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Avoid being swindled by area scams

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Posted: Saturday, November 13, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 6:20 am, Sat Nov 13, 2010.

Lodi residents have been victimized by a number of different scams in the last six months, affecting everyone from the unemployed to the elderly. Officer Leo Ramirez of the Lodi Police Department spoke to the News-Sentinel recently to go over the most prevalent scams in the area.

Mystery shopper: You've seen the ads before, even in the News-Sentinel: Get paid to go shopping! Companies advertising a job in which all you have to do is buy a few items at local stores and you'll receive money to rate the service. While it's true that many local businesses do use "secret" or "mystery" shoppers, some con artists are using a phony secret shopper service to swindle innocent people out of thousands.

According to Ramirez, the con begins when the victim calls to inquire about this so-called job, and is then sent some official-looking paperwork and a check for a few thousand dollars. The victim is instructed to deposit the check into their bank account, then go to a few local stores, usually chain establishments like Walmart or Target, and spend a couple hundred dollars on items there. They then are told to keep some of the money for themselves, and send the rest to an address via Western Union. Once the money is sent, victims are supposed to quickly notify the alleged employers and give them the transaction number.

The problem is, the checks victims receive are fraudulent, and if the banks don't realize it when the check is deposited, the victim will later be responsible for the money they send to the scammers. And although an address is provided where the money is wired to, it's often a fake as well. Truthfully, once the con artists have the transaction number, they can receive the money anywhere that Western Union is available.

Some of the victims have actually been saved from the scheme when banks refused to honor the checks, Ramirez said, but there have been a few victims who sent money and lost more than $1,000.

Grandchild in trouble: This scam specifically targets the elderly, who are targeted more often than any other age group, Ramirez said.

Schemers, who have become very sophisticated in their scams, will discover the name of a senior's grandson or granddaughter. They will then call the victim and tell them their grandchild has been injured or is in trouble, and a second schemer will take the phone and pretend to be the grandchild. The fake grandchild will never stay on the line for long, just enough to convince the victim that the setup is genuine.

Much like the mystery shopper scam, the target is then asked to wire money to a phony address via Western Union. In all of these cases, not once has there actually been anyone injured or in trouble, Ramirez said.

Border crossing: Hispanics are targeted in this scheme, where the con artists call the victim and say they are trying to help one of their relatives cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Somehow the scammers learn the name of the one of the victim's relatives, increasing the likelihood the scam will sound believable. The target is always asked to send money to facilitate the border crossing, but the schemers never allow them to speak to the supposed relative that needs help.

The lottery jackpot: Mail scams have been around for decades, and they still continue to this day. Some local residents have been receiving fake notices that inform them they have won a big lottery jackpot. Sometimes the notices look slick and professional, Ramirez said. The letters are allegedly from lawyers representing the state, who are writing to inform the victim of their "jackpot." Of course, it cannot be delivered unless the victim sends a few thousand dollars to cover shipping costs and attorney fees.

To avoid being swindled in scams like these, Ramirez said the most important thing people should remember is to never send money to potential scammers, especially via money-wiring services. Wire transfers are virtually untraceable, Ramirez said, since the perpetrators can claim the money from anywhere nationwide.

And if you're ever involved in a financial deal you're afraid may be a scam, you can always report it to the Lodi Police Department at (209) 333-6727.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews.com.

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