Police see rise in online scams
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginians are inadvertently sending thousands of dollars to overseas con artists and once the money is gone, there is little police can do to catch the criminals.
Cpl. S.A. Hatten of the West Virginia State Police usually handles cases involving forgery and other "paper crimes," as well as some sex offender cases. But increasingly, she spends her days trying to help victims of Internet scams.
She receives seven or eight complaints a day. Most involve Charleston residents who have wired large amounts of money overseas.
Just last week, an elderly Charleston woman wired $8,000 to Beirut because a caller claimed her grandson was in jail there and needed bail money. Hatten said the lady's grandson was actually in Lebanon for a wedding, so the call seemed plausible.
But her grandson was not in Beirut, and he was not in jail.
Hatten said this type of scam is fairly common.
"They prey on old people," she said. "These are heartbreaking because people send their whole life savings."
The scammers sometimes pretend to be the victim's grandchild, hoping the elderly person will be fooled. If they become skeptical, the scammers just hang up and call someone else.
Car ads on websites like Craigslist and eBay also are a hotbed for scams.
Hatten recently received a complaint from a Charleston teenager who purchased a Nissan Altima for $1,700 on Craiglist. He sent the money but never received the car.
Some scammers claim to be military personnel who are being deployed overseas in the near future and need to sell off some of their belongings.
Hatten said many of these scams involve cars, but she recently received a complaint from a pair of Charleston residents who wired $540 to someone claiming to be a soldier who said he was about to be deployed and needed to give away his two English bulldog puppies.
After receiving the money, the scammer wrote back to ask for another $300 to purchase a special crate to ship the dogs.
The animals never showed up, and the money vanished without a trace.
Con artists have other ways to tug victims' heartstrings, too. A middle-aged Charleston woman recently sent several thousand dollars to a man in Europe she met on Shanadi.com, a website for Indian singles looking for a husband or wife.
"He tells her he can come over and marry her, but he's in the middle of a job and he needs money to finish it," Hatten said.
Hatten said the woman only became suspicious when the man stopped returning her emails. By that point, however, she had already wired him $11,700.
Another common scam sometimes begins as an online job posting promising stay-at-home work and decent paychecks.
Hatten is currently working on the case of a Charleston man who was fooled by scammers promising to pay $700 a week. All he had to do was purchase digital cameras, have them shipped to his house and then ship the electronics to Russia.
He used his credit card to buy the electronics. The company gave the man a bank account number that he could use to reimburse himself. The transactions appeared to go through just fine, so he continued purchasing and shipping the cameras.
Soon, however, the man's bank realized his reimbursements were coming from a fake account. They reversed the charges, and the man lost almost $40,000.
"I'm still trying to help him, but I'm pretty much done," Hatten said.
Hatten said scammers are almost impossible to catch because they usually are located in countries that do not cooperate with United States law enforcement.
And even if the West Virginia State Police had jurisdiction, the criminals leave few traces.
"Western Union has no idea who picks up the money," Hatten said.
Scammers also use prepaid cellphones, which do not have to be registered to an individual and are cheap enough to be discarded after use.
She said the best way to fight Internet and phone scams is not to be fooled in the first place.
If a buyer cannot see a car before he or she purchases it, don't buy the car. If someone calls to say his or her grandson is in jail in Timbuktu, check the story out with his parents.
"Don't send money to anybody overseas," she said.