COVINGTON -- A woman called the Covington Police Department recently to report that her elderly mother had been defrauded of more than $8,000.
Her mother had been contacted by phone and told by a man with a Jamaican accent that she had won $6 million, a Mercedes Benz and a flat screen television ... if only she would send the caller some money through Western Union. Not only did she send the money over a period of weeks, but she used almost $1,500 worth of long distance cellphone service.
The money will never be recovered and it's a story that CPD Capt. Ken Malcom said he's heard all too often. After falling victim to such a scam, it is more than likely too late.
Malcom would like to warn residents so they can take steps to protect themselves or their elderly relatives to avoid being caught in such schemes.
"Victims in Covington have willingly sent these criminals money in the amounts ranging from $150 to $40,000," he said. "The callers only stop calling once they are convinced that the victim has no more money left to send or until they realize the victim will no longer answer the phone when they call."
It's an old scam that's been around for years. The victim is baited by promises of riches beyond their dreams, but told in order to obtain it, they must send "taxes," or "enrollment fees" or "interstate insurance fees."
"The callers are very persistent and call the victim repeatedly, often demanding that the victim send more money," Malcom said.
In the end, the promised windfall never materializes.
Recently, Malcom said Covington has been plagued by con artists who claim to be from Publishers Clearing House.
"Everyone is aware of the legitimate Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol ... However, criminals have discovered a system by which they can prey on a person's greed and coax them to send them money with only the empty promise that in return for 'small payments,' they will receive millions of dollars in cash and/or new expensive cars," he said.
The scam begins one of two ways.
"The victim can either receive a check or money order (usually a couple of thousand dollars) in their name with instructions to deposit the money into their own checking account," Malcom explained. "Then they are to send a money order to another address for a large portion of the original amount. The victim is usually told to keep $300 or $400 for their trouble."
The problems begin when it is discovered by the bank several days later that the check or money order is fake. Since the criminals count on the victim hurriedly making the transactions all in one day, they know the victim will usually send the money back to them immediately and believe they are several hundred dollars richer. It is not until they are notified by the bank that the funds aren't actually in their account, that they realize they've been had.
"In this scenario of the scam, the victim is left owing the bank the entire amount of the original money order, while the criminal has received the real money order which was sent to him by the victim," Malcom said.
He also pointed out another scam that has proven to be just as effective.
"The second scenario is a phone call from an unknown person claiming to be with Publishers Clearing House and claiming that their Prize Patrol is currently in their town and prepared to deliver a million dollars and a brand new luxury car," Malcom said.
The caller says the only thing the soon-to-be victim needs to do is go to Walmart and buy a Green Dot prepaid credit card and load $150 on it and wait for a call back.
The caller calls back and asks the victim if the card was purchased and upon hearing that that it was, asks the victim to turn the card over and scratch off the grey strip on the back to reveal a number. The victim is told the number on the back will be checked against the list of winning numbers to verify that the victim has won the prize. The victim obediently reads the numbers to the caller.
"The caller then excitedly proclaims that the number is the winning number, but the victim has just given the credit card number to the caller and the caller immediately removes the $150 from the card," Malcom said, adding that it usually doesn't stop there.
They go on to ask for a money order to be purchased for a larger amount and sent to a "processing center," and promise to send the victim a "Golden Ticket." Once the victim goes along with that step, they continue asking for more and more money as long as the victim obliges them.
"We have discovered that this most recent return of this scam is originating out of Jamaica as the phone numbers from which the calls are made begin with the prefix of 876," Malcom said. "The callers will also use numbers which show up on caller ID as restricted or unknown caller."
But these scam artists try to convince the victim that they are calling from a nearby location, Malcom said.
"The criminals have set up a network by which they can have money sent to different states, which seems to convince the victim that the Prize Patrol is really close by," he said. "Early in the phone conversations the criminal caller will ask the victim if he/she knows where Walmart is. Everyone knows where Walmart is, but this question leads the victim to believe that the caller is talking specifically about the local Walmart. This psychology is an important step in the criminal convincing the victim that the prize is real and that by playing along, it is about to be all theirs."
Malcom warns that the old saying, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," is an important warning to heed.
"Although these scams are criminal enterprises, the odd thing is that the victim is actually voluntarily sending their money to the criminal with the hope of getting a big return in the end," he said. "Beware! There is no big return! Victims of this scam are only left with an empty bank account and feelings of shame that they allowed themselves to be taken for so much money."
Malcom said there is no way of knowing just how many lives the scammers have touched because often victims are ashamed to report that they've been taken. But if you or an elderly friend or relative should be contacted by someone asking you to send money to collect money, just hang up or ask for a phone number where the person can be called back and notify authorities.
The real number for Publishers Clearing House is 800-392-4190.
Additional quick links for reporting these scams can be found on the CPD website at www.covingtonpolice.com.