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January 21. 2014 7:27PM

Consumer fraud experts warn of phone scams

MANCHESTER — Did you know you can check your credit report for free at AnnualCreditReport.com to ensure no one's opened up a credit card or taken out a loan in your name? Or that it is illegal for anyone in the United States to play or win a foreign lottery? Or that once you wire money anywhere, it's gone and you can't get it back?

That was some of the information a panel of consumer fraud experts provided to more than a dozen senior citizens Tuesday who gathered in the community room at the Laurette Sweeney Apartments for a forum hosted by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

The senator spoke about recent incidents in Manchester where elderly citizens were scammed out of money after someone called them to say a relative was in an accident and needed money or their grandchild was under arrest in Mexico and needed cash for bail. The residents wired the requested money only to learn later they were scammed. In one case, a Rite Aid manager realized an elderly man was making a second wire transaction and suggested he call police, which he did.

The worst part about the scams, Shaheen said, is the scammers prey on people who are trusting, those who want to do what's best for their families. She cited a 2010 financial study by Metropolitan Life that estimated $2.9 billion was stolen from the elderly that year.

Derick Rill, congressional specialist with the Federal Trade Commission in Washington that investigates deceptive and unfair business practices, said what everybody should keep in mind is if they did not initiate the call, email or postal communication, then they should investigate.

If the FTC was a hunter, he asked, what animal would it go after. Sharks and wolves, were the answers. "Lions and cheetahs," he said to groans.

"If you send money out to someone you don't know by wire, you might as well throw it in the fire," was one of his sage rhymes. Another was, "If we did not initiate, we should investigate."

He said complaints can be filed with the FTC, which provides information to more than 200,000 law enforcement agencies across the country and works closely with the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Secret Service, which investigates cybercrime. The federal agency can be reach online at FTC.gov or by phone at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

Senior assistant New Hampshire Attorney General James Boffetti, chief of the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau, said last year that his agency took 3,000 to 4,000 individual complaints dealing with various issues including lottery scams, scam artists, oil and cable companies and roofing contractors who take homeowners' money but had no intention or no ability to do the roofing job.

He advised people to stop, think, and ask questions anytime they receive an unsolicited call or mailing. If you receive an email from what looks to be your bank asking for personal information, call the bank to verify it sent the email, he said. That is one of the scams that has been circulating, he said. Once you provide the information, the scammers are able to get credit in your name.

Boffetti said everyone is aware of the Target case, where hackers obtained millions of Americans' credit and debit card numbers. Boffetti said it was a sophisticated operation by people who, like chameleons, are able to quickly adapt to new technology.

His office, too, has a hotline — 1-888-468-4454 — where individuals can file complaints.

Dan R. Forristall, federal agent for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that formed after the Civil War to investigate cases of medical quackery, said there was a case in New Hampshire where a man lost $275,000 in a telephone con and another resident lost his home in a remortgage fraud.

In one case, they tracked down some individuals who were spending $19 a day to send out postal packages to the Bronx and Hialeah, Fla., outside Miami. Forristall explained it's unlikely that an individual would send out that many packages and ultimately the investigation led to a Jamaica gang running a telephone scam. The packages contained the money they collected in the ripoffs.

He said Internet cafes in Jamaica as well as Nigeria were set up simply to cheat Americans out of their money. Last year, $2 billion was lost to scammers, he said. In New Hampshire, he said he receives at least one phone call every day from someone who lost money to scam artists.

Forristall also said anyone who falls for a scam just once ends up on a list that is regurgitated for years. He said his wife's grandfather lost $3 in a scam and ended up being solicited nine or 10 more times by other con men.

U.S. Secret Service Agent Matt O'Neill was involved in an investigation into a credit card breach at Subway in Plaistow. It turned out a trio of Romanian hackers had infiltrated 250 Subways across the country as well as another 850 merchants. One of the hackers had a master's degree in robotics from a prestigious Romanian university, he said.

He said they were young guys in a country with very low paying jobs and where white collar crime is not considered a big crime. O'Neill lured the young men in their 20s to the United States with the promise of money and women and then arrested them.

He asked one of them why they committed crimes against Americans and the man replied, "That's where the money is."

O'Neill suggested people use credit cards and not debit cards for purchases. He explained that with a credit card, the individual is only liable for $50 - although neither he nor Rill had ever seen anyone charged the fee - if someone illegally uses it, whereas with a debit card, the individual could be without their cash for sometime until the bank verifies the purchase was fraudulent.

He said he once tracked down a man who had set up a website to sell individuals' personal information including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and routing numbers. The man was selling each one for 9 cents a piece and he had a half-million of them.

He got the information from a fraudulent online mortgage website, the sole purpose of which was to get individuals' personal information, not provide any loans.

Rill advised the seniors to keep track of their bank and credit card statements and check their credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com . If you don't anticipate getting a loan, he said you could also ask for a credit freeze. which would prevent anyone from opening up a credit card. A fee would be charged to unfreeze it.

Jerry Boyer of AARP attended the forum. He said the group has a 15-member fraud team that makes presentations as well. To request a presentation, contact nh@aarp.org.

pgrossmith@unionleader.com


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