There’s no shortage of pesky scammers

Old familiar ploys keep seeking new, unsuspecting prey

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 

“Hi, Grandma, it’s me,” said a man who called Marie Cook of Vancouver on Tuesday morning.

Cook, 67, was immediately on alert because the caller didn’t sound like any of her three grandsons.

Also, she’d read about the “grandson scam,” and someone had tried it on her previously.

Privacy hot line

Folks who don’t like the idea of having their names, ages, interests, purchase histories and other information passed around the globe on corporations’ marketing lists can learn ways of protecting their privacy as technology evolves at the website of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a well-regarded nonprofit consumer information and advocacy organization at http://privacyrights.org. Or call 619-298-3396.

“When you purchase a product or service and give the company your name and address, the chances are you are being added to one or more mailing lists used for direct marketing,” the organization says.

“This is true when you buy a car or a house, use a shopping card, sign up for a credit card, subscribe to a magazine, buy something from a catalog, give money to a charity, or fill out a product registration form.

“Your name, address, and other contact information, as well as the type of product or service, is entered into a computer database. The business that collected the information will use it to solicit more business from you. They might also rent their list to other businesses so they can send you advertisements. Lists are valuable, and renting lists is big business.”

But the man who called shortly before noon knew her name somehow, perhaps from perusing marketing lists that contain most everyone’s name and other information. The lists are routinely traded on the Internet.

So Cook listened carefully.

“I asked him, ‘Are you still in Texas?’”

No, the caller said. He said he went to Trinidad to attend a friend’s wedding, rented a car and crashed it into a wall.

He needed $4,920 to get out of jail and pay for the car repair.

If Cook would wire him the cash by Western Union, he’d catch a plane back to the U.S. and pay her back.

She decided to toy with the caller a bit.

“I asked him what time it was in Trinidad and he had no idea.”

When the man called back that afternoon, she told him she could only raise $4,300 from her bank account.

The caller said he could live with that.

Looking at her caller ID, she noticed it said “unknown name, unknown number.”

Not surprising. There are websites that, for a small fee, enable callers to put any number they want on folks’ caller IDs, or none, and telephone fraudsters know it.

The caller asked her not to mention to Western Union employees that the money was for a car crash in a foreign country, no doubt knowing that some Western Union and MoneyGram employees are aware of the grandson scam.

In the end, Cook’s caller was soundly rebuffed. He called Wednesday morning and her daughter answered the phone and told him her parents weren’t stupid and weren’t giving him anything.

In the past, such “grandsons” have typically claimed their car crash happened in Canada.

At least one Clark County resident fell for such a scheme and sent off several thousand dollars. Many others kept their cash. It’s easy to dash the callers’ plans with simple questions — ‘Where were you born?’ or ‘What is your father’s middle name?’ or even ‘How tall are you?”

That’s when the scammers usually hang up.

Here are some other recent scam pitches:

Screechy saleswoman

Crooks have claimed to represent just about every trusted company and organization — even Reader’s Digest.

On Tuesday, a man called a 65-year-old Hazel Dell woman who’s been a subscriber to the magazine for many years. He offered to give her a one-year extension of her subscription at half-price because — he said — some other subscribers had complained about magazines arriving late or damaged. He said a co-worker would call the local woman about it soon.

Later, a woman with a “screechy, high-pitched voice” called and wanted to get paid for the extra year by credit card, the Hazel Dell woman said.

“She said, ‘Reader’s Digest doesn’t accept checks anymore. It all has to be electronic.’”

The caller’s already-annoying voice was becoming overly emphatic and “way too hyper” for a real saleswoman, the local woman said.

She told the caller she’d just paid for her subscription and the check cleared her bank in November, but the caller persisted.

“She said, ‘We have your Visa card on file.’ I said, ‘That’s impossible. I have never paid for my Reader’s Digest with a credit card.’

“She said, ‘We have it right here and it starts with a 4!’ I said, ‘Well, all of them start with 4.’”

The caller let out an angry grunt and hung up.

A Reader’s Digest employee confirmed that employees use mail, not phone calls, to communicate with subscribers and that, contrary to the caller’s claim, the company does accept mailed checks.

Phony 7-minute survey

The Columbian received this spam e-mail Wednesday, topped by a copy of a McDonald’s logo designed to make it look legitimate, which makes it a phishing scam.

“You have been selected to participate in a public opinion poll conducted by McDonald’s, a non-partisan polling organizall (sic) is about current events at the national level and your views about them. It is short and should take you only 5-7 minutes to complete. All of your answers will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only for legitimate research purposes.”

The e-mail offers a link to click on and adds, “Each person taking the poll will win $250.”

Experts advise never to click on a link in a suspicious, unsolicited e-mail.

Were someone to click on the link, they might be asked to reveal personal information — or unwittingly allow harmful identity-theft software to be installed in their hard drive.

The link looks like it goes to McDonald’s, but it could include a redirect, sending it to some folks who aren’t in the fast-food business.

A number of Internet postings say scammers have posed as representatives of McDonald’s and offered various amounts of money for filling out surveys.

“The scam relies on spam e-mails to trick users into answering a fictitious satisfaction survey that offer a nonexistent reward of $75,” says CyberInsecure.com. “After completing the quiz prospective marks are asked to hand over their banking details in order to receive their reward.

“It includes name, e-mail address, credit card details. Crooks will doubtless go on to either use this information to fraudulently buy goods or, more likely, sell it to others in the digital underground.”

The Times of India made this report:

“If you are among those who have recently filled up an online survey purportedly sent out by fast food chain McDonald’s, sit up and take note. You may just have fallen prey to some imaginative phishing!

“IT security firm Sophos on Thursday issued a warning to computer users to be cautious following the discovery of a widespread spam campaign that is promising cash in return for completing a McDonald’s customer satisfaction survey.

“The e-mails, claiming to be sent by ‘McDonald’s Survey Department’ and with the subject line ‘McDonald’s Customer Survey’ direct recipients to the survey that poses questions on McDonald’s food.

“So far so good. But once the survey has been completed, computer users are asked to provide a raft of personal information, including their credit card number and security code, so that they can receive a $90 payment for taking the time to complete the questions.”

Fake UNICEF opportunities

Bogus job offers are big these days while folks are desperate for work, officials say, and this e-mail also arrived on Wednesday.

“UNICEF Employment is seeking for qualified candidates to join our donation officers team. This is a fantastic opportunity to build an extremely rewarding career and these opportunities would suit people who need flexible working arrangements by working directly from their computer at home or work.”

For applicants, the e-mail offers an e-mail address and a link to click.

Not so fast, says the real UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, which works around the world for children’s rights.

“E-mail fraudsters are posing as employment brokers for UNICEF and charging fees. UNICEF never asks for any kind of payment to receive or process a job application. See http://unicef.org/about/employ for jobs available at UNICEF worldwide.”

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.