FBI: 'Too good to be true' Internet offers most likely are
To Bob Siefert's eyes, the check looked real.
Siefert, 78, of Monroeville didn't recall applying to win the so-called “Sweepstakes Lottery,” but when he received a $1,000 check with his name on it, he didn't ask questions. Siefert deposited the check in his bank and followed instructions to wire $500 for taxes and fees to a foreign account.
The problem: The $1,000 check later bounced; meanwhile, the $500 was gone from Siefert's account. When he realized he'd been duped, the account was closed and the scammer long gone.
“I was so angry, but I couldn't do anything about it,” Siefert said. “I learned to be more vigilant from that day on.”
The scam Siefert fell for isn't unique.
Internet scams affect all nationalities, ages, backgrounds, and education and socioeconomic levels, according to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. The center, which began in 2000 and has received an average 300,000 complaints a year, reported that scammers stole $800 million in 2013.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office learns of several scams every week and tries to educate residents, said John Tokarczyk, the office's senior supervisory consumer protection agent in Harrisburg.
“For us, educating the public is key,” Tokarczyk said. “Generally, when someone says you've won something, if you haven't bought a ticket or entered in a drawing, it's a scam. Sometimes, when things don't make sense, that should raise a big red flag.”
Here are common scams, including scenarios that often appear in summer:
Many fraudsters go “phishing” for information by sending emails posing as someone they're not, said Leonard Nelson, director of information technology and a privacy officer at Temple University in Philadelphia.
A recent phishing scam involves posing as a representative of an employee's IT department, to confirm a password; posing as an employer to confirm personal information to verify a paycheck direct deposit; or posing as a school administrator to ask users to log in to see their grades, Nelson said.
“It's important to question those things and double-check. We tell our users that if you see something odd of fishy or something that looks too good to be true, check with someone before you click through,” he said.
Much like phishing, scammers can masquerade as someone to find targeted information in a scam known as “spearfishing,” said Karen Paullet, an assistant professor of computer and information systems at Robert Morris University in Moon.
Putting personal information on social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter can help fraudsters compile a “digital dossier,” Paullet said. Telling friends on Facebook that you're attending a funeral or going on vacation are bad ideas, because this can give predators specific times and dates when you won't be home.
“We're putting these pieces of information out there and we're exposing ourselves,” Paullet said.
Changing passwords frequently and making them a mix of letters and numbers can protect accounts.
Linda Flores thought she was due compensation from hip surgery in 2008 after getting a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
The caller asked about Flores' medical history and doctors she used and promised to send her money in exchange for a small fee.
“I figured it was legitimate because they knew about my surgery, but I became increasingly suspicious when the caller started asking for my Social Security number and credit card information,” said Flores, 54, of Baldwin Township.
Flores didn't fall victim because she did what experts recommend: She asked for a number where the caller could be reached, hung up and called the Better Business Bureau, which alerted her to the scam. By doing so, experts said, Flores avoided being counted among the 12 million people who were victims of ID theft that year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Marianne DelPizzo had 100 people in her restaurant's dining room at about noon on a late April Saturday, when she got a phone call from someone posing as a Duquesne Light collections agent.
DelPizzo, co-owner of Del's Bar & Restaurant in Bloomfield, said the caller identified himself as “Terry,” gave her his operator number, and said she needed to send the company $600 or her lights would be shut off at 2:30 p.m.
“I said to them that I just sent you $600, and they said it's not enough. They said you have to send us another $600,” she said.
DelPizzo called back about 1:30 p.m. and offered to give a credit card number, but Terry said he'd only take a money pack or money grant.
“I don't even know what a money pack is,” DelPizzo said. “I told him I'll take my chances, and the lights never went off.”
Duquesne Light spokesman Brian Knavish said the scam isn't unique, although more small businesses are being victimized. “We've seen a real big spike in it,” he said.
Duquesne Light may call customers if they're behind on bills, but the utility “certainly” wouldn't call asking for money the same day, Knavish said. “If you're unsure, always err on the side of caution,” he said, and call the Duquesne Light number on the bill with questions.
No one, it seems, is immune to scam artists. When several people began calling the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office last year fearing they could go to jail if they didn't pay their debts, red flags went off for county Sheriff William P. Mullen.
Someone — not the Sheriff's Office — was calling people to say they owed money, and threatening to throw them in jail if they didn't pay. The caller seemed legitimate because the Sheriff's Office phone number appeared on Caller IDs.
“They were relatively sophisticated,” Mullen said. “But we would never call over the phone. We send a uniformed officer to a person's house and give them every opportunity to pay without being arrested.”
A man posing as a water company employee approached an elderly Cranberry couple earlier this month and said he needed to mark the couple's property. The man asked the couple to accompany him to the rear of their property, so he could explain what he was doing, and as the couple followed him, another man entered their house and stole items. Always ask for ID whenever someone knocks on your door, said Cranberry police Sgt. Chuck Mascellino.
“We would say contact the utility company or business to see if they have people in the area. In this instance, if they would have called our water authority, they would have said no,” Mascellino said.
In-person scams can be more dangerous than cyber scams, Mascellino said. “When they're entering a residence, there's always a heightened concern.”
And don't be afraid to appear impolite, said Warren King, president of the Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania.
Residents who aren't interested in a product or service can say no, and shut the door. “If a salesperson is refusing to leave the premises, threaten to notify authorities,” King said.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.