Fraud summit features FBI, Better Business Bureau, others

Published 8:00 am Saturday, June 29, 2024

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LANETT — The James A. Hardy Gym was the host site for the annual fraud summit sponsored by the East Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission. A large gathering of local seniors was present, to get advice from experts on what to look out for in the way of financial fraud, exploitation and abuse.

Presentations were made by Lanett Police Chief Denise McCain, Carl Bates of the Birmingham office of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Parker Still of the Mobile office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and keynote speaker Mikala McCurry of the Alabama Securities Commission (ASC).

“We are so glad to be here in Lanett today,” said program emcee Teresa Speigner of the Alabama State Health Insurance Plan, better known as the Alabama SHIP. “We always get the biggest crowd we get for one of these summits when we are in Lanett.”

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The comments made by Bates and Still went hand in hand in getting across how serious fraud is in Alabama and nationwide.

Two of the Better Business Bureau’s 95 chapters are in Alabama, and both stay busy warning Alabamians of fraud schemes and being an advocate for honest business practices. 

“We are always getting calls from seniors on possible fraud attempts against them, but we are now getting lots of calls from young adults,” Bates said. “Our current statistics show that people between 18 and 24 are in the age group that is most frequently scammed. The problem here is that they don’t have as much money as older people, and they can’t afford to lose what they do have.”

Bates said his office has 20 people and half of them investigate scams. Most of the scam activity targeting Alabama residents comes from outside the U.S., mostly from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Bates advises Alabamians to guard against being victimized by a myriad of scams that are out there. There’s a free service out there known as scam tracker. It offers information on what to be aware of and to guard against.

One way Alabamians have been taken advantage of is by trying to purchase antique vehicles and farm equipment online. Alabamians lost an estimated $6 million last year on this.

“It’s usually a situation where someone goes online and finds the kind of car they have always wanted, something like a 1958 Chevrolet,” Bates said. “They have been looking for one and can’t find one in good condition that’s reasonably priced. They go online and find one that’s half of what everyone else is asking. They go ahead and pay for it not realizing they are being scammed. You should never send money if you haven’t seen and touched the car.”

It also works the other way. Bates mentioned an instance of someone from Alaska seeing where they could buy a snowplow from someone in Birmingham. They paid $20,000 for it before finding out is was a scam. The purchaser took the money listing an address near the airport in Birmingham. There was nothing there but an abandoned building. 

Bates mentioned another scam on Sunday school class. Someone no one in the church had known before joined the church and became active in a Sunday school class. He made friends with everyone and started talking to them one-on-one about an investment opportunity. He told each person he talked to not to mention it to anyone else, that it was a situation where the two of them were going to make a pile of money. One by one he got them to commit to the scheme and got money from 75 percent of the class before skipping town for parts unknown.

“Scammers are very good at what they do,” Bates said. “Be careful and avoid getting burned.”

There’s a big problem out there with scammers pretending to be with well-known organizations such as the U.S. Post Office, Amazon, Publisher’s Clearing House, Walmart, Best Buy and so on. “Scammers impersonate these companies,” Bates said. “Some of them have fake websites that look like the real thing.”

One scam involves people with smart TVs. A message pops up telling them it’s time to renew their subscription. In many cases, they have sent in the money before they realize they have been scammed. In the case of many smart TVs, you pay the subscription when you buy the TV.

Anyone dealing in cryptocurrency needs to be careful. 

“There are probably 20 to 30 ATMs in Lanett that do this,” Bates said. “You need to be very careful when you do this.”

There are lots of employment scams out there. Many involve work-at-home opportunities. In one such scam, someone seeking to hire you will send you a $1,000 check telling you to go and buy a new computer, desk and chair then send them by check the money that’s left over. The trouble is the $1,000 check they sent you is no good. The check you sent them is probably good, and you have a desk, a chair and a computer but no job.

Bates said that everyone needs to protect themselves from identity theft. “Be sure and shred anything before you throw it away,” he said.

There are people out there who will go through the trash to find people’s names and addresses.

Bates said he has a grown daughter who was scammed with information about her that had been 10 years old.

One scam involves someone calling you, telling you they are from the U.S. Postal Service and they have a package they need to deliver to you. 

“Don’t respond to anyone you don’t know who calls you on the phone,” Bates said. “In that situation, go to your local post office and ask them if there’s a package that needs to be delivered to you. If there is, they could find out about it for you.”

Parker Still is a special agent in the white-collar crime division of the FBI. He talked about the seriousness of financial fraud and how much money was being lost to it. It was more than $12 billion last year. As much of a third of that was online financial fraud. 

The biggest problem in Alabama, he said, is what can commonly be called romance fraud. This is when someone gets involved with someone they met on an online dating site. They develop a relationship with them and have high expectations of meeting them. They discuss this online but something comes up where their online partner needs help with money. 

There’s a new buzzword called pig butchering. It’s a long-term scam and investment fraud in which the victim is gradually lured into making increasing contributions, usually in the form of cryptocurrency, to a fraudulent cryptocurrency scheme. They are commonplace on social apps.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is a looming threat. “This is something that’s going to get worse in the future,” Still said. ‘The voice recognition made possible by AI can make you think you are talking to someone you know. Someone using AI can send you a photo of a loved one and tell you they have kidnapped them and to send them money.”

There’s something out there called the dark net. It provides chat rooms for fraudsters and a means of passing on information about people. Users of the dark net accept payment only in Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.

Still advises the use of basic common sense. 

“Anytime someone you don’t know contacts you at your house and talks about something involving money a red flag needs to go up,” he said.

This is where one of the best traits Southerners have – a charitable nature and eagerness to help others – can be a problem. 

“Fraudsters know this and will try to use it against you,” Still said. “Just be careful with unsolicited calls. It’s also a good idea to delete voice mails from people you don’t know and haven’t done business with.”

“It’s best not to engage with fraudsters,” Still said. “They are good at what they do. They know just the right expressions to use to appeal to you. Being educated about this is the key. The more you know what to be looking out for the better.”

The final speaker of the day, Mikayla McCurry, talked about how the Alabama Securities Commission is very much involved in helping Alabamians be aware of common financial fraud techniques and how to protect themselves from being exploited. This can involve cryptocurrency, commodities, promissory notes, affinity fraud and imposter scams.

It is the mission of the Alabama Securities Commission (ASC) to protect investors against securities fraud and to provide aggressive enforcement action against any firm or individual who has violated the Alabama Securities Act or other state and federal statutes to the detriment of Alabama investors.