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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Fraud and scams are all around us. What can you do?

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/25/23

REGIONAL— Did you know your Amazon account has been frozen? And that a subscription for your computer security program just renewed at a price of $499 without your permission? Did you know you …

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Fraud and scams are all around us. What can you do?


REGIONAL— Did you know your Amazon account has been frozen? And that a subscription for your computer security program just renewed at a price of $499 without your permission? Did you know you just won a fancy vacuum cleaner than can be yours for the mere price of shipping?
If any of these claims sound familiar, you’re in good company with the millions of other Americans who are bombarded almost daily with a seemingly endless variety of scams.
Some scams, like the now infamous Nigerian prince who wants to send you millions of dollars (and all you need to do is hand over your bank routing information) have become the butt of jokes. But for those who have been taken by far craftier cons, the loss, stress, and inconvenience is no laughing matter.
Just ask Steve Markkula, of Virginia, who spent $25,800 for a 1969 Hemi Roadrunner that he found posted on a car sales website that appeared to have a credible reputation. He emailed back and forth with the owner, who told him the car, title, and keys were already in the possession of an automobile wholesaler, who would hold his funds in escrow until he took delivery of the vehicle and found it to his satisfaction. All he had to do was wire the money, which Markkula had received as part of an inheritance, to the wholesaler’s account.
Even so, Markkula was wary, but when a staff member at his local credit union told him the account looked legitimate, he wired the funds to a bank account in Florida. At first, all looked fine. A few days later, he received an email with a tracking number and for the next few days, he could watch the progress of the truck that was supposedly hauling his car. Then the updates suddenly stopped. Markkula tried calling the trucking company, but never got any answers.
In the end, the car never arrived, and Markkula spent the next two years trying to get his money back.
Local police had no answers and little interest in his case, which is a fairly common response from law enforcement, which has few tools to address such crimes. His credit union said there was no way to recover the wired funds and balked at covering his loss through their insurance.
Markkula was simply one of a growing number of Americans who had been outsmarted by the growing legions of fraudsters who devote their creative talents to bilking others.
“There is so much fraud out there,” said Sunday Young, manager of the Embarrass-Vermillion Federal Credit Union in Tower. So much so, in fact, that Young says many of us don’t even recognize it for what it is. “A common one is a call or email that your Amazon account has been closed,” she said. That’s one bound to catch the attention of any regular online shopper, but when a victim calls to find out what happened, they’re told they need to clear up their account, preferably with a credit card.
Pop-up windows, telling you your computer has been infected with a virus is another common scam, says Young. The pop-up offers to scan and clean your computer, but it’s really intended to download malware that will leave your computer hostage to the scam artist.
Young said she’s aware of at least three local area customers who have fallen victim to that con in the past six months. “If you click on it to allow them to scan, it gives them access to your computer and they can get all your information,” said Young.
These are so-called phishing scams, which lure victims by either promising help or threatening harm if you don’t do what they say.
“We see it all the time,” said Young, who said the elderly are more likely to fall victim to such scams. “In many cases, they just panic.”
Another common grift comes as an email or a phone call, supposedly from an IRS agent, accusing their mark of owing thousands of dollars in federal taxes. Often, they’ll threaten the unsuspecting individual with arrest.
“I had someone come in recently in a panic, needing a loan for $6,000 for the IRS, because the person on the line told them they were going to be arrested. They had this person totally believing it.”
IRS officials note that they don’t make phone calls and they don’t threaten individuals with arrest if they don’t pay. “The IRS is not going to call you,” said Young. “So, if you get a call like that from them, you know it’s fake.”
Scammers rely on that sense of panic that many people feel when facing an unfamiliar or apparently threatening situation. “They prey on that knee jerk reaction,” Young said.
They also prey on the unsuspecting. Scarlet Stone, of Soudan, is still kicking herself for having been suckered by a text she received one evening, announcing she had won a high-end vacuum cleaner from Home Depot. All she needed to do was pay for the shipping. In her excitement, she forwarded the payment, but the promised vacuum, not surprisingly, never arrived.
“It looked so legitimate,” said Stone. “It had their logo and everything. It makes you want to put your money in a can.”
Credit card security
Of course, most of us these days don’t keep our money in a can— we keep it connected to a little plastic card. Credit cards and debit cards are incredibly convenient, but they come with their own host of potential security concerns. For fraudsters, getting access to your credit card number is a major score but it can be a huge headache for victims. Fortunately, said Young, credit card companies have gotten increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to fight credit card fraud. And if and when false charges are incurred, you can often get the charges reversed.
While computer hackers often use the internet to gain access to credit card data, far simpler methods often work as well— and Stone, again, was a hapless victim recently when she pulled out her credit card to pay for a cocktail at a local bar. She later found out that in the moment or two her card was lying on the bar, someone managed to obtain the numbers, probably by snapping a quick photo with their phone. Within minutes of paying for her drink, her card was charged twice, for a total of $75, for wagers at a sports betting website. In this case, she said the website operators were decent about it and she was able to get the charges reversed. That’s not always going to be the case, however. With virtually everyone walking around with a camera these days, Stone’s experience makes a good argument for situational awareness whenever you pull the plastic from your wallet or pocketbook.
Protecting yourself
When it comes to online scams, the best way to protect yourself is to never, ever click on anything sent to you, unless you know the sender and have reason to believe they might be sending you a downloadable item. “If I don’t know who it’s from, I don’t click on it,” said Young.
And because fraudsters will also hijack email addresses, you even need to be cautious of emails sent from people you know. If you’re wondering why that acquaintance of yours is suddenly sending you a file and urging you to click it, don’t do it— at least not until you’ve been able to confirm that they actually did send you something,
If you receive a phone call promising a prize, cheap travel deals or a low-risk, high return investment, the best advice according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce is to simply hang up.
When you’re online, watch for fraudulent websites that may be designed to mimic official government or shopping sites. Always doublecheck the URL’s spelling. Often these sites contain a slight variation from the actual URL that are calculated to net traffic from users who make common typing errors when searching for a site, or to appear legitimate in a google search to the unsuspecting.
There are so many variations and new scams come along almost weekly. Young said she regularly receives updates from the Minnesota Credit Union Network alerting their members of the latest grifts.
If there’s any single piece of best possible advice for everyone these days, it’s simply to be suspicious of just about everything. Stay alert. Always assume that someone out there is trying to scam you. Because they probably are.
Persistence can pay off
If you are scammed, it sometimes pays to be the squeaky wheel. Steve Markkula learned that lesson, and ended up recovering the $25,800 he had plunked down on that ’69 Roadrunner. It was actually thanks to one of his in-laws, Victoria Ranua, of Tower, who took on the case last year after he had almost given up hope. He had even contacted a lawyer, who wanted $5,000 up front and told him he’d probably spend more by the time he was done than he had lost. Markkula describes the experience as one of the worst periods of his life. Everywhere he turned, he hit roadblocks. “Everyone just said I was a dumb ass,” said Markkula. “Everyone but Victoria.”
Ranua undertook her own investigation of the case and assembled Markkula’s claim and sent it to the credit union officials and elsewhere “Vic acted as my lawyer and within a month, I got a call from the credit union president, telling me the money is back in my account. To this day, I still don’t know how it mysteriously came back. But I can tell you how great it felt.”