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Buyer beware: Internet scams abound

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer
4/20/2011

You have been searching for weeks, looking to buy a dog for your family and you think you’ve found the perfect one.

She’s just a puppy and her owner gave you the pick of the litter — even sent you pictures so you could pick the one you really wanted.


Your new dog is actually living in another country at the moment, but that’s no problem. The owner is going to ship the adorable little pup to you for next to nothing.

 

How to protect yourself

Internet scams and identity theft continue to be a concern for residents of Plumas County. The best advice to protect yourself almost always involves common sense.

Don’t wire money via Western Union without personally knowing who will be picking it up.

Be wary of emails from unknown sources that contain very poor grammar and spelling.

Do not click on the content of email that you think is spam.

If an email offer sounds too good to be true, it is.

If you think you are really getting that $20,000 car on Craigslist for $5,000, it’s a scam.

A seller on the Internet should be able to give you a name, address and phone number. If it’s an expensive item, arrange to see it before you buy it.

Don’t make financial transactions for people you meet on the Internet until you actually meet them in person.

So you send the owner $450 and wait for the arrival of the new family pet.


A couple days later the owner calls to say the crate he was going to use for shipping is too small. You will need to send another couple hundred bucks to buy a larger one.

No problem.

You send the cash. Nothing but the best for your puppy. She will probably be more comfortable in a bigger cage for the long flight anyway. Right?

The next day you get another call saying that the little ball of fur you have already named “Shadow” is stuck in customs. It’s going to cost another chunk of change to get Shadow free.

Hmmm …

Well, OK. After this it’s smooth sailing and soon Shadow will be licking your face and playing in the yard with the toys you bought for her.

Then you get another call.

And another, and another.

Each time the owner asks for cash for various reasons: Shots for Shadow, medicine, baggage fees, a haircut, you name it.

The sad fact is you will never see Shadow. And the daily calls for more cash will keep coming until you’ve finally decided you’ve had enough.

There is no Shadow.

You are out $1,500.

You’ve been scammed.

Bill Elliott, detective for the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department, has seen this “puppy scam” a few times.

It’s the latest in a long line of ways creative criminals are using the Internet to steal money.

And when the criminals are outside the country, there is almost nothing investigators like Elliott can do.

“If I determine that the suspect lives overseas, we don’t even put any effort into it,” Elliott says. “We unfortunately have to advise the victim that there’s nothing we can do, the money went overseas. It’s not at the threshold that we can even pass this on to a federal agency. Unfortunately, it becomes a lesson in life.”

Elliott says victims often eventually admit, “I knew it was too good to be true, but I just couldn’t help myself.”

“People have got to listen to that little voice,” Elliott says. “If the deal seems too good to be true … it is. That’s as simple as it gets.”

Elliott said the various scams often change after the scammer gets someone hooked.

He said he recently had to send adult protective services to the home of an elderly man who was being scammed.

“(The man) continued to send money even after I told him ‘you are the victim of a crime. You need to stop sending money,’” Elliott said. “He ultimately stopped, but he lost about $80,000 over the time.”

With personal information available on the Internet it is easy for criminals to find the names of an elderly person’s grandson, for instance.

With that information the scammer will call and pose as the grandson.

“The caller will say, ‘I’m in Europe and they’ve got me in jail and I need $5,000 to get out. You need to send it quick.’”

The scammer will usually call grandma back quickly and add even more drama to her stress and confusion.

“They will call back quickly because they don’t want grandma calling another family member,” Elliott said. “And then they say, ‘You have to send the money quick because there are bad things happening here and bad things are going to happen to me.’”

It’s not just the elderly who are targets of scams and identity theft. They are after all of us.

People who are lonely can be prime targets for scammers.

“What these bad guys have done is they go to the dating websites because they know that there are a lot of desperate folks visiting there looking for anything,” Elliott says. “A lot of times it happens to women. (The scammer) will start an online relationship with her saying how much he loves her and cares about her.”

The woman falls in love.

Eventually the scammer convinces her to pick up money (usually the proceeds of a different scam) at some location and send it to him, usually out of the country.

“These women have no idea they are committing a crime. They are just in love with some fictitious person overseas and they are just facilitating the crime.”

Elliott says the numbers and kinds of scams are too numerous to count.

He said a Plumas County resident recently bought a motorcycle on Craigslist, sent the money by Western Union and never got the motorcycle.

Western Union has frequently been used in scams, because money wired to one state can be picked up in an adjacent state.

“Western Union is very little help,” Elliott said. “The money is never picked up at the address it is supposed to be sent to.

“Each time when I have a victim call up and tell me they sent the money through Western Union, I’ve got to kind of give them the bad news up front. … That there’s probably not a lot we are going to be able to do with the case.

“If a person has already reported it as a fraud case, Western Union will no longer cooperate with them. They will say, ‘You should have known who you were sending the money to.’

“I just cannot believe that a business (like Western Union) can operate in that function in the United States today. It just baffles me.”

Elliott says people can be taking a risk when they buy on Craigslist.

He strongly recommends that if you are buying something over the Internet and you can’t reach out and touch and feel the item, you need to convince the person you are buying it from that someone you know can.

Even if you have to lie.

“I will email them back and say I have a brother-in-law that lives 20 minutes from you and I would like to set up an appointment to come take a look at this wonderful car,” Elliott says. “If it’s legitimate, they give you an address and a time that you can come and see it. When you receive no response back, you know that it’s a scam.”

 


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