Kentucky.”
In that case, the supposed seller said that the car was up in Kentucky but she couldn’t afford it anymore, and she could ship it down to the seller, Hasty said. In another case, it was a horse trailer in Nebraska. In all of these cases, the seller will apologize for the buyer not being able to see the car but will send pictures and says they can ship it down to the buyer.
“The seller will say, ‘Because this is such a large transaction, thousands of dollars, instead of you sending me a check or cash or money order, let’s do this so we’re both protected and we’ll do it through the eBay buyer protection program,’” Hasty said. “Then, someone they’re working with comes up with a false page that looks identical to the eBay buyer protection page. They’ll email it to the buyer and say, ‘Please submit half of the cost of the vehicle via Western Union to a person at a specific address,’ and since this is supposedly being done through eBay, which everybody knows, they’ll think ‘Okay this is fine. Normally I wouldn’t send something through Western Union or a money gram because it says right there on Craigslist in big, bold letters that you shouldn’t do business that way, but it’s eBay so it should be safe.’ Well, it’s a total scam, you never get the car, someone picks up the Western Union money order and your money’s gone.”
Hasty said just in her own caseload, she has had two of those situations in the past month. In the first case, the victim lost $1,500, and in the second case, the victim lost about $1,000, she said. In the Nigerian scheme cases, those people each lost thousands of dollars as well, she added. In another case that recently came across her desk, Hasty said that the victim had repeatedly sent the scammer money.
“They just kept requesting more and more money and they kept sending it until they said, ‘Well, wait a minute, I’m not getting anything out of this,’ and that is when they filed the report,” Hasty said. “And once someone has picked it up on the other end of the Western Union transaction, it’s gone. There’s no way to track it. The likelihood of us ever getting the money back from these transactions is extremely low, which is unfortunate.”
In one of the recent Craigslist incidents with the supposed car for sale, police were able to capture a picture of the man who picked up the money, but they need the public’s help to identify who he is. The suspect picked up the money order in Clearwater.
Police also warn the public not to use prepaid debit cards or Green Dot Cards as a form of payment in transactions.
“Anybody who asks for a money order or a MoneyGram through Wal-Mart who you don’t know personally – is not your neighbor or your family, somebody you know in person who you could pick up the phone and call, don’t do business that way,” Hasty said. “These prepaid debit cards such as Green Dot cards are also being used as a form of payment. ‘Instead of sending me a money order, go to Walgreens or CVS and pick up a Green Dot card, put $500 on it for me and call me with the numbers on the back.’ And they will extract the money from there and that money is gone. Green Dot says that once you give your numbers out, it’s essentially a PIN number on the back, and once you give that out, they can’t help you anymore.”
Sometimes scammers work in person, too, Hasty added. She said to be wary of people who come to the door looking for business. For instance, if they say they are doing work on a neighbor’s house, find out which neighbor they are referring to and then talk to the neighbor to confirm. Other ways to protect oneself is to never give out personal information on the phone to someone.
“No bank that you do business with or the IRS – people will pose as both of those when they call you – and say can you verify your bank account and your social security number – those types of companies don’t do that. Ever,” Hasty said. “There’s no reason for you to give your social security number out over the phone when it’s unsolicited.”
Other detectives in Hasty’s unit have seen cases where criminals will check mailboxes that have the red flag up on them to see if any bills are being mailed, then they will open it, take the money out, and re-seal the envelope, she said. Therefore, if people mail bills or money, do not put the flag up on the mailbox, Hasty said. The mail collector will know that if there is something in the box that they did not put in there that they should take it to get mailed. Additionally, she said that people should always shred documents before they throw them away, whether it is an old bill or a pre-approved credit card because sometimes people go through the trash to mine for those types of documents.
So far, the best way that police can try to catch scammers is if they are caught on surveillance video. However, even if that is the case, police still have to try to identify who they are, which can be a big challenge. Therefore, police hope that the new fraud line will help them get ahead of these situations and catch them before people have lost money.
For those who have already been victims, they should call 562-4242 to report the crime. If community groups or organizations want Hasty and her partner, Detective Greg Smith, to come speak to their organization about the hotline and how to keep one-self safe from scams, they can call 562-4371.