Falling for scams

Scam artists have been clever enough to bilk unsuspecting North Dakotans out of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Judy Austad, investigator in the Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division of the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, Bismarck.

Austad often hears from people after it’s too late. Her advice to seniors at an AARP educational luncheon Wednesday in Minot was to close the door, put down the phone or log off the computer and do some investigation before dipping into your life’s savings. Giving her office a call is a good place to start, she said.

Austad and Gary Johnson, senior program manager for The Center for Fraud Prevention with the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, Burnsville, Minn., spoke at the event to warn seniors about existing scams and offer advice on how to avoid becoming victims.

“We grew up trusting people,” Johnson said. “That’s what puts a big target on the backs of you seniors.”

“It’s OK to hang up on someone,” Austad said. “The harder you slam the phone down, the better off you are, because they are going to call you back if you don’t.”

Austad talked about a couple of common phone scams occurring in North Dakota currently. One involves a caller who claims to be a grandchild in trouble and needing money. The first calls in North Dakota were reported at Edgewood Vista in Minot, where alert staff contacted her office immediately and quickly warned residents, Austad said.

The other scam originates in Jamaica from a number with an “876” prefix that tries to get people to send money to claim a prize. People who do send money get repeated calls for more money.

“Once the money is wired outside the country, we have no control. Once it’s picked up, there’s no getting it back,” Austad said.

The North Dakota Attorney General’s office has connected with a task force involving the Postal Service, FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office and others to investigate and stop the Jamaican scam. Law enforcement in Jamaica also is involved.

“They are going after these people, so we feel very, very good about that,” Austad said.

Other common scams involve promises of government grants, fake prize checks or offers to help sell vacation time shares. Some seek personal information by purporting to be with a cell phone or credit card company or look to gain access to a personal computer by pretending to be from Microsoft. One North Dakota couple moving into a new home had another family pull up with their household goods after paying a deposit to a scam artist who had posted the house for rent online. North Dakotans also have found their images stolen and used on romance sites, where scam artists build online relationships and weasel money out of victims.

Her office is seeing instances now in which the Internal Revenue Service is refusing tax returns on the grounds that returns already have been filed with those Social Security numbers. Austad said her office has had success in helping people correct the problem, which stems from stolen numbers.

She explained that scam artists who trick people into revealing the last four figures in their Social Security numbers often can illegally obtain legitimate numbers of those people or others with limited guesswork. The Social Security Administration no longer is issuing Social Security cards with the first three digits based on location to make it harder to guess a legitimate number.

Door-to-door sales people also can be legitimate or can be frauds. Always ask to see a current transient merchant’s license, Austad said. Under state law on home purchases, sales people must inform customers of a three-day right to cancel and include the provision in the purchase contract. Customers older than 65 have a 15-day right to cancel.

Other scam prevention tips include:

– Destroy unwanted pre-approved credit card applications or stop the solicitations by registering at (www.optoutprescreen.org) or by calling 888-567-8688.

– Check bank balances and credit card statements regularly and consider prepaid credit cards when traveling to reduce risk.

– Request a free annual credit report every four months from one of the three reporting agencies at (www.annualcreditreport.com). If identify theft has occurred, people can freeze their credit report to prevent access to their credit. Others can request a freeze for a small fee, although a freeze also can interfere with legitimate credit-related activities.

– Research before you buy or send money.

Austad suggested people call her office at 888-382-1222 for information. People also can sign up for fraud and scam alerts or get information about charities from the Better Business Bureau by calling 800-646-6222. More information is available at (www.ag.nd.gov) and (www.bbb.org).

Never return a call to an unknown number. Doing so may not only connect a person with a scam artist but calls have been known to cost up to $25 a minute.