Scammers growing more sophisticated

Scammers growing more sophisticated

From counterfeit bills to phony calls, scams continue to evolve

It's not just that web-spinning, high-flying superhero who needs a sixth sense.

Duane Smith, a financial crimes investigator with Urbana police, says far too many people ignore that gut feeling you get when something's not quite right — their "Spidey sense," as he calls it — and fall victim to the growing number of elaborate, untraceable scams everywhere you turn these days.

"It needs to be ramped up on any request by email, phone, text, even mail," Smith says.

Last year, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, received 262,813 formal scam complaints. Total dollar amount lost: $781 million, which was up 48 percent from a year earlier.

Illinois ranked seventh nationally in crimes reported to the IC3. And those are just the cases that make it all the way to the federal level.

Local law enforcement officials field many more calls, about all kinds of scams, than get reported.

Sgt. Bill Hurt, an investigator with the Vermilion County sheriff's department, estimates he hears three to five a week.

Matt Myrick, an officer with the University of Illinois police, says his department often gets frequent reports of scams targeting students — particularly ones involving visas or financial aid, given the school's large international population. One common complaint: scammers posing as federal officials, contacting students and demanding they send money — or their visas will be pulled.

Criminals worldwide are in on the game, using all sorts of methods to trick victims of all ages. Some of the most prevalent scams investigators come across are years-old but every bit as effective now, with new technology providing the bad guys with new opportunities.

A scammer could be a continent away — Hurt has traced transactions to England, Jamaica, Canada and Nigeria.

Or, says Smith, they could be sitting next to you at Starbucks, using the Wi-Fi connection to conduct criminal activity over their laptop. Online, a person doesn't have to physically participate in a crime and risk being seen or getting caught on surveillance.

"And if they're successful," Smith says, "it just feeds itself."

They are successful more than not, to the frustration of law enforcement.

Take identity theft, the fastest-growing crime, according to national statistics. Smith says he has been close but hasn't yet been able to track down an offender in such a case.

And when local agents learn a scam has roots overseas, they know their investigation is all but over. Says Hurt: "Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can be part of a bigger federal investigation, if the FBI has something going, and it involves our case, we will forward our investigation on to them. I've had two occasions where that's occurred."

"So the next best thing we can do is educate people," says Brad Ware, with the FBI's Springfield office.

That's partly why the IC3 was formed more than a dozen years ago, as a resource for local law enforcement and the public. The center, a joint effort by the FBI and National White Collar Crime Center, posts online alerts regularly in an effort to inform consumers of all the latest scams.

Here are some of the most prevalent hoaxes right now, according to local and federal officials.

'Grandma, it's me'

A few years ago, a couple in Rantoul lost their life savings — $100,000 — to this scheme, which made IC3's list of 2013's most common scams and has been reported by several local law enforcement agencies.

Here's how it works:

Victims get a phone call from a person claiming to be a grandchild. "Hi Grandma," it often starts, "do you know who this is?" The grandson or granddaughter is in trouble — big trouble — and in dire need of money. Usually, callers claim they've been in an accident or arrested, creating a sense of urgency.

They ask their "grandparent" to wire money immediately. (And to not mention this to his or her "parents.")

Hurt's department gets at least a few reports a year of this scam, some losing anywhere from $500 to $2,000 dollars.

Larry Thomason, Danville's public safety director, said the calls are "a real nightmare" to trace, because they go through so many phone relays. According to federal officials, the perpetrators usually use telephone numbers generated by free apps, so that a legitimate-looking number appears on the victim's caller ID, while the real number is hidden. The calls often come late at night or early in the morning when senior citizen victims aren't thinking most clearly, the FBI says.

Local and federal officials agree that the elderly are most at risk for any scam. They are a trusting generation, Smith says, and don't realize how easy it is these days for people to obtain personal information about them.

"You present an older person with information about them; in their mind, it just legitimized whatever you are peddling," he said. "They can't quite conceive that it's so easy to find on the Internet."

UI scams

In the last month, Myrick said UI police have received two complaints, from two different university departments, about a new scam.

Perpetrators register domains similar to those of well-known colleges or universities, create an email address that appears to be from the university's purchasing department and make up fake purchase orders that are sent to various merchants for all kinds of items, including computer hardware and software.

