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Be cautious of scams, prosecutor shares during town hall

BOARDMAN — Initially after having called Best Buy to address a computer-related problem, Maggie Gillern thought she was speaking to a member of the Geek Squad.

In reality, however, she was unwittingly making herself the victim of a scam.

“The person said, ‘We could make the repair online.’ I thought I may have been hacked,” Gillern, of Poland, said.

Soon, the person on the other end sought access to her computer to perform a supposedly needed multi-step repair process after having asked her for a certain amount of money upfront. Then the person asked Gillern to go to Best Buy to purchase a gift card and use it to buy an expensive piece of equipment to remedy her computer problem before the person would come to her home to install it to supposedly clean her device. Eventually, she would receive a refund, Gillern also was told.

A day or so later — after having been on the phone with the person for a few hours — Gillern went to Best Buy, where she learned the hard truth.

“As soon as I showed them this letter outlining the steps (for the computer repair), they told me it was a scam,” Gillern said, adding that she lost about $160 and later noticed a deviation in a uniform resource locator.

A URL is the address of a given unique resource on the internet.

Gillern shared part of her story during a presentation Mahoning County Prosecutor Gina DeGenova gave Thursday morning at the Davis Family YMCA, 45 McClurg Road, on various phone and internet scams that target many older people.

DeGenova began her one-hour seminar by discussing so-called “catfishing,” or romance scams, in which the fraudster adopts a fictional online persona to lure a victim into a phony relationship. Such scams often start with compliments to, and a supposed interest in, the victim, yet the scammer always has excuses for not being able to see the person face to face or communicate via FaceTime, she explained.

Eventually, the caller develops a fictitious sob story — such as claiming a loved one has been kidnapped, for example — before asking for money to send the “kidnapper.”

“If it seems a little weird, it probably is,” DeGenova said.

She advised those who receive such calls to talk to a family member to verify the caller’s claim and, if necessary, file a police report, even if embarrassed by the encounter.

In some ways, a so-called grandparent con is similar to a romance scam, in that it also plays on one’s emotions. In this case, the caller may claim to be the person’s grandchild who is in dire straits and needs money quickly.

DeGenova advised that to avoid being a victim, it’s vital to have a code word only family members know, ask probing questions of the caller and refrain from blindly sending money. At this point, the scammer likely will hang up, she added.

The longtime prosecutor also advised the 25 or so who registered for her talk to use privacy settings on their social media pages and be circumspect about the amount and kind of personal information they post on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms.

DeGenova also discussed imposter scams in which callers try to trick people into giving them money up front to join a business venture. Along those lines, they can spoof area codes and phone numbers, making it appear that they’re originating locally.

“Even if the area code is 330 (displayed on one’s caller ID), it could be from somewhere in Europe,” she warned.

Since these types of scammers often are pushy and want a fast response, it’s important to ask for their name, conduct a bit of research, have a lawyer examine the caller’s story and do a Google search, she said.

Another potential pitfall is social media quizzes that scammers use to glean personal information such as birthdates, list of friends and where the person lives. Such information can be used to crack a victim’s password, as well as for other nefarious purposes such as targeted advertising or identity theft.

Despite alluring claims, few, if any, sweepstakes scams result in riches.

“About 99.999% of the time, Ed McMahon is not coming,” DeGenova said, referring to the late actor and comedian who is perhaps best known for accompanying Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show,” and being a pitchman for Publishers Clearing House.

Other such scams will claim the person has won an exotic cruise, but has to first go through expensive hoops, including filing fees, she added.

Other common types of fraud include home improvement and quick-claim deed scams.

Home-improvement cons, which often occur after a hurricane or other natural disaster, are when a fraudster posing as a contractor claims the homeowner can have a great deal on a new roof, for example, but needs to initially make an immediate down payment — perhaps up to 50% — yet never returns to do or finish the work.

In these instances, it’s vital to first obtain a receipt; otherwise, it’s the con artist’s word against the victim’s, DeGenova said.

Quick-claim deed scams usually entail a false signature of the property owner, along with a negligent or complicit notarization on the paperwork and recorded against the property.

Her office is investigating several of these crimes, DeGenova said, adding that she also wants to go after negligent notaries.

In a 2013 case, a federal grand jury charged Ondrea Shabazz of Youngstown in a 59-count indictment with multiple counts of mail, real estate and identity fraud. Shabazz was accused of defrauding real estate owners and third parties to obtain ownership of more than 24 distressed properties in the county between October 2011 and June 2013, then reselling them for about $1 million in the scheme.

Even though a wide array of scams target older people, many of whom tend to be more trusting and vulnerable, anyone of any age can fall victim.

“Scams and frauds can hit any of us,” DeGenova said.

Common signs of a scam

• The caller offers services such as repairing a computer but asks for money upfront along with other personal information such as a social security number or credit card number.

• A request to purchase gift cards to settle a supposed debt, or to send money to someone the potential victim has met through the internet but not in person.

• Unauthorized credit card charges.

• A call or email claiming the potential victim has won a prize, then asking for money to pay for fees.

• The caller pretends to represent the Internal Revenue Service or other agency, threatening arrest or other scare tactics, if the person fails to pay money. The IRS and other agencies will never call those who owe money; they will send notices by mail.

Source: AARP

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