Harford County residents are being approached by scammers posing as IRS agents threatening to throw them in jail, if they don't pay what the criminals falsely claim are unpaid back taxes. In Baltimore over the weekend, criminals posed as BGE officials and tried to scam small business owners into paying them cash to keep their electricity on in a phony BGE con.
Scammers use those and a variety of other methods to convince unsuspecting people to give them money, but Harford County residents can protect themselves from being victims in many cases by knowing the tricks scammers use, a representative of the Maryland Attorney General's Office told those gathered at a meeting of the Abingdon Community Council Monday evening.
"Scams are something that have been around forever," Karen Straughn, assistant attorney general and director of the Mediation Unit in her agency's Consumer Protection Division, told the audience gathered in a meeting room at the Abingdon Library.
Straughn said the common perception of scams is that they are too difficult to pin down because scammers are constantly coming up with new schemes, which she explained is not the case.
"Most of these scams are just a little bit of a reincarnation of the things that came before," she said.
She stressed "they all have a lot of the same characteristics."
Straughn provided a copy of "Consumer Guide for Seniors," a publication of the attorney general's office written to provide tips for senior citizens on avoiding financial and health-related scams.
Abingdon Council member David Copenhaver said the publication, however, should not be limited to senior citizens.
"This is a must read for every citizen in the State of Maryland, especially in Abingdon," he said.
Straughn described the typical kinds of scams, such as when a person gets a telephone call and the scammer tells the target that they have won money through a lottery or a class action lawsuit, and they have to send a small amount of money, such as $20, to cover the taxes being charged on the winnings or settlement.
"That goes back to the adage your parents told you when you were little kids, 'You don't get something for nothing,' " Straughn said.
She said "all of your red alarm bells should go off" when someone you do not know asks you to wire money to them, or to put money on a prepaid Green Dot debit card.
"There are legitimate reasons to have a Green Dot card, but no business is going to ask you to put money on a Green Dot card," Straughn said.
She also talked about how scammers have adopted computer and Internet technology. She said scammers typically call someone who is working on his or her computer, and they say they are with a known company such as Microsoft Corp., and ask for the user's password to get into the computer and fix it.
Straughn said some scammers will put a virus on the computer to shut it down, "just for the sheer viciousness of it," and others will install a virus to capture e-mail addresses in the computer user's contact list, or steal the user's personal information stored on the computer.
"When someone contacts you, do not ever give them your personal information," she said.
Straughn said scammers often get their victims to give them money by "trying to scare you, or they're trying to go after your heart."
She said people should be aware of what she called the "grandparent scam," after a rash of seniors getting calls from people claiming to be their grandchildren who need bail money to get out of jail.
Straughn said the caller will often beg the victim not to call anyone else and to wire the money immediately.
She noted other perpetrators of the grandparent scam will pose as law enforcement officers or bail bondsmen.
She urged audience members to make sure their loved ones are at home if they get a call that seems like a grandparent scam.
Straughn noted an even scarier scam involves a caller claiming the victim's spouse had been in a car accident with a drug dealer, and the dealer will kill the spouse if the victim does not send money immediately.
She encouraged audience members to "just keep your wits about you and remember it has all the signs of a scam."
Harford County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jonathan Krass, who also attended Monday's meeting, noted Harford residents have been getting calls from scammers posing as IRS agents and threatening their victims with arrest if they do not pay taxes they owe.
"No law enforcement officer is ever going to ask for your credit card number or to go to Walmart to wire money," said Krass, who is commander of the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct.
He also encouraged audience members to avoid scammers who claim to be collecting for law enforcement support organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police.
Straughn encouraged audience members to "tell everyone you know" about how to avoid being scammed.
"We all have to be in it together," she said. "We all have to look out for each other; that's just the way it is."
For more information, or to report a scam, visit http://www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/index.htm, or call 410-526-8662 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.