Assistant U.S. Attorney Abed Hammoud picked up the phone one day and the caller had a great discount for Dish Network. The pitch sounded pretty good; all Hammoud had to do was pay up front for six months to receive a hefty discount.
But what stopped Hammoud from opting for the deal — and ultimately losing hundreds of dollars to a con artist? The caller told Hammoud to go to the store and put his cash on a prepaid Green Dot MoneyPak card. Hammoud tracks economic crimes and knew that the money would be gone once the prepaid card numbers were read over the phone to the con artists. It's as dangerous as wiring money to someone you do not know.
Legitimate companies aren't asking consumers to wire cash immediately or buy prepaid money cards and then send off the card or read the numbers over the phone.
Now that spring is here, the scam season moves into full swing. Someone can drive up in the neighborhood and suggest high-priced and needless repairs for a home or car. Or they might have a deal on building a deck or installing an alarm system.
We're looking at fake emails for the just-finished tax season that claim to need more information to process your federal income tax refund. The Internal Revenue Service is not sending out emails about your refunds; con artists are trying to get your ID and access to your bank account.
Another hot scam now: Get a pitch lately via email or regular mail for "an unclaimed powerball" prize? Of course, the scammers want you to pay money up front for processing fees or taxes.
Crooks might use different ploys, maybe saying you won a trip or a car and need to pay fees. Or they might pretend to be a grandchild in trouble. Either way, one of the big red flags to a scam is when anyone urges you to buy a Green Dot card, put money on another prepaid card or wire some money quickly.
By using bulk email, con artists steal the names and even logos of well-known retailers and banks to try to seem legitimate. After all, you're bound to hit a customer of a large bank or store even if you send random emails. Even government agencies might be named by con artists who want to gain crucial ID information.
The Federal Trade Commission is warning about emails with the subject line "Pending consumer complaint." The email looks like it's from the FTC and warns that a complaint against you was filed with the FTC. The email asks you to click on a link or attachment for more information or to contact the FTC.
Some con artists may even tap into lesser-known local names, too.
Lois Kruse, 65, of Troy, Mich., said she was startled to spot an email from her small credit union in Oakland County demanding some information on her account. But before clicking or taking any action, she went to the credit union and asked what was going on with that email. She was told the phishing email had nothing to do with the credit union.
"How would they have my email?" asked Kruse. She wondered the same about another email that claimed an order was delayed from a major retailer where she has a club membership.
Kruse attended an elder fraud summit in Troy put on by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, Friends of Troy Seniors, AARP and the Troy Police Department. The goal of the April event was to increase awareness about crimes that can quickly steal cash with a click of a computer key or the flick of a pen.
Speakers included U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper and fraud victims Ray and Janet Hentschel.
Janet Hentschel said she and her husband became friends with their financial planner. They'd go out as couples, have dinners together, attend family graduation parties.
"We would see him once or twice a week, he got to be my 'brother,'" Ray Hentschel said.
But ultimately, they lost sizable savings when they ended up as victims of a Ponzi scheme in which their so-called friend, a former Farmington Hills investment adviser, swindled about $4.1 million from mostly elderly clients. Keith Epstein was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2011. Instead of investing the retirement savings of clients, prosecutors charged that Epstein gambled away the money at Detroit casinos and lavished cash and gifts on strippers.
One way for con artists to get someone to trust them, of course, is to become part of everyday life, maybe they meet potential victims at church or maybe through a neighborhood group.
One man who claimed to be an excellent trader but who is not licensed to invest other people's money became part of a cigar club in Oakland County to build buzz and find clients, according to FBI agent Rebekah Wiles. An investigation is ongoing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Reynolds said consumers need to contact their own professionals to review documents if they're looking at making a major investment. Then, they need to listen to their CPAs or own attorneys and if the outside experts spot trouble, do not invest. Do not invest money anyway, even in spite of warning signs, because of promised big returns.
"Please know what you're signing," Reynolds said.
Contact Susan Tompor at email@example.com