BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
Every year, millions of Americans send money to con artists who use the U.S. Postal Service to dupe their victims. The scams include a wide range of false charities and investment opportunities.
Last Thursday, Cissy Tubbs, a Postal Service inspector outlined some of those schemes to the nearly 40 people who attended the monthly meeting of the Wrigley Area Neighborhood Alliance (WANA) at the Jackie Robinson Academy.
“Before you give your money to someone, remember the old adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true,” Tubbs said. “Always take the time to investigate the offer being made and the person or company making it before you make a decision.”
Tubbs noted that about 42 billion items move through the mail every year and the Postal Inspection Service is the federal law enforcement agency charged with maintaining postal service security.
She explained that mail in transit can only be opened with a federal search warrant.
“We’re doing our job to make sure your mail gets from point A to point B without being opened,” she said. “But the Postal Inspection Service also investigates any crime that is committed through the U.S. Mail.”
Those crimes include transporting illegal drugs, firearms or explosives through the mail, mail fraud, revenue fraud (depriving the USPS of its due revenue), child exploitation and tax evasion.
She explained that the service has only has about one third as many agents as the FBI but often works with that agency, the IRS and other federal law enforcement agencies.
Tubbs warned that mail fraud and Internet fraud are on the rise. She also added that the perpetrators of the so-called “Nigerian Schemes” are constantly finding new ways to dupe their victims.
“They look for retirees and people who spend a lot of time on the Internet,” she noted.
She described one scheme in which the perpetrators use Internet “chat rooms” and counterfeit money orders. After winning the person’s trust, the con artist will tell the victim that they want to come to America to escape the oppression or poverty of their homeland. Then they tell the unsuspecting man or woman that they have a U.S. money order that they can’t cash and ask the victim to cash it for them and mail them or wire them the money back in a financial instrument they can cash in their own country.
The victim usually deposits the money order in their own bank account and sends the equivalent amount to the con artist. Later, the bank informs the victim that the money order was not good and charges them a returned check fee, increasing the amount lost.
“You would be surprised by the millions of Americans who are duped by this,” Tubbs said. “We’re talking about billions of dollars lost every year.”
She added that the con artists often use Internet dating services and pose as a possible mate to win their victim’s trust.
Other times they will tell the victim to keep a portion of the amount in the money order.
“They find a way to win your trust and make you think it’s an easy way to make a little money for yourself,” she said.
Scammers also use phony foreign lotteries to dupe their victims. Tubbs stressed that, first of all, it is against federal law to send money to a foreign country for the purchase of a lottery ticket.
She noted that a common scheme is to send a letter or email to a person informing them that they have already won a foreign lottery. When the victim responds, they find out they have to send a “processing fee” to collect their prize, or they must supply a bank account number so the prize money can be electronically transferred to their account.
The victim, though, never gets the prize money. The processing fee is lost and worse, large sums of money may have been transferred from their account to a foreign account.
Tubbs stressed that once you send your money to a foreign country, it’s almost impossible to get it back and it is very difficult for the Postal Inspection Service to apprehend or prosecute criminals who live out of U.S. boundaries.
Tubbs also warned of phony investment brokers that promise great dividends and profits. She noted that con men of this ilk often set up “boiler rooms” that look like legitimate offices replete with desks, computers and phone lines operated by a number of scammers.
Fooled by the setup, victims mail checks to the brokers in exchange for stocks in non-existent companies. The phony brokers then mail back documents falsely showing how the stocks have appreciated in value.
The operation may last for a few months– enough to net the phony brokers tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Then they skip town taking the money they have stolen with them.
Tubbs urged audience members to get the advice of trusted experts before investing in anything.
“Contact the district attorney’s office, the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission or your own financial institution and ask them if the company offering you a deal is a reputable company,” she said. “Stay away from offers in the mail or telemarketers that tell you that you have to act now.”
Tubbs noted that the same principles apply to charitable organizations.
“Find out if they are legitimate and how much of your money will actually go to the cause they claim to support,” she said.
In her closing remarks, the postal inspector warned the audience members against giving any of their personal or financial information to companies soliciting by mail, by phone, or door-to-door.
She also encouraged them to stay alert to offers being considered by their elderly parents, neighbors and friends.
“Unfortunately, you sometimes have to be on the defensive,” she said. “Be vigilant; protect yourself and your loved ones from unscrupulous people.”
If you receive mail that seems suspicious, you can take it to the nearest post office and ask a clerk to have the local mail fraud unit investigate it.
Tubbs also listed some helpful Web sites. They include http://postalinspectors.uspis.gov; www.give.org; http://www.ftc.gov and http://www.lookstoogood tobetrue.com.