“Hi Grandma, it’s John. I need your help,” the caller said to my mom.
The caller went on tell my mom that he was sick and in a hospital in New York City. That’s why his voice sounded a little different. He said he had gone to New York for a bachelor party and didn’t tell anyone. If he didn’t get money, he couldn’t get the medical treatment he needed to get better.
At the time my mom got this call, my son, John, was, in reality, working at his job at a local bank.
Obviously, the caller wasn’t my son, John. Indeed, the caller wasn’t even in New York. The caller was somewhere much further away—probably Eastern Europe or West Africa where most of these call operations are based—and he was trying to scam my parents.
This sort of scam is attempted hundreds or thousands of times every day, especially in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, where our residents tend to be nice ... and trusting.
In the last year alone, over 100,000 Minnesotans have been ripped off in sophisticated online and telephone scams, to the tune of over $5 million in losses. Within just the last few months, one elderly woman in western Minnesota was unwittingly scammed out of over $250,000.
Last year, an Inver Grove Heights man had over $10,000 swindled from him.
These are just the claims we know about. Law enforcement officials confirm these are some of the most underreported crimes in our state, as victims of these scams tend to either be embarrassed or are elderly individuals who are fearful their families will no longer allow them to handle their own finances.
Even worse, some victims are blackmailed by their scammers into sending even more money, based on threats that their family members will be contacted and told of what the victim has done.
In light of this growing problem, I worked with Jim Arlt, senior special agent with the Department of Public Safety, on legislation to target the scammers who are targeting Minnesotans.
Arlt, you may remember, traveled to Jamaica with Don Shelby of WCCO and, together with local law enforcement, busted a number of scam artists who were targeting Minnesota victims.
In testifying before the House Commerce Committee, Agent Arlt emphasized the level of complexity and growing sophistication of these online and telephone scams. They are not just an email from Nigeria saying a long lost, rich uncle has died and left you a million dollars. Nor are they just sweepstakes scams.
Rather, as Agent Arlt attested, many of these scams are built over many months, luring unsuspecting would-be victims into thinking they are simply in an online relationship with someone working in Milwaukee or a soldier stationed in Savannah or San Diego. They don’t realize they are really dealing with a scam artist half a world away.
Working cooperatively with money transfer companies like MoneyGram and Western Union, which is the method of choice for scammers, as well as colleagues on both sides of the aisle, we passed Minnesota’s first new law targeting the scammers who target Minnesotans. The legislation calls for additional training for employees, fraud prevention efforts and steps that will help prevent money from going where it is not intended.
Many victims fail to realize that when they wire money, even though it is intended for one place, it can be picked up somewhere else. For example, until efforts were started to crack down on these frauds, money that a victim thought was wired to Lincoln (Neb.) could be picked up in Lagos, Nigeria, and the victim would never even be told.
In addition to Minnesota’s new law, which should stop some of the scam-based wire transfers, a key component to preventing these scams is awareness of them. There are countless variations on the scams that are out there, but virtually all of them involve wire transfers and an admonition by the caller to keep the transaction a secret from relatives and friends.
When my mom called me to check on my son’s health and whether he was really in New York City, she immediately realized that she had been targeted for a scam.
If you encounter a similar situation, are asked to wire money, or are told to keep the exchange a secret, think twice before sending money.
Verify the facts like my mom did.
Minnesota’s new law offers help, but the best protection still comes from being aware of these sorts of scams and doing your best to avoid them before the provisions of the new law are needed.