RALEIGH, N.C. -- Fraud cases in North Carolina are on the rise, as are the types of fraud being perpetrated, according to state and federal officials. And while most of the victims are from minority and immigrant communities, and the elderly, many are reluctant to report the crime to authorities.
"One thing we know is that people are embarrassed to have fallen for scams,” said Jennifer Leach, assistant director for the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Division of Consumer and Business Education. “But you do not really have to feel sorry for being deceived. The scammers are professionals, their job is to take your money and they are very good at what they do.”
Leach spoke during a March 16 press briefing for ethnic media in Raleigh, during which she urged victims to approach authorities if they do become victims of a scam. Officials from the State Attorney's Office Consumer Protection Department and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for the Eastern Region of North Carolina were also in attendance.
Last year alone, more than three million complaints nationwide were received by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) from victims of various types of fraud, scams and identity theft. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of complaints grew by nearly 10,000, reaching a total of 74,805 at the end of last year, according to the FTC Consumer Sentinel Network.
In North Carolina, fraud complaints for 2016 reached 10,010, up 6.5 percent compared to 2015.
But Leach says many more scams remain unreported by their victims. She also stressed the importance of the role that ethnic media can play in reporting about the different types of scams that exist, and in encouraging dialogue within the community.
The 10 Most Reported Scams in North Carolina
According to the Federal Trade Commission, the list of major scams reported in North Carolina in 2016 is as follows:
1. Debt Collection.
2. Impostor Scams.
3. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries.
4. Telephone and Mobile Services.
5. Banks and Lenders.
6. Auto-Related Complaints.
7. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales.
8. Television and Electronic Media.
9. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers and Report Users.
10. Credit cards.
According to Liebes, the three main types of fraud in North Carolina are: debt collections, impostor scams and prizes, and sweepstakes and lottery scams.
"Be careful, you haven’t won a prize if you didn’t enter the prize promotion, or you haven’t won the lottery if you didn’t enter the lottery, especially if that lottery is coming from some foreign country,” warned Liebes.
The FTC is also concerned with the growing number of incidents involving scammers who pose as government officials, police officers or even family members.
"To cheat, scammers use emergency situations or what's happening in the news", explained Marisol Silva, BBB’s Hispanic Community Liaison Coordinator. "For example, the immigrant community is living in fear at the moment (as a result of President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration) and this opens the door to all kinds of scams".
Silva shared one experience just days prior from a caller asking for information about a business selling deportation insurance. "Basically you buy this insurance and would be protected against deportation,” Silva explained. “We are talking about payments of $ 3,000 or $ 5,000."
Kevin Anderson, director of the Consumer Protection Division of the North Carolina Attorney General's Office, said that for more than 17 years he has worked on consumer protection, "and it never fails to amaze me how ingenious and how tricky some of these scammers are."
He said the basic framework for scams typically involves creating an emergency situation of some kind, whether it be someone saying they are from the IRS and demanding payment or risk jail time, to individuals posing as utility workers threatening to shut off power or water.
"It is important for the community to know that we are here to help all North Carolinians who have been victimized by scams," Anderson said.
10 Things You Can Do to Avoid Fraud
1. Spot imposters. Scammers often pretend to be someone you trust, like a government official, a family member, a charity, or a company you do business with. Don’t send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request — whether it comes as a text, a phone call, or an email.
2. Do online searches. Type a company or product name into your favorite search engine with words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” Or search for a phrase that describes your situation, like “IRS call.” You can even search for phone numbers to see if other people have reported them as scams.
3. Don’t believe your caller ID. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information, so the name and number you see aren’t always real. If someone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. If you think the caller might be telling the truth, call back to a number you know is genuine.
4. Don’t pay upfront for a promise. Someone might ask you to pay in advance for things like debt relief, credit and loan offers, mortgage assistance, or a job. They might even say you’ve won a prize, but first you have to pay taxes or fees. If you do, they will probably take the money and disappear.
5. Consider how you pay. Credit cards have significant fraud protection built in, but some payment methods don’t. Wiring money through services like Western Union or MoneyGram is risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back. That’s also true for reloadable cards like MoneyPak, Reloadit or Vanilla. Government offices and honest companies won’t require you to use these payment methods.
6. Talk to someone. Before you give up your money or personal information, talk to someone you trust. Con artists want you to make decisions in a hurry. They might even threaten you. Slow down, check out the story, do an online search, consult an expert — or just tell a friend.
7. Hang up on robocalls. If you answer the phone and hear a recorded sales pitch, hang up and report it to the FTC. These calls are illegal, and often the products are bogus. Don’t press 1 to speak to a person or to be taken off the list. That could lead to more calls.
8. Be skeptical about free trial offers. Some companies use free trials to sign you up for products and bill you every month until you cancel. Before you agree to a free trial, research the company and read the cancellation policy. And always review your monthly statements for charges you don’t recognize.
9. Don’t deposit a check and wire money back. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. If a check you deposit turns out to be a fake, you’re responsible for repaying the bank.
10. Sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams. Get the latest tips and advice about scams sent right to your inbox.
Information available in Spanish
Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Protection Division of the North Carolina Attorney General's Office have available bilingual staff to assist victims or to answer questions. In addition they have abundant material in Spanish on how to identify and avoid scams, identity theft, as well as the steps that victims must follow to file a complaint.
The Federal Trade Commission: You can call the Consumer Response Center at 877-FTC-HELP (382-4357) from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm ET.
The North Carolina Office of Consumer Protection: In Spanish: Mayra Surovick (firstname.lastname@example.org), Consumer Protection Specialist, (919) 716-6047
Better Business Bureau (BBB) for the Eastern Region of North Carolina: For Spanish, call Marisol Silva (email@example.com), Hispanic Community Liaison Coordinator, (919) 277-4228