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Sheriff's Corner: Protect yourself from financial crimes

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This month I would like to share some information about scams, identify theft and protecting yourself from these devastating financial crimes.

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I know I have written about this topic before, but unfortunately our office has recently seen an increase in these crimes specifically to senior citizens. Often these crimes go unreported because of embarrassment or simply not knowing that you have been a victim. It is important to report these crimes.

Our office may give you other resources and venues to report these to, but we need to know the newest and variations of these scams that are occurring. We have also seen a large increase in personal losses due to these scams. Annually, we have reports of three to four individuals losing large amounts of money — sometimes more than $100,000. These crimes are sometimes very difficult, if not impossible, to track down. However, sometimes there are avenues to get your money back through proper reporting and follow through with credit card companies and other sources.

I have combined several resources and have listed a few simple ways to avoid personal fraud.

What to do

• Know who you’re dealing with. Try to find a seller’s physical address (not a P.O. Box) and phone number. With Internet phone services and other web-based technologies, it’s tough to tell where someone is calling from. Do an online search for the company name and website and look for reviews. If people report negative experiences, you’ll have to decide if the offer is worth the risk.

• Know that wiring money is like sending cash. Con artists often insist that people wire money, especially overseas or out of state, because it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. Don’t wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment or to anyone who claims to be a relative or friend in an emergency and wants to keep the request a secret.

• Read your monthly statements. Scammers steal account information and then run up charges or commit crimes in your name. Dishonest merchants bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services without your authorization. If you see charges you don’t recognize or didn’t okay, contact your bank, card issuer or other creditor immediately.

• After a disaster, give only to established charities. In the aftermath of a disaster, give to an established charity rather than one that has sprung up overnight. Pop-up charities probably don’t have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity.

• Talk to your doctor before you buy health products or treatments. Ask about research that supports a product’s claims and possible risks or side effects. Buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired or mislabeled.

• Remember there’s no sure thing in investing. If someone contacts you with low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, that guarantees big profits, that promise little or no financial risk or that demand that you send cash immediately, they are usually a scam.

What not to do

• NEVER send money to someone you don’t know — not to an online seller you’ve never heard of or an online love interest who asks for money. It’s best to do business with sites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider using a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card. Type the company or product name into your favorite search engine with terms like “review” “complaint” or “scam.” See what comes up. Read the reviews.

• Never pay fees first for the promise of a big pay-off later — whether it’s for a loan, a job, a grant or a so-called prize.

• Don’t agree to deposit a check and wire money back. This is one of the most common scams that get reported to us. Uncovering a fake check can take weeks. You’re responsible for the checks you deposit: If a check turns out to be a fake, you’re responsible for paying back the bank. No matter how convincing the story, someone who overpays with a check is almost certainly a scam artist.

• Don’t reply to messages asking for personal or financial information. It doesn’t matter whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message, or an ad. Don’t click on links or call phone numbers included in the message, either. It’s called “phishing.” The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into revealing sensitive information. If you got a message like this and you are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check on it. A legitimate service, bank or card service will never call you to confirm personal information.

• Don’t play a foreign lottery. It’s illegal to play a foreign lottery. And yet messages that tout your chances of winning a foreign lottery, or messages that claim you’ve already won, can be tempting. Inevitably, you have to pay “taxes,” “fees,” or “customs duties” to collect your prize. If you must send money to collect, you haven’t won anything. And if you send any money, you will lose it. You won’t get any money back, either, regardless of promises or guarantees.

If you or someone you know has incurred a financial loss due to a scam or fraud, please contact your local law enforcement agency.

If you would like to report a scam, but have not suffered a financial loss, please contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-382-4357 or www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov, or visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.Ic3.gov.

If you have questions or would like more information about scams, fraud or other suspicious correspondence, you can contact:

• Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota at 800-646-6222 or ask@thefirstbbb.org.

• AARP at 1-888-our-AARP or member@aarp.org.

• Minnesota Board on Aging at 800-333-2433 or www.minnesotahelp.info.

By following these simple guidelines and tips, you can protect yourself and your loved ones from personal financial scams and potential fraud. There are many resources available on the Internet for reporting these incidents and learning more about common and new scams and frauds.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, contact me using one of the following methods: email: tom.burch@co.cass.mn.us, phone: 218-547-1424 or 1-800-450-2677. By mail or in person: Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave W, P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN 56484.

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