Some scams never go away

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 28, 2011

By Shelley Smith
SALISBURY — Hazel Erwin has entered the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes for several years. So when she received a letter and check in the mail claiming she had won $325,000 from what appeared to be Publisher’s Clearing House, it sounded too good to be true, but she decided to look into it anyway.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ ” she said. “Then I got to reading the letter and everything, got to looking at it more closely, and it wasn’t really the print of Publisher’s Clearing House. … I knew it was probably a scam.”
She called the “claims agent” named in the letter anyway, to see what she had to do to get her winnings.
Instead of a phone ringing, she heard a message with music: “Welcome to Publisher’s Clearing House.” Then a man picked up the phone.
“I told him why I was calling, and he put me on hold,” she said. “And then apparently he came back on the line, but I could hear in the background just people talking at their house or something, and he hung up.”
She called back, but no one picked up.
“Once I called that number, that was a dead giveaway there,” she said.
Ask any law enforcement officer what comes to mind when they hear: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
They’ll likely think of the same four-letter word: scam.
Scams have evolved over the past 40 years, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said. In the 1970s, the Nigerian letter scams were the most popular. Then the phone calls began, authorities said, and faxes. And now scammers target their victims through email.
Authorities say scams are always changing, disappearing and reappearing in homes and businesses across the United States. And they say it’s important to understand how to recognize a scam, and how to avoid becoming a victim.
Nigerians and sweethearts
There are two scams that local authorities see and hear the most in Rowan: Nigerian letters and the door-to-door “home repairmen.”
Cooper says the Nigerian letter scams are the oldest, and because they’ve been around for so long, most people know the warning signs.
“A very small percentage of people actually respond to them because most people recognize these letters as scams,” he said.
A Nigerian scam typically reaches people by mail. The usual pitch, Cooper said, is that someone is trying to move money out of the country and needs help doing it.
“What they’re really after is your bank account number, and to get you to wire money to them,” he said.
The Nigerian scam has evolved, Cooper said, “from letters to junk faxes and emails.”
“They’re able to send out hundreds of thousands of these at a time, and it only takes a few people to bite for them to be successful,” he said.
Although these scams have been around the longest, North Carolinians still fall victim to the original scam and its new forms.
In the past year, one person lost $205,000 to a phony oil tycoon in Ghana, Cooper said. And just within the past couple of months, a woman reported losing about $40,000 so far, because she somewhat believes the nice man on the phone when he calls, Cooper said.
Cooper said this so-called “sweetheart scam” is the latest twist on the Nigerian scam. This scam targets seniors, and most of the scam artists pretend to be wealthy oil executives in African or Asian countries.
“They pretend to really like these people,” he says. “They ‘sweetheart’ them.
“They try to establish a relationship with this person, usually a senior, and try to establish a love relationship through these lines of communication.”
Cooper said the scammers will say a medical illness has come up, or they are suddenly in prison and need cash wired, and fast.
“These latest scams have evolved into trying to establish an actual relationship with a person,” Cooper says. “This is why we tell people not to respond to these letters in any way. Some people are curious and want to know what the next steps are.
“But don’t do it — you just don’t want to get that information out there.”
Salisbury Police Detective Brent Hall specializes in frauds and scams. He receives several reports of scams every week. Lt. Chad Moose of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and Detective Jason Owens are contacted at least eight times a week with reports of scams.
“People send a lot of money over there,” Moose said of the Nigerian scams.
Home repair
The second favorite of scammers targeting Rowan County residents are the home repair schemes. In these, the scammers promise to repair a roof or pave a driveway at a cheaper rate than the competition but ask for the payment up front.
“No business should ask you to pay up front,” Hall said. “Someone coming to work on trees or the roof, ask them to leave a card and you’ll get in touch at a later time. Then go to the Better Business Bureau and see how their companies are rated and if anyone’s reported them.”
Moose said if your home is in need of repair, make sure you use someone reputable.
“If a guy pulls up in a pickup truck with a shovel, he’s probably not a driveway man,” he said
Cooper said these “fly-by-nighters” are usually doing unnecessary driveway or roof repairs.
“They usually do a really shoddy job and oftentimes they charge significantly more than you could get a driveway paved for,” he said.
The roof repairs, he says, are “actually just worthless garbage,” costing a homeowner thousands. “Contact established roofing companies that you know and check the companies out through our website or the Better Business Bureau,” he said. “Don’t let these fly-by-night companies come in and take your money.”