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Retirees again targeted with rip-off scheme

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SUN CITY CENTER – It all looks so customary, so normal, so official.

The very valid-appearing check in the rational amount of $2,520.45 is made payable to the addressee and seemingly drawn on a Nebraska bank. The instructions bearing a New Jersey return address even include telephone and facsimile numbers, the former with an answering voice mail. The various commercial logos used are familiar icons seen in large malls and on street corners everywhere.

Melody Jameson
Examples of the authentic looking materials being sent SCC residents targeted in a new twist on an old scam are accumulating on the desk of Deputy Chris Girard, the retirement community’s resource officer. Con artists, suspected of working out of Canada, are trying to tempt retirees into cashing substantial but phony checks, performing supposed mystery shopping functions and then rebating remaining funds from their personal accounts to the so-called employer. Increasingly savvy residents are not falling for the scheme but are notifying law enforcement instead.
On first glance, it would be easy to believe that someone in the household at some point had applied for the extra income mystery shopper opportunity; responding to an advertisement, perhaps, or online.

And the application was successful. Services are needed; the generous advance payment proves it. All that it takes are a few simple steps; an easy, pleasant, profitable experience, so it seems.

But, it’s all a scam; a fairly elaborate con designed to shake out a couple of thousand from each of dozens if not hundreds of recipients tempted by just a touch of greed. The investments in finding targets plus the paper and postage are minor compared with the potential return.

The basic scheme is not new; the latest twist, however, suggests that the most innocent communications now place a great many people at risk.

This is the conclusion reached by an 84-year-old SCC widow specifically targeted recently by a “Bob Smith” purporting to represent “Survey in Motion,” pretending to be an affiliate of “American Research Group” using a Jersey City, New Jersey location. In mid-September, she received the check payable to her by name, correctly addressed to her home and accompanied by detailed instructions for handling the funds.

She was to deposit the enclosed bank draft to her bank account, spend $150 shopping among five prominent stores, saving receipts for the “Customer Satisfaction Evaluation Tool” and, after allowing for $130 in Western Union charges, return $1,890.45 to “Campaign Co-ordinator Bob Smith” per instructions to be given in a wrap-up telephone call.

It was to be a ”training” exercise. Actually, however, by the time the mark learns the deposited check is useless, the shopping monies, the Western Union charges and the rebate to the “company” all came out of legitimate funds in the mark’s bank account.

“I was taken about five years ago for $5,000 in a lottery scheme,” the SCC resident told The Observer, which is protecting her identity. The pain of that experience prompted her, she added, to turn the most recent scam over to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Girard, the community’s resource officer. She knew she had not applied to become a mystery shopper, that the check had to be a phony and that she would get nothing but ripped off by following the instructions.

What she doesn’t know is how her accurate name and correct address, which are not listed in any local directories, were obtained by the would-be thieves. Her best guess is that the thieves now are buying the mailing lists sold on the open market which are compiled from readers who order magazine subscriptions or shoppers who place catalogue orders.

Girard does not disagree. He also points to a thief’s treasure contained in some local publications. There are places where it is possible to obtain not only names and addresses, but also employment and background information, he noted, which the experienced con artist uses to build rapport with targeted individuals. Since it is not possible to live in total anonymity, he added, it is increasingly important to remain alert and suspicious of sudden windfalls arriving from unknown locations.

In the case of the current mystery shopper scam, Girard noted that careful inspection of the material discloses several instances of conflicting information. He also said he suspects this particular con actually is being run out of Canada. He commended the local widow for her savvy response to the attempt to defraud her and said he is forwarding the materials she received to the Federal Trade Commission.

Any citizen receiving similarly suspicious materials can do the same. The FTC stores spammed materials for use by investigating agencies and accepts forwarded examples through span@uce.gov.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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