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A guide to scams: How to recognize and report them

Posted Jun. 28, 2013

A guide to scams: How to recognize and report them

By Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Twinsburg Detective Greg Kopniske shows an example of a scam that was run in the area. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

Your grandson calls. He’s found himself in some legal trouble in Canada. He needs bail money but is too embarrassed to tell his parents. Can you wire him some money?

Don’t.

A man knocks on your door. He just finished doing a roof in the neighborhood and has some leftover shingles. He’s noticed your roof appears to have a problem area. He’ll give you a good deal on the repair if you let him do it today so he can use up his supplies.

Don’t.

You get an email from a sweepstakes company. Incredibly, you’ve won the grand prize! Can you send some money to cover the taxes so they can put your check in the mail?

Don’t.

In a perfect world, recognizing a scam would be that easy.

But Twinsburg Detective Greg Kopniske said he would never criticize someone who falls for a con. Scammers can be masters of deception. They know how to tug at someone’s heart strings or play on their desperation in a sour economy.

They also target people of all ages, but the elderly seem to be particularly susceptible, Kopniske said. They can be too quick to trust, too eager to help family, too inexperienced with technology to understand how convincing a ploy can sound or look.

Once or twice a year, Kopniske speaks to Twinsburg seniors about how to avoid getting caught in someone’s snare. He also encourages others to help look out for the community’s most vulnerable citizens.

Adult children should sit down with their elderly parents and explain the scams and how they should respond, he said.

Others can be more observant as well.

One senior escaped being swindled when a bank teller became inquisitive about an unusual $15,000 withdrawal and encouraged the customer to call police.

A Bath Township couple was stopped from wiring $2,800 to Peru after Acme Fresh Market employees heard their story and recognized a ruse.

Kate Hanson, public information officer for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said the state logs complaints from thousands of people every year, but the real number is probably much higher. Some people are just too embarrassed to report they’ve been taken.

While the state doesn’t always log the age of the caller filing a complaint, it’s a given that many of them are older.

“We certainly direct a lot of our education toward the elderly because there are other entities who have done research on who is falling for scams,” she said.

Whether you’re young or old, here’s a handy guide for recognizing three common scams, along with advice on how to respond.

The Sweepstakes Scam

Last September, a Medina County man received a phone call saying he won a lottery in the Philippines and was told to send $5,900 to cover fees for transferring the money to the United States. He wired the money to Manila from a local Walmart.

When the thieves called the next day asking for more money, he decided to call the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

In the past 18 months, 1,476 Ohioans — including 123 from the Akron-Canton area — were concerned enough about a strange email, phone call, letter or postcard about a sweepstakes prize that they called the state.

Unfortunately, many reported it only after sending the money as requested.

The perpetrators used a variety of names: Europe and African Sweepstakes, Megasweeps, Fantastic Five Lottery Corp., North American Consumer Compensation Lottery Sweepstakes.

In Stark and Summit counties, a handful of folks even fell prey to someone claiming to be part of the well-known Publishers Clearing House, wiring thousands of dollars to phony accounts because they were told they had to pay taxes up front.

In 2011, Ohioans were taken for more than $2 million this way. And those were only the cases that were reported.

What to do:

No legitimate lottery or sweepstakes will ever ask you to give them money. For starters, it’s against the law.

So the response here is easy: Hang up the phone, delete the email, toss the letter.

You can report any attempt to solicit money to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office at 800-282-0515.

The Grandparent Scam

The state has fielded 126 complaints on this one in the past 18 months. Of 14 reports from the Akron area, nine already had parted with money.

The case of a Mogadore woman last summer is typical.

She answered a call from a hysterical female using the name of a grandchild at an out-of-state college. The girl said she was arrested in Boston because drugs were found in her car, then passed the phone to a woman who claimed to be an officer explaining how to wire bond money. The sympathetic grandma sent $1,800.

Other local residents caught in this trap said calls came from “grandchildren” in Bolivia, Brazil and other foreign ports, with stories that ranged from being in a car accident to needing money for a medical issue.

Kopniske spoke with a middle-aged Twinsburg man who was convinced he was talking to his own son. The man sent money to Canada before uncovering the deception.

“I can’t blame the guy,” he said. “You think your loved one is calling and needs help. Your first thought is to do what you can.”

There can be legitimate reasons a loved one needs money, but don’t pull out the checkbook until you ask a lot of questions.

What to do:

“Who’s your sister married to? What kind of car do you drive? Ask something only that person would know,” Kopniske said.

If the caller says police are involved, ask for the name and number of the police department. Confirm the number by looking it up on the Internet, then call and confirm your loved one is there.

Local residents who didn’t fall for the scam told the attorney general they took the simplest precaution of all: They simply called their grandchild’s phone number and learned they were OK.

If you become a target of this scam, report it to your local police department.

Door-to-Door Contractor

The “contractor” knocks on the door. He’s just coated a driveway in the area and wants to offer you a great deal. If you accept his offer today, he’ll coat your drive with his leftover material for a fraction of the price.

After he pockets your check, he’ll get to work, spraying your drive with a paint or, in some cases, colored water.

“You don’t know what’s happened until the first rain comes along,” Kopniske said. By then, the guy is long gone with your money.

Sometimes he’ll offer to do a free inspection of your roof, then show you a photo he took of the damage he’s found — which really isn’t a photo of your roof at all. After he’s gone, you are the new owner of some cardboard shingles.

“This is the time of the year for these kinds of scams,” Kopniske said.

This month, the Better Business Bureau of Akron advised people to just pass on door-to-door sales of anything.

Scammers come in the guises of landscapers, cleanup crews, chimney contractors and purveyors of magazines and alarm systems.

Say no to all of them, the BBB says.

What to do:

A con artist will shrink in the face of tough questions. Ask why the job has to be done immediately? What’s the address of the job they did in your neighborhood so you can go take a look?

Better yet, ask for a moment to call your insurance company so you can get an inspector out before he does the work.

“If he’s legitimate, he’ll let you make that call. If he’s not, he’ll be gone,” Kopniske said.

If you get this visit, don’t let it slide. Call the police immediately. The scammer is working the neighborhood and might snag someone else. Give the police as much information as you can, including a description of the visitor and his vehicle.

Police also share this information with other jurisdictions so neighboring communities can be put on the alert.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.