Financial scams target needy

Some experts say the country's economy is on the road to recovery.

But as long as there are people facing financial problems, there will be scammers who seek to take advantage of those in need.

"Before Christmas and during hard times or disasters, people seem to be more generous," said Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid. "And you see scams pop up then."

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper advises state residents to be on the lookout for financial scams, especially during times of financial hardship.

"Counterfeit scams can start with an official-looking letter, a call from a telemarketer, a job offer or a response to something you've posted online, like a resume or an item for sale," Cooper said. "In all of these scenarios, you're asked to deposit the check, and then wire the money elsewhere. But, the check turns out to be fake, and any money you've wired comes out of your own pocket."

Many scammers use the popularity of the Internet to gain access to their victims.

"There are as many (scams) out there by the Internet as there are by phone or mail," Reid said.

Those scams rely on the anonymity of the Internet to gain access to people's bank account numbers and other personal, private information.

"They'll try to get your ID and Social Security numbers," Reid said. "If they ask for that, it should send up a red flag."

Cooper outlines three main types of counterfeit scams for consumers to beware of.

Sweepstakes scams

These scams start when an individual is notified of a prize, such as a large sum of money. Cooper said consumers receive an official-looking check with the prize announcement, and the so-called winner is required to pay for taxes associated with the prize by wiring money back to the sweepstakes. When the "winner" tries to cash the check, he or she discovers the prize is phony.

"If you've not entered that lottery, then it's probably a scam," Reid said.

Popular e-mail scams claim recipients won lotteries in Great Britain or other countries worldwide. Reid "won" a lottery in Canada, or at least he got an e-mail claiming he did.

Secret shopper scams

When consumers respond to a job listing on the Internet, scammers take the consumers' information and start the scamming process.

Scammers respond to the consumer, promising work as a secret shopper or other jobs with the potential to earn money online.

In recent article written by Cooper, he said a North Carolina consumer recently fell victim to a similar scam when she "interviewed" for a job online and received a check for $2,700. She was told to keep some of the money for herself, spend some of the money on computer software for the job and then wire the remaining amount back to the phony company.
Cooper said the woman's bank spotted the bogus check before she could lose any money.

Overpayment scams

Phony buyers respond to people selling items listed for sale online. The so-called customers wire a check to the seller and ask to have excess money wired back to their back accounts.

Cooper said these checks are phony, and sellers lose money wired to the scammers.

"While scams like these have been popular with international fraud rings for years, advances in printing technology mean that crooks can now make very convincing counterfeit checks," Cooper wrote in a press release.

"Sometimes the scammers include fraud warnings and consumer protection brochures to make their phony checks more believable. Even banks can have a hard time spotting the checks as fakes because they often use the same name and account number of a legitimate company."

With the collapse of the housing market and increasing unemployment rates, many people are facing large amounts of financial debt.

Another popular scheme, Cooper said, is for scammers to claim they offer debt and foreclosure assistance. Instead, of climbing out of debt, those people sink further into debt through fees incurred from the phony assistance.

The North Carolina Department of Justice announced in January that one of those phony assistance programs is banned from operating in the state.

The Attorney General's Office banned Reginald Keith Turner from operating his businesses, named The Carley Group and Hazelton Management. Turner was ordered to pay more than $32,000 in refunds to 24 customers whom he offered financial assistance.

According to Cooper, Turner was warned in 2008 to stop violating the law. Turner changed the name of his business, then re-opened. Cooper alleged Turner charged homeowners an advance fee of as much as $2,500 before he did anything to save his clients' homes.

Foreclosure is a common problem facing many homeowners in North Carolina, but Cooper warned consumers not to pay for foreclosure assistance before contacting the N.C. Commissioner of Banks' Office.

The office's hotline is available at 1-866-234-4857 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.