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Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Local woman loses $47,000 to smooth talker

By Margie Wuebker
MINSTER - Winning $500,000 in an international awards program sounded too good to be true, but an 81-year-old area resident saw the unexpected windfall as a way to provide something extra for her family. After sending nearly $50,000 in what she was told was related fees to get the money to her - she found out it was a scam.
"This senior citizen always felt she would get her money back as well as all the winnings," Minster Police Chief Randy Houseworth said. "She simply got caught up in the scam and did not realize she was a victim until it was too late."
The unidentified Minster woman received the first telephone call Aug. 15 and complied with all the directions, including the withdrawal of $5,000 from her bank account, a subsequent wire transfer at area Wal-Mart stores and then a long distance telephone call to give the voice on the other end a reference number for the transaction. Similar transactions occurred on ensuing days with all amounts under $10,000 - an automatic red flag for wire transfers headed overseas.
"This lady sent through $47,000 in a matter of 10 days," Houseworth said. "The caller gave detailed instructions including going to the Wal-Mart store on Havemann Road in Celina, the Wal-Mart store on state Route 47 in Sidney and so forth."
The police chief shrugs his shoulders, admitting he has no idea how long the scam would have continued if a New Knoxville Telephone Co. employee had not viewed a request for a new telephone number at the victim's home as suspicious.
The caller had a distinctive foreign accent and apparently became suspicious when the telephone employee began to question her. The conversation ended abruptly when the employee asked for the name of the elderly woman's daughter, whom she knows well. The call appeared to have come from Salem, Ohio, but the number on a display screen turned out to be non-working.
The daughter, who also resides in the Minster area, contacted local authorities Aug. 25 sparking an investigation that apparently leads to Israel.
Houseworth spoke with an FBI agent regarding the matter. He, too, is puzzled about the motive behind the attempted telephone number change and amazed about the dollars involved. Information has been relayed to an FBI attache in Israel but recovery of the money is doubtful.
While this particular case is exceptional in the amount of money stolen, law enforcement agencies throughout the area have seen a dramatic increase in such criminal activity.
"Isolated as we might appear to be from most 'big city' crime, scams and con artists know no boundaries," Houseworth said. "Make no mistake these people are very good at what they do and make millions scamming people like our victim."
The chief said most people have no idea that some scams originating outside the U.S. have ties to organized crime and/or international terrorism.
Unfortunately, senior citizens are more at risk of becoming victims of fraud or identity theft than other age groups, Houseworth said. Perpetrators consider them easy targets because they have nest eggs to spend or invest, are more trusting of and willing to talk to strangers, are less likely to report fraud and may have lost spouses or confidantes they would run such offers by, he added.

Tips to avoid becoming scam victim:
Minster Police Chief Randy Houseworth offers the following tips to prevent becoming a victim of scams:
• Never give out personal information over the telephone unless you initiated the call and trust the person or agency receiving the call. Legitimate callers will not ask for personal information.
• If a caller claims something is free, there should be no need to pay in order to receive the offer. Additionally, you should not have to pay handling charges or taxes.
• "Limited time offers" should not require an immediate decision. Legitimate callers will not rush you. You could reply "I'd like some time to think about this. Tell me how I can get in touch with you. If I'm interested, I will call you back."
• Be wary of any caller who tries to convince you not to speak with anyone about the call. Your reply should be "I'd like to take some time to discuss this with my family and friends, and I will get back to you if I'm interested."
• It can be hard to understand the verbal details of an offer. Ask to receive such details in the mail. All legitimate business offers and investments should be able to comply. An appropriate reply to a caller is "If you can't mail the information, then I can't talk to you."
• You do not have to be polite to telephone salespeople. When on the telephone always feel free to say "No!" and hang up. It's not rude - it's shrewd.
• Follow this simple rule: "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is."
• Call local law enforcement if you suspect you or a loved one is the victim of a scam or if you have questions about a suspicious letter, telephone call or e-mail.
- Margie Wuebker
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