When she received the first phone call one morning in December, 2008, Louise Precht, 84, of Illinois, had every reason to believe the man on the other end of the line. As she later explained in her declaration to the Federal Trade Commission, "The caller began the telephone call by saying something to the effect of 'Hi, Grandma' and I responded by saying 'Hi, Honey.' The caller sounded nearly identical to my grandson, so I did not consider that it could be someone else."
The man claimed that he had gone to Canada with some friends, that he'd hit a telephone poll with his car, and that he was now calling from a Canadian police station for help. After reassuring Precht that he had not been drinking, he told her he needed $5,000 to get home to the United States.
"I responded by telling him that I did not know how to send that large of an amount of money to him in Canada," writes Precht in her declaration. "The caller then told me that I could use a MoneyGram outlet located in any local Wal-Mart to send him a money transfer in Canada." So she did.
Because her grandson, Gregory, had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, Precht did not have his new telephone number so she was unable to call him to confirm that he'd received the $5,000. Nor did Gregory call her to thank her or squelch her fears that he was stuck in Canada. Instead, it was the man who called her. He said he needed more money, that the pole had fallen over and damaged a nearby business.
Pecht grew suspicious, as "this did not seem like something that my grandson would do. Thus, I asked the caller, 'What is your Grandpa's name?' The caller tried to avoid this question and he acted as if he had not heard it. When the caller stopped talking for a moment, I asked him again, 'What is your Grandpa's name?' At this point I was certain that this was a fraud."
Unfortunately, Precht is not alone in falling victim to a scam involving wire transfers. In 2009, MoneyGram International Inc, the country's second largest money transfer service, agreed to pay $18 million "to settle FTC charges that the company allowed its money transfer system to be used by fraudulent telemarketers to bilk U.S. consumers out of tens of millions of dollars," according to the FTC press release.
MoneyGram was also required to implement a comprehensive anti-fraud and agent-monitoring program, and yet the problem of fraudulent wire transfers remains. Of the 1.3 million Americans who filed consumer fraud complaints in 2010, a whopping 44% of the payments were conducted via wire transfers.
And that's only one of the many scams American consumers are susceptible to. As financial scams evolve to keep pace with the changing American economy, it is important that consumers educate themselves about common scams, which you can do here. Additionally, here are five steps you can take to avoid finding yourself the victim of financial fraud.
1. Do Your Research
Before forking over any money, look into who you would be giving it to. "These scams are very, very believable," says the FTC's Steven Baker. "People think these scams are rare, that they only target dim people, that they'd never get them, and none of that's true. The scams are very well thought out." So if the scammers are savvy, you need to be even savvier. Go online to see what other people are saying about a company. Ask that caller on the other end of the phone -- the one who says they are your relative -- a few questions that only your family can answer as a way to confirm their identity.
2. Make Sure That Your Lawyer is a Lawyer
Due diligence is especially important when working with someone who says they are a lawyer, as they may not be. "Make sure the lawyer is licensed in your state," advices the FTC's Reilly Dolan. He also stresses the important of confirming that you will actually be working with a lawyer. "You want to make sure the person representing you is entering into an 'attorney client relationship,' as opposed to just saying 'we have a lawyer on staff.' That's a good question to put to them directly. If the person is refusing to commit to that relationship, then that is definitely a red flag." You should also check your state bar association to confirm that the lawyer is not in any trouble.
3. Protect Your Personal Information
Think of how frequently you give out your name, date of birth, and/or social security number to confirm your identity. That, and your bank information, is sacred and you have to be very careful not to let unseemly characters get their hands on it. "be very, very guarded with your information," suggests the FTC's Monica Vaca. "You have to do the same type of analysis when giving out this information as you would with your credit card details. Ask yourself how much you trust this website? What else could someone else do with your bank information if that have your name and address? Even if a transaction looks like it's low risk, even if it looks like it's free to apply, or you just pay shipping, once you hand over that information, you're vulnerable."
4. Use a Certified Housing Counselor
If you are having trouble making your mortgage payment and need assistance, use a certified housing counselor who usually charges only a minimal fee or, in many cases, are even free. "A lot of people think going to a lawyer will be better," says Yolanda McGill of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "They have a bias, that a lawyer is more professional, like, 'how can a free service be good?' There's this thinking that if it's free it can't be better, that the guy you pay is going to get you some results. But the most efficient service you're going to get, counterintuitively, is free. Go to a counselor. Talk to a service. They are the best situated, the best connected to the services." It's best to look for a counselor certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You can find one in your state by searching here.
5. If You Do Fall Victim, File a Complaint
The only way to stop scammers is to make the problem known. Just ask Teresa Yeast, a mom to two disabled children who lost $500 when she replied to an ad to make crafts from home. Her letter to the FTC helped the agency to launch a national campaign against internet fraud. "Consumer complaints are how we know what's going on in the marketplace," explains Vaca. "Those complaints help us target, to know where to put our resources for next law enforcement action." You can file a complaint with the FTC, the Better Business Bureau, the FBI, the Internet Crime Complaint Center or your state's attorney general's office. For scams related to mortgage loans, you can also contact the nonprofit Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Loren Berlin is a reporter with the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. She can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter at @LorenBerlin, and on Facebook.