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Slick scams, new targets attract thieves

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Warning: Greed can be hazardous to your financial health

By MELODY JAMESON

There’s no packaging on which to place such alerts; no pamphlets distributed with purchases to bear the words in big bold print, no garishly colored street signs to grab citizen attention.

But this failing, whether it’s yours or the con artists trying to separate you from your money, nonetheless is an unfortunate fact of life in the South County – unfortunate at least for those taken to the cleaners because of it. And, that’s never truer, local law enforcement officers say, than at this time of the year.

After all, it’s been a harsh winter in the northern states. Who wants to run a con when the temps drop below zero, snow is drifting in small mountain ranges, and sunshine state green beckons. Then, there’s that gourmet array of Florida lottery games. Who better to tease with riches than those already into risk and rainbows ending in pots of gold. And let’s not forget, on one hand, a whole town of senior citizens; on the other, large settlements of non-English speaking residents. It’s more than enough to excite scammers of many stripes – and send the criminal mind into creative overdrive.

Sure enough, the schemes are getting more elaborate, the pitches more intricate - and the scams more targeted, say Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies working in the South County. The region’s large population of Spanish speaking natives from Mexico, Central and South America now are on the criminal con radar screen. Take the case of a mature Latino woman recently approached in the parking lot of a large store.

She was shown a very official looking lottery ticket. In conversational Spanish, she was advised it was a winner, actually a high dollar winner, but it could not be redeemed because of reasons especially pertinent among the foreign born living in the U.S. She could help, though; in fact, she could share the bounty. A sum of cash withdrawn from her bank account to demonstrate her good faith and everyone would be the richer for it.

Before the scheme had run its course, this woman alone was riding around on South County roads in a car with the considerate appearing crooks. There were multiple stops – at stores, at a bank. In the end, her financial loss could be calculated in the high four figures.

But the loss goes deeper than the money, indicates Deputy Chris Girard. In the end, the woman, like many who are victimized by smooth talking thieves and the promise of easy cash, also was shamed by her own gullibility. She did not want to be identified in this article, the deputy adds.

And her experience is not the first Spanish version of such successful thefts this season in South Hillsborough, deputies note.

Many of the scams worked on English speakers can be translated and transferred to Spanish speaking targets, says Cpl. Kevin Bodie, whose specialty is clearing similar cases. A popular one is the found money story. In this imaginative scenario the help of another person is required to claim loot just discovered. And, of course, demonstration of good faith with hard currency must be shown. But the target that cooperates with such a “good faith” requirement is well on the way to being relieved of his resources.

The rip-offs, though, are not confined to one-on-one contacts. Both the internet and the telephone are employed by thieves to the detriment of those whose greatest sin is visions of dancing dollars or helping a child. Work-at-home scams including the oh-so-generously-rewarded secret shopper and the reshipping fraud all have been worked through the internet. While some such pitches could be legitimate, the many that promise high dollar returns for little or very simple work certainly are suspect, Bodie indicates. And any scenario that involves accepting a high dollar check ostensibly for the purpose of cashing it, keeping a portion and then rebating a substantial amount to the issuer, is likely to learn an expensive lesson in useless checks when the original draft bounces.

Even newspaper classified advertising is being utilized by criminals with no conscience. A Sun City Center resident recently answered an ad in one of the major daily newspapers involving limousine driving assignments, Girard recounts. He spoke to an individual with a convincingly legitimate manner who requested several hundred dollars in deposit funds. Anticipating a new adventure in his retirement, the active senior paid the sum – and got nothing, no assignments, no response, no money.

Older citizens, in particular, are targeted for the grandson or nephew- in-trouble scam. In this untrue but often tried con, a young male calls for financial help from a grandparent or other older relative because he’s jailed in need of bail or being pursued by gang members and needs pay-off money or facing other emergencies that can be resolved only with cash. The senior who falls for the phony plea and follows the “drop” instructions is only going to be poorer for the good intentions, deputies say.

One of the surest means of unmasking the grandson scam is to end the pitch call and then dial the young person purportedly in trouble. It’s a pretty sure bet, deputies add, that none of the faked problems actually exist. But, if they do, then action to help can be undertaken.

In addition, Bodie recommends remaining alert to the surroundings when out in public, refusing to become involved with or to accompany anyone approaching “out of the blue” with promises of riches and consciously resisting the human inclination to greed. And then, he adds, contact a law enforcement officer or agency.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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