Federal and Local Officials Warn Americans of Rise in Telephone Scams Targeting U.S. Citizens from Within and Outside of the U.S.
|FBI Los Angeles December 15, 2011|
Law enforcement has seen an increase in the number of reports by victims of telephone scams where the caller impersonates a family member of the victim and concocts a phony scenario suggesting the relative is in distress, it was announced today by Steven Martinez, the FBI’s Assistant Director in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Office; André Birotte Jr., the United States Attorney in Los Angeles; and officials with the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In an effort to reach victims before they are convinced to send money overseas, law enforcement is detailing the signs potential victims can recognize in order to identify a scheme in its early stages.
Southern California and its many retirement communities has long been a target-rich environment for thieves intent on defrauding unsuspecting victims, particularly the elderly. While common schemes, such as counterfeit check, foreign lottery, and mystery shopper schemes continue to plague victims, law enforcement is advising the public about the emergence of the “relative in distress” scam, or RID scam. Law enforcement agencies have seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints by victims of RID scams.
RID scams can vary in terms of the details supplied by the scammer, the target demographic and the location from which the scam is perpetrated, however, the general fraud is carried out as follows: Victims are contacted by one or more individual claiming to be a relative of the victim in a situation causing them some form of distress. The scammer advises the victim of the circumstances of their situation and invariably concludes with a plea for help in the form of cash. Victims are asked to wire money to an address, many times overseas, and in some cases will be asked to send money more than one time as the purported circumstances evolve and become more harrowing. In some cases, the caller will introduce a third party, such as a purported embassy official, police officer, or lawyer, to the phone conversation in order to lend legitimacy to the scheme. In most cases, the caller impersonating the relative will claim to be in the hospital, in a foreign jail or in an otherwise compromising situation where cash is required immediately. In these cases, victims have claimed to be distracted by their emotion and influenced by an intense desire to assist their loves ones. In an effort to avoid detection by law enforcement or circumspect family members, victims have reported that the fraudulent caller advised them to refrain from telling other family members about their purported plight so that they would not be embarrassed. Law enforcement theorizes that many of the perpetrators mine websites or personal social networking sites to obtain personal details about their target victims.
Three victims of the RID Scam have reported the fraud to authorities in Los Angeles and have joined law enforcement officials today to tell their stories so that they might prevent others from making the same mistake. The three victims in Los Angeles collectively wired over $30,000 to foreign countries, including Lebanon, Spain, Italy, Canada, Dominican Republic, and Peru. Law enforcement has seen reports of this scam which involve nearly every part of the world, including form within the United States. Two of the Los Angeles victims were contacted by individuals who claimed to be family members serving in the U.S. military. The fact that the family members being impersonated were actually in the military added credibility to the scheme.
Law enforcement has been successful to a degree in identifying victims and prosecuting offenders operating in the United States and from overseas, but stresses that prevention in the form of education is the key to preventing the continuous problem.
The FBI in Los Angeles has operated a successful task force with the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to address mass marketing fraud that occurs across the international border. The FBI is also working with local partners, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to aggregate the complaints and identify organized rings targeting multiple victims.
Los Angeles has collaborated with its federal partners, as well as international law enforcement agengies through long-standing task forces with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), known as “Project Emptor” in Surrey, British Columbia, and “Project Colt” in Montreal.
Tips and warning signs are being provided publicly to educate targeted victims.
Victims who are contacted under circumstances that resemble a RID scam are advised to investigate requests for financial assistance from those claiming to be family members or others before sending money.
Foreign Lotteries and Sweepstakes: Victims are told that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes in a foreign drawing. In order to collect the winnings, the victims must first pay various taxes and fees. The checks appear, on the surface, to be authentic. In some cases, it may take the bank several days to determine that the check is fraudulent.
Money Transfer Scams: Victims are asked to help illegally transfer funds out of Nigeria or other countries in return for a share of the money. Victims are asked to provide their bank account information or pay money up front to complete the transaction.
Credit & Loan Scams: Victims with poor or non-existent credit are offered credit cards, loans or credit improvement services for an advance fee.
Mystery Shopper Scams: Victim receives a letter in the mail advising they have been selected to work as a “Mystery Shopper.” Enclosed in the letter is a check. Victims are instructed to deposit the check and to use the funds to evaluate money transfer services. Banks subsequently determine that checks are counterfeit and victims are responsible for the funds spent.
Overpayment Scams: Victims who advertise an item for sale are sent a counterfeit check or money order from a “buyer” for more than the cost of the item and the victim is then held responsible by his or her financial institution when the payment is discovered to be counterfeit.
Charity Scams: Victims are solicited for donations to non-existent or fraudulent charities.
Counterfeit Checks: Victims receive counterfeit checks which contain legitimate bank account and routing numbers of companies which criminal groups may send to thousands of U.S. residents in furtherance of a fraud.
The FBI and its partners encourage the public to report any fraudulent activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, at www.ic3.gov.
Mass marketing fraud is an increasingly global problem that can cause individuals to lose thousands and even millions of dollars. Law enforcement and consumer protection agencies in the United States and around the world are making efforts today to raise awareness about mass-marketing fraud and prevent future victimization. In addition to its investigative efforts, the FBI posts consumer information about mass-marketing fraud on its website at www.fbi.gov. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a new consumer brochure on how individuals can avoid fraud, found at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/general/gen23.pdf.
More information about mass-marketing fraud is available through the Department of Justice’s mass-marketing fraud website at http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/internet/.
Tips for Citizens Who May be Targeted for Fraud:
- Be suspicious of any offer that sounds too good to be true.
- Take time to research any offers you receive over the Internet or telephone.
- Fraudulent telemarketers may pretend to be government officials, banking representatives, or attorneys, or may send phony documents in attempts to make offers appear legitimate.
- If you have legitimately won a lottery or sweepstakes prize, you will never have to pay money in advance of your winnings.
- Hang up on anyone who solicits money in advance of awarding a prize.
- Do not respond to mailed solicitations for money in advance of winning a prize; instead, report the fraud to law enforcement.
- Never provide personal information over the telephone, online or through the mail in response to a solicitation. This includes date of birth, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, banking, or other personal information.
- Never deposit checks sent by companies whose representatives claim the check is being sent to pay fees or taxes on lottery winnings. Fraudulent checks may appear to look legitimate. Some checks may even be drawn on legitimate accounts and may include actual routing numbers so they appear authentic when presented for deposit at banks.
- Do not give in to high-pressure sales techniques.
- Consult family, friends and/or trusted advisors before making major financial decisions.