Bullock makes Preventing Wire Fraud Focus of Consumer Protection Week in Montana
HELENA – Scams that convince Montanans to wire money to con artists have become such a widespread problem in Montana that Attorney General Steve Bullock has made wire fraud the main focus of Montana’s Consumer Protection Week. For audio, click here.
“In recent months, we’ve seen more and more scams asking hard working Montanans to wire money out of the state, and often, out of the country,” Bullock said. “My Office of Consumer Protection gets calls about these scams on a daily basis, but once the money is wired, it’s gone. Our best defense is to spread the word far and wide before people become victims.”
While Bullock said the scams are constantly changing, two of the most common recent versions target grandparents and would-be lottery winners.
In the grandparent scam, an older person gets a phone call from someone who pretends to be his or her grandchild. Often the caller is crying, sounds distressed, and may claim to be in a foreign country. The caller then begs the elderly person to wire money as soon as possible and not to tell relatives or friends. While the entire scenario is fiction (the person’s real grandchild is not in trouble), the scammers are very convincing. Unfortunately, once a trusting grandparent wires money interstate or overseas, it is virtually impossible to trace and recover.
According to Bullock, cases tracked by the Office of Consumer Protection last year alone put the cost of the grandparent scam to Montana seniors at more than $68,000. Since that figure reflects only the victims who reported the scam to the Montana Department of Justice, the true cost to Montana’s grandparents is likely much higher.
Bullock also indicated that, while sweepstakes and lottery scams are not new, they are on the rise. The schemes differ on specifics, but most follow a formula: a person receives an unsolicited letter, e-mail or phone call from an organization claiming to be a legitimate lottery in a foreign country, a private sweepstakes firm or a lottery “commission.” They all bear the same message: You’re a winner! To redeem his or her “winnings,” a person must first send or wire money to lottery or sweepstakes officials.
The checks that accompany these scams often look very realistic; many are fakes copied word-for-word from real businesses. And while these checks always bounce, even if a bank initially accepts them, the money a “winner” wires away is all too real – and in almost every case, that money is gone for good.
According to Zan Deery, Director of Communications and Lead Investigator for the regional Better Business Bureau, 25 percent of the calls they receive involve the potential wiring of funds related to some scam or another.
“Friends, relatives and loved ones can play a huge role influencing our elders about scams, Deery said. “Don’t be shy about it. The climate out there is much more aggressive and deceptive than ever, due partly to the rise of new technology in “newcomers’” hands, and to the fraudulent use of Caller ID to mask scamming calls. If the word “wire” is used in any part of a conversation with an unknown entity, no matter how good it sounds, consider it a huge red flag, and just say NO.”
Montana AARP Executive Director, Bob Bartholomew, also expressed concern about these scams.
“It’s heartbreaking, but the hard reality is that seniors here are being targeted. Some families are finding out too late that their parents or grandparents have wired their entire life savings to criminals in foreign countries,” Bartholomew said. “By supporting the educational efforts underway through the Office of Consumer Protection, AARP is an active partner in raising awareness so that seniors in Montana develop a healthy skepticism.”
Attorney General Steve Bullock also encouraged Montanans to sign up for Scam Alerts, a new service being provided by the Office of Consumer Protection. The office tracks scams and sends out alerts on the latest pitches. To learn more and to sign up for Scam Alerts, visit www.consumermprotection.mt.gov.
March 6-12 is National Consumer Protection Week. One of the functions of the Montana Attorney General’s Office is to work to protect Montana’s consumers, both through law enforcement efforts and by education and outreach on important consumer issues.