Scams not new, but there are more ways to reach victims now

David Phillips

Scammers use all sorts of methods and a variety of technology to steal money from unsuspecting people. They use email, internet connections for cyber attacks, telephones and even fax to con people into giving them personal information that can lead to identity theft or even outright theft.

The original scam using new technology, at least in my memory, is the email message from a Nigerian prince who offers a share of a huge investment opportunity or a fortune he can’t get out of his country without help.

The catch is he needs a bank account number or small advance to help cover the cost of transferring the money. For just a small percentage, the good Samaritan is offered millions of dollars as a reward.

I thought that scam was over since it hasn’t showed up in my inbox in years, but a report by ADT Security Services, using data from the Better Business Bureau, reports that Americans lost $703,000 to this type of fraud in 2018.

A variation on that theme involves pets, which caught some local people off guard a few years ago as they lost money to a scammer. Those emails, or sometimes advertisements, list free pets available due to someone moving or a service member being deployed.

The catch on these is they will come back with a request for money to pay for transportation costs or a temperature-controlled crate required by the airline or shipping insurance or some other “unexpected” cost. Once people pay up, the pet owner disappears.

The more up-to-date email scam, called phishing, is a message from a business, financial institution or government entity that is trusted. The emails often have authentic looking logos and a somewhat professional appearance that looks legitimate with a warning message that something is wrong with an account.

The catch in this one is the link, which the message claims goes directly to the person’s account for the victim to log in to verify identity. It may ask people to update their personal information instead, but either variation gives them key information to steal your money.

Fraudulent emails can hit any person, business or government entity, even as small as townships. The Minnesota Association of Townships sent a warning last year about fraudulent emails that appeared to be from township officers asking another township officer to transfer money from the township account.

I’ve received a variety of similar emails, supposedly from our payroll department (which is me), from our email administrator (which is me) or from a company I never heard of asking for payment on an attached invoice.

Residents are probably more familiar with spoofing, which is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to a caller ID display, often disguising the number as a local call. Many people have said they have received calls that included the names of neighbors — and even their own names.

Other spoofing shows a caller ID of a trusted business or government entity. At the end of last year, even Sheriff John DeGeorge issued a warning after people notified his office that the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office number was being spoofed in calls to local residents.

It would seem like the old-school technology of the fax would be immune, but lately I have been receiving quite a few faxes from supposedly local companies. These may not be crooks trying to get money, but unethical companies trying to get business.

One fax to our Spring Valley office came from USA Bank & Trust of Spring Valley, Minnesota, offering a pre-approved credit line of up to $450,000. The towns I have offices in are small enough that I know every bank in the area and there is no USA Bank & Trust anywhere near here.

The fax gave no phone number, no address or no personal name. The request just had a form to fax back. The reply form didn’t ask for any sensitive personal information, which is why it seems more like a somewhat legitimate institution rather than crooks hiding behind a fake identity. Of course, I wasn’t going to fax anything back to find out.

Another fax came from Coast Credit Union, which claimed it was a commercial finance group in Spring Valley. That one at least had a toll-free number listed, although I wasn’t going to call it anyway and who would think a company with “coast” in it would come from southeastern Minnesota, which is far from an ocean and doesn’t even have any lakes.

One more fax offered a free listing in the Spring Valley chapter of Who’s Who Honors Edition of executives and professionals. This book, which the fax claimed can be found in the collections of the most prestigious libraries, only incudes people who fit the specific criteria of being an expert in their field as there is no way to buy into the registry.

Somehow I don’t think Spring Valley would have its own chapter and, even if it did, I’m sure money would exchange hands before inclusion in the book.

The list could go on as there are people impersonating IRS agents, technical support staff, employers looking to fill a position, lonely hearts looking for romance, someone looking to share in a sudden windfall and more.

Although many of these scams seem humorous, they make quite an economic impact. The Federal Trade Commission had more than 1.4 million fraud reports in 2018 with a quarter of the people in those reports saying they lost money. The total loss: $1.48 billion, and that’s just the ones reported to the FTC.

Scams aren’t anything new. It’s just that changes in technology have provided new ways to infiltrate the defenses of people.

The solution isn’t to do away with technology. Instead, people need to be careful about who they interact with when unsolicited contacts come their way by email, phone, web pages, even fax. The person initiating the contact likely isn’t a friend, even if the caller ID shows a familiar name or number, and doesn’t have your best interests in mind, even if the urgent message indicates otherwise.