Law enforcement warns of new scams

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By Erin L. McCoy

Scammers posing as government officials may be the newest threat to Nelson Countians, but plots to trick people out of their money come in all shapes and sizes.

Nelson County Sheriff Stephen Campbell received three complaints of scams in a period of two weeks in the latter half of February — a higher number than usual, he said.  

One woman reported receiving several calls from different individuals claiming to be federal attorneys or officials, and insisting she had an unpaid bill.

“Usually they say something about ‘federal’ because that really gets people’s attention,” Campbell said. “There were two or three of them working in concert on the same scam to make it sound more legitimate.”

Those scammers convinced the woman to send them money, and her loss amounted to several hundred dollars, Campbell estimated.

“I felt sorry for her because she was very embarrassed to even come in — a very intelligent lady,” he said.

The scam bears a resemblance to a phone scheme that has grown in scope in more than a dozen U.S. states in recent months, according to an FBI press release. Persons claiming to be officers of the court call to inform you that you have missed jury duty and must pay a fine or risk being arrested. Such calls may sound official, but don’t be duped. 

“First of all, a federal agent is never going to call you. They’re going to come to your home, come to your work,” Bardstown Police Chief Rick McCubbin said.

It’s important to ask for more verification of a caller’s identity — for instance, to ask for a bill to be sent to your house, Campbell said.

“If they haven’t done anything wrong, then they need to tell this person on the line to send them proof — you know, I’m not going to take your word over the telephone,” he said.

Giving information such as your Social Security number, credit card number or even date of birth to a caller is never a good idea, Campbell and McCubbin agreed.

Even mailed material isn’t always legitimate, McCubbin added. He pointed to a Nelson County resident who recently received a letter asking for his and his spouse’s names and birthdates. The return address stated it was from Medicare Health Plan Update.

“He called actually the Attorney General’s office and the lady at the AG’s office said that that was the second complaint she had had, and it has nothing to do with Medicare,” McCubbin said.

Letters like these are not always trying to scam people out of their money, he said.

“It could be something as innocent as a life insurance company, but still it’s portraying itself incorrectly,” said McCubbin.

Of course, Internet scams aren’t going out of style any time soon, either. Two of Campbell’s recent complaints involved online purchases. One person answered an online Courier-Journal ad to purchase a puppy from a vendor in Europe.

“She made contact with this person and the person had sold all the puppies, but knew somebody else that had one and was going to put her in contact,” Campbell said. “She wound up sending them money ahead of time and didn’t get a puppy.”

In the end, it simply pays to take precautions, he said.

“She was wanting to be trusting of this person, but anymore, you just can’t be as trusting,” Campbell said. “If that person is legitimate they’ll understand you being cautious.”

Though online banking is usually secure, including with local banks, online loan programs should be approached with caution, McCubbin warned. Look for security measures, such as a lock emblem in your browser that indicates a site has been secured from outside party access.

“Probably one of the most frustrating ones that I dealt with was a lady here in town that was in a medical program, like a nursing student, and had done some loans online,” McCubbin recalled.

The woman began receiving calls from foreign-sounding men threatening to come to her workplace or to cause her bodily harm unless she sent them money. They had information she had entered in the online loan site, such as her Social Security number and address.

“I did a little investigation on it, myself being a formal federal law enforcement officer,” said McCubbin, a retired U.S. Marshal. He learned that the U.S. Secret Service has been investigating these calls, which people are receiving around the country.

“This is a college-age group of men in India, and they are doing where they threaten you, they are able to somehow hack personal information, and they want money,” McCubbin said.

Unfortunately, scammers outside the United States are harder to stop.

 “The agent up there told me that it’s one of the more frustrating cases because they can’t get to them,” McCubbin said.

So when it comes to online transactions, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. McCubbin warned against e-mails that ask you to fill out information about yourself. If you receive an e-mail that appears to be from your bank, call your bank and ask if they sent it; if you receive a call from Agent Smith of the FBI, call the FBI yourself and ask if an Agent Smith works for them, McCubbin said.

And after last week’s storms, be cautious of anyone interested in providing repairs or services for discounted rates.

“Some of these scammers basically chase storms around. When a storm hits a community they move in,” McCubbin said.

Such scammers will ask for money up front, then never complete the work or do a shoddy job. The best way to avoid these scams? Stick with local businesses whose names you knew before the storm, McCubbin said.

“We have enough workers, contractors and legitimate businessmen here that you know who to call,” he said.

ERIN L. MCCOY can be contacted at emccoy@kystandard.com.