There was a time when most people recognized a scam artist. They were characterized as slick-talking con men who could sell you anything from an elixir that could grow hair on your head to a cure for everything from pimples to cancer. They were commonly known as snake oil salesmen. Then along came Charles Ponzi, who took scamming to a whole new level and, in the process, duped thousands of investors out of an estimated $20 million.
Since then there have been a few major businesses that have fooled the public and, in a few cases, their top executives have even gone to jail. But not since Ponzi has an individual captured the headlines and hurt so many people as Bernard Madoff, whose victims included some of the nation's best known celebrities and business people. According to Forbes Magazine, he bilked thousands of innocent people out of an estimated $65 billion.
When cell phones first became popular there were folks out there with scanning devices that could pick up your telephone number. That happened to my daughter and her next bill from the telephone company was in excess of $8,000 for calls all over the world — all placed within 24 hours! The telephone company waived the charges (she obviously wasn't the first person hit by the scam), but it gives you some idea of the scope of the problems we face with scams today.
We live in an electronic age in which the whole world is literally connected via the internet and social media — and you can get hurt by a scam that is initiated in Nigeria or New Jersey and you would never know the difference. The modern snake oil salesman may have your telephone number and email address and will contact you, along with thousands of other unsuspecting people, via a recorded message. He or she will sound so legitimate and friendly as they troll for your information that, chances are, they will snag a certain percentage every day!
The fact that scam artists have the ability to use well-known and legitimate company names and copy their letterheads in order to get people to provide their sensitive financial information is about the scariest thing I can imagine. And it is happening every day! The federal government now thinks it is important enough to monitor identity theft in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
So, bottom line, you have to be vigilant every day to make sure you are not caught in their net. Announcements that you have won thousands of dollars in a contest you never entered are obvious snares. But how about the contests you did enter? An 84-year-old woman in Cape May County, NJ, was taken for $15,000 after she was told she had won $2.3 million in a Megamillions sweepstakes. The scam originated in Jamaica — and she had actually entered that contest.
What should you do if your "bank" sends you an email that says you have to confirm your information online or your account will be restricted? Check with the alleged source, your bank, because it's probably a scam. And that is the critical message. Do not do anything until you check to make sure you are dealing with a legitimate party. The immediate and long-term consequences of being scammed are almost beyond belief.
We will continue to monitor what these folks are up to. If we save just one person from losing his or her life's savings or home, it will be well worth the effort.
Beau Weisman, Editor