360-frud By:Geoff Williams U.S. News

Con artists, scammers, predatory companies – whatever you call them – they’re out there, and they would be happy to make you their next “customer,” if they can find you.

Eric Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection in Rockville, Maryland, says some of the scams his office has encountered include everything from skimming devices on ATMs and gas pumps that steal credit card and bank information to overly aggressive towing firms. Regarding the latter, he is referring to tow trucks that hide and wait for consumers to unwittingly park in the wrong place before swooping in to tow the vehicle within seconds and charge a hefty fee for consumers to get their car back.

In fact, Maryland’s Montgomery County just passed a law designed to address predatory towing practices.

Still, you are more likely to be conned out of your money in other ways. As Friedman says, “Crooks are clever, but they are also looking for the easiest way to scam consumers.”

And some people are more at risk of being targeted than others. Could you be one of them? Take a moment to review the common scenarios.

Could con artists find you through any recent public records? If you have had abankruptcy, your house is going through the foreclosure process or the Internal Revenue Service has filed a federal tax lien against your property, then that information is likely part of a public record. And searches through public records are often conducted by con artists and predatory companies, according to Friedman.

In fact, you could say it’s part of a criminal’s business model.

“In my previous life working as a housing counselor, we frequently saw that mortgage modification scam artists would use public records to ID their victims,” says Sean Coffey, media and development manager for California Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes fair and equal access to credit for all communities in California.

So if you’re at risk of foreclosure, Coffey says you should expect to receive a lot of mail and phone calls from so-called attorneys and financial lenders promising to help you out of a jam. Some may be on the up-and-up, but be on guard.

“I always counseled people that if it’s too good to be true, then look out,” Coffey says.

 

Could con artists find you through your friends and family? When somebody you trust refers someone to you, such a contractor, caretaker or anyone you will be paying, you still should research the person. Run his or her name through a search engine. Look for complaints online. Ask for more references.

Why? Because despite glowing endorsements, that person could still be a crook, says Kacey McBroom, a criminal defense attorney and partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP.

“The person perpetrating the fraud typically builds relationships of trust with one or a few key individuals and then relies on the word of those individuals to influence others to buy in as well,” she says. “If a reputation of trustworthiness can be built through the manipulation of a few people, the web of influence can be extremely broad,” McBroom warns.

She adds: “This is why the elderly community are such common marks for con artists. The fraudsters become embedded with, and are ultimately trusted members of, the community through a system of referrals.”

The lesson, of course, shouldn’t be: trust no one. But certainly the first question you should be asking your friends or family is: “How long have you known this person you’re recommending?”

And keep in mind that some predatory companies will find you simply by asking around the neighborhood if anyone could use its services. Friedman says that some unlicensed home improvement contractors – dubbed “woodchucks” by the police, according to Friedman – will drive around neighborhoods, looking for seniors who might be willing to pay for repairs or improvements that will, of course, never get done.

Sometimes, Friedman, says, these woodchucks are “asking other people in the neighborhood to identify the seniors in the area.”

Then, of course, it’s easy for a woodchuck to come up to your home or maybe your parents’ home and truthfully say, “Your neighbor suggested that you might be able to use my services.”

And what’s really chilling, if you think you or your parents could be susceptible, is that some con artists use the information people have on Facebook, according to Friedman. One example is the grandparent scam, where “con artists may garner information from Facebook to obtain the names of grandchildren,” and then call the victim and pretend to be a relative needing money, Friedman says.

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