Scam artists targeting area residents with variety of cons

Rain Smith • Aug 23, 2014 at 1:18 PM

The calls come into the newsroom on a weekly basis.

"Have you heard of this scam? Why haven't you reported on this scam? When will someone be arrested?"

The answers: "Yes, we've heard of it; yes, we've already written stories (multiple times); no, they likely won't be charged."

Despite repeated warnings from police, which are subsequently relayed through multiple media outlets, local residents continue to fall prey to scam artists.

The victims are told they have won a luxury car or cash prize (but first must purchase a pre-paid money card, then deposit funds into an account to receive their bounty).

An individual selling items online is contacted by a potential buyer (but said "customer" wants to write the check for more than the asking price.)

Oftentimes, a homeowner is approached by a purported paver (who just so happens to be lugging around extra asphalt and can redo a driveway at a bargain.)

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," warns Kingsport Police Department Public Information Officer Tom Patton.

Crooks are constantly coming up with new ways to fleece the unsuspecting, elderly and naive — along with those simply enticed by extravagant false promises. Both the public and police have a chore keeping up with them all, but some cases have recently become more prevalent than others.

Handy scams

As with all scams, unsolicited contact from anyone should immediately send up a red flag.

That's even more true when you're offered contract labor, according to Kingsport police, as reputable individuals who do such work professionally are extremely busy and don't have the time or need to go door-to-door seeking work.

Such a scam in the Kingsport area is reportedly targeting elderly women, with a female approaching and offering gutter and driveway services. According to Patton, the suspect doesn't even supply her own equipment — she simply uses the victim's materials that are on hand — then attempts to charge up to $1,500 for her "work."

"In one reported instance, the suspect refused to accept a check for payment, and instead drove her victim to the bank to withdraw cash," said Patton.

Kingsport police urge residents to be wary of alleged workers operating out of vehicles with out-of-state tags or with no company name displayed.

Scam artists will also ask for payment up front or provide vague answers to how much a job will actually cost. Patton said a legitimate contractor will provide a free written statement and willingly supply references for new clients to check with.

The same tactics are employed in frequent paving and sealing scams, with the perpetrators using low-quality and watereddown materials.

Ring, ring: IRS calling!

The Sullivan County Sheriff's Office has fielded multiple reports from concerned residents relaying that they've been contacted by the Internal Revenue Service. These scam artists provide fraudulent claims of being a federal agent, telling their intended victim that they owe as much as $20,000 in back taxes.

"When one resident would not comply with the caller's demands, he became extremely angry and continued to call back," said Sullivan County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Leslie Earhart. "The IRS does not call taxpayers and demand payment. If you receive a phone call like this, it is a scam."

Likewise, a DEA agent will not contact you and demand money in exchange for protection from a federal investigation. But at least one local couple fielded such a call this past April. The Hawkins County Sheriff's Office determining it was a scam out of Nigeria.

Fraud in the family

If you receive a call claiming to be from a jailed family member — and even if the person on the other end provides a correct name and relation — do some checking before wiring bail.

In the past year, multiple such incidents have been reported in Kingsport, Sullivan County and Scott County.

"They will claim that they are in jail in need of bail money or even stranded in a foreign country in need of emergency travel money , then ask that a specific amount be wired to them," Patton said.

One elderly victim followed the scammers instructions, eventually wiring $2,000 to Madrid, Spain. The victim later spoke with a nephew — who the call was allegedly placed by and lives out of state — learning he had not been to Spain and had not been arrested.

In these incidents, and many other phone and Internet scams, the thieves are operating from out of the county. That means local law enforcement's hands are tied to prosecute or recoup losses.

Seedy shoppers

Some scammers aren't approaching would-be victims unsolicited , but scanning online auctions or ads for their prey.

Residents of Kingsport and Sullivan County have received replies for items they've placed for sale on the Internet, with the alleged buyer actually wanting to pay a higher price.

"They will come up with a reason for writing the check for more than the purchase price and ask you to wire back the difference after depositing the check," said Earhart. "By the time you realize the check is no good, it's too late."

Earhart said other individuals have replied to ads looking for secret shoppers, inadvertently setting themselves up for a loss.

"Once you sign on to be a secret shopper you are given a check to deposit. From there, you are told to withdraw that amount in cash and wire it to a certain location. Again, by the time you realize the check is not good, the money is long gone."

Money for something

Based on complaints to local law enforcement — and calls from readers to the Times-News — one of the most prevalent scams throughout the region promise prizes of cash or cars.

However, the bogus sweepstakes or clearinghouse first needs you to pay the taxes or "processing fee" on delivery of a vehicle.

"He will ask his intended victim to pay this by obtaining a pre-paid card, depositing the funds on the card, and giving the scammer the account number and PIN number to allow them to access the money remotely," said Patton.

In a recent wave of these prize scams, the caller asks that a specific brand of pre-paid card be purchased: the "Green-Dot Money Card," available at many national retailers.

"Unlike home improvements scams, in which potential victims are approached in person, the suspects in the majority of phone and Internet scams are in other countries," reiterated Earhart. "They also typically give potential victims fake names and personal information and make tracking their location almost impossible. For those reasons, we can't do a lot about phone and Internet-based scams other than report them to federal authorities."

As the public is educated on scams, the perpetrators swiftly shift tactics. New ruses are concocted on nearly a daily basis.

To fight the evolving problem, local police urge individuals to always employ some common sense and a hearty dose of skepticism — especially when approached with a can't-miss deal or exorbitant prize. It's also wise to discuss the warning signs of a scam with family and friends, particularly the elderly.

"Anybody calling you on the phone unsolicited and offering you anything for free is most likely a scam artist," said Patton. "Simply hang up."

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