Local News

Emerging scams are same old, same old, authorities say

— The Nigerian Scam, the Grandfather Scam, Mystery Shopping Scams, foreign lotteries and sweepstakes...

The list of fraudsters looking to make a quick buck out of unsuspecting victims goes on, and no one knows that better than Nell Hays, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, who has been a crime prevention specialist for 14 years.

While some of the scams have become fixtures - aka The Nigerian Scam where someone overseas claims to be in distress, often through an email in very stilted, tell-tale English - there are some complaints reported in recent days, which may raise eyebrows for sheer chutzpah.

In the latest scam alert, the sheriff’s office is warning residents about receiving complaints from people who have received a call from someone claiming to be a lieutenant with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.

The caller tells folks they have missed jury duty and a warrant has been issued for their arrest, Hays explained.

“They continue to say that if you call 863-464-0669 (they have recorded the answering machine to say Highlands County Sheriff’s Office) and authorize a charge of $350 to your credit card, we will not send a deputy to arrest you,” the sheriff’s office’s Facebook alert warns.

Hays tells people who encounter situations like this to stop, consider and use some common sense: Those who miss jury duty will not be notified by phone, and if a warrant is issued for someone’s arrest, they cannot pay on a credit card and get out of it.

While this might seem a wild scam born out of someone’s active imagination, it turns out it’s not new.

“We have seen this scam previously, however, this is the first time that the scammers have identified themselves as Highlands County Sheriff’s Office members,” the sheriff’s office said. “So far they have used the names of Lt. Anthony Smith and Lt. Carl Jones, but this may also change.”

Scams may be recycled now and then with variations, but they are all the same, Hays maintained.

“They might be a little different but they’re still the same scam,” she said. “It might be a Lexus instead of a Mercedes.”

She has a three-point rule to identity scams:

If it is too good to be true, it is. “You don’t win a lottery you didn’t enter. If you have to pay ahead to receive a prize, it is a scam,” she said.

There is a sense of urgency. You are told to do it today. The scammers talk fast; they get you upset, Hays said.

There is a sense of secrecy.

Her advice to folks is not to get upset or nervous when they encounter such situations and use basic common sense.

Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler said the most recent complaints they have received is about someone claiming to be with Duke Energy, who has been calling restaurant owners and trying to get them to pay their power bill before they come and shut the power off.

“Some owners have been directed to obtain a Green Dot card to pay the balance,” he said. “Duke Energy does not accept payment via Green Dot cards.”

He reiterated what Hays said: “My advice to everyone is to take a second and think about what the caller is saying and what they are requesting.”

If it is the Duke Energy scam, he asks residents to ask themselves these questions: Do they have Duke Energy as their provider and is their bill up-to-date? Hang up and call Duke Energy to verify the information, he advised.

“Be suspicious of all calls that indicate any need for payment or request for donations. Only donate to reputable organizations,” he said. “Not every call asking for cancer research donations is legitimate. Be careful where you send your money. When in doubt, contact your local law enforcement agency.”

While scammers target people of all age groups, the elderly seem to be especially vulnerable, Hays said.

Stephenson-Nelson Funeral Home Sebring director Mike Adams said he has heard of cases locally where folks have gotten calls from scammers looking through obituaries and obtaining information about family members of those recently deceased.

A recent widow or widower may be contacted by someone claiming their spouse bought a life insurance policy, which is behind a couple of payments. If they are paid up, they are told, they will be able to claim the insurance policy.

“It’s tragic,” Adams said.

It’s a very vulnerable time for the grieving spouse, he said, and it’s not greed that may make them prey but that “they are grieving and they are still trying to process information.”

Not surprisingly, Florida has the highest rate of fraud and identity theft complaints per capita, according to the Consumer Sentinel Network, an online database of consumer complaints nationwide.

Hays asked those who have become a victim of identity theft or have lost money in a scam to file a report with a law enforcement agency.

But those who have been solicited by a scammer can file an online complaint at http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx

The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center.

The IC3 accepts online Internet crime complaints from either the victim or from a third party to the complainant.

Hays said the local sheriff’s office has worked with IC3 investigators on sting operations but could not elaborate.

On May 10, the center received its 3 millionth consumer Internet crime complaint.

The center builds the complaints it receives into referrals, and forwards them to local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies for more investigation and, eventually, prosecution.

“In addition to helping law enforcement build cases for prosecution, the IC3 uses the complaint information to detect emerging trends and proactively increase public awareness of the Internet fraud,” the center adds on its web site.