The merchandise is shipped to various locations, where the scammers re-package, then re-ship it to overseas locations. Nigeria is a common destination.

In the UI incidents, Myrick said, the vendor contacted the university department to verify that the orders were legitimate. University officials confirmed they were not.

Myrick said his department tracked a computer IP address to somewhere in Africa. Beyond that, he said, there's not much his department can do.

You're a winner!

In March, an elderly Piatt County woman received a phone call letting her know she had won $4 million in sweepstakes money.

The catch: She had to send a cash advance to get them.

Monticello Police Chief John Carter said the woman was trying to withdraw $30,000 from her shared account when the bank notified the other person on the account, who then notified police.

Carter said the caller was intimidating on the phone and hounded the victim repeatedly. Once Carter convinced her she was being duped, he took the perpetrator's next call. And the one after that.

He identified himself as the local police chief, which made the caller more aggressive and insist the woman send the money.

"The phone kept ringing all night, and they were threatening me if I did not get to talk to her on the phone," Carter said. "And that was even after I identified myself as a police officer."

Bottom line: If you have to pay to win a prize, you didn't really win, Carter said.

Payday loans

This one starts with harassing phone calls, claiming victims are delinquent in payments. The callers claim to be federal officials, law firm representatives or other legitimate-sounding agencies. What often makes victims fall for this scam is that the fraudsters have accurate information about the person. They demand payment to settle the debt owed and are relentless in the frequency of calls, according to IC3 officials.

Myrick says the victims of this scam include a UI employee, who did have an actual active loan from a legitimate business — which the scammer recited — but was not overdue on payments.

The employee forwarded the calls to the police department, and the scammers phoned between 20 and 30 times over a 15-minute period, Myrick said. The caller continued to demand payment, using foul, intimidating language but remaining very careful to provide only general information about who he was supposedly representing, Myrick said.

It's understandable how someone who was truly worried about their credit would fall for this scam, Myrick said. The calls eventually stopped once the scammers realized they weren't getting anywhere.

Counterfeit cash

No new ideas here, just better computers, scanners, printers and copiers that enable counterfeiters to make better fakes.

On May 1, three men rolled into Cerro Gordo and passed a fake $100 bill at the Dollar General store, which didn't have a marker to check its authenticity, Carter says.

Real money is printed on paper that's not publicly available. A mark from a special pen on an authentic bill turns faint yellow; on a fake, it leaves a dark line.

Carter said the trio then tried to pass a $100 bill at the Casey's, but the clerk used the pen and denied their money. They were eventually reported to police, who used surveillance video to get their license plate number, and arrested. Monticello police confiscated 15 phony $100 bills, Carter said, along with a pile of cash they had from passing the bills in a four-state area.

"I've encouraged people to know money," Carter said. "Get used to what it feels like. If it doesn't feel like a real one, it's not."

A new $100 bill was issued last year, and included new measures that make it easier to authenticate and more difficult to replicate. But Carter thinks many businesses are not as familiar with the new currency since it has only been in circulation since last October.

Act fast

Here's where the too-good-to-be-true rule applies, says Hurt.

A victim spots a great online deal on a car, motorcycle or ATV on what they believe to be eBay but what's actually a phish, or fake site. The seller urges the person to act fast, because he has other buyers ready to go. The victim sends payment through what they believe to be PayPal, the criminal takes the money, and the buyer never gets his steal of a deal.

In these cases, Hurt says, the description of the item and communication from the seller almost always contain misspellings, incorrect grammar and poor sentence structure — because these scams often originate out of the country. That's one red flag.

Another: the urgency to complete the transaction at the ridiculously low price.

Warning signs

A few tips, beyond the obvious ones, on how to avoid scams:

1 Never give a credit card number over the phone unless you initiated the call.

2 Look out for fake websites. One way to avoid them: compare the link in an e-mail or other correspondence with the link to which you were actually directed.

3 Follow the rule: If the opportunity, product or price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

4 If you have to pay money to get a prize — whether cash, products or a shopping trip — it's likely not legitimate.

5 Be wary of any unsolicited email or phone call seeking personal information, even if the emailer or caller has some of your personal information already.

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