Tuesday, February 3, 2004

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Attorney General Abbott Launches Program To Protect Texas Seniors From Multi-Million Dollar Scams

AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today unveiled a statewide program to help bank employees protect unwary customers against scams that have already taken millions of dollars from consumers, especially the elderly.

At events held in Austin, Victoria and Corpus Christi, Attorney General Abbott announced the new initiative to educate bank employees about how they can play a pivotal role in the fight against a variety of fraudulent activities.

Abbott also presented certificates of appreciation to four bank tellers who took action when they suspected that account holders were being taken advantage of by scam artists.

“There is a growing number of schemes that seek to deplete a bank customer’s account – from bogus sweepstakes that require a consumer to pay thousands of dollars up front to fraudulent contractors who rip off consumers without doing any work on their homes,” said Attorney General Abbott.

“In most cases, the common denominator of these schemes is that consumers are pressured to go to their bank and withdraw large sums of money. I am confident that by enlisting the help of bank employees, we will be able to prevent many Texans from losing their life savings.”

The Attorney General’s office is taking the lead in the new initiative, with support from Adult Protective Services, the Texas Department of Banking, the Independent Bankers Association of Texas, and the Texas Bankers Association.

The program will be centered on a fraud prevention online curriculum, available to bank employees and the general public through the Attorney General’s homepage at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

The announcement was timed to coincide with National Consumer Protection Week, February 1-7, which this year focuses on helping consumers make educated financial decisions.

The bank employees honored today by Attorney General Abbott grew suspicious when they noticed clients who attempted to make unusually large withdrawals from their accounts or stopped a client from disclosing personal financial information to a scam artist.

In Austin, Attorney General Abbott thanked Deena Dominy, a bank associate manager who saved a bank customer in her 80s from incurring additional staggering losses to a lottery scam. The woman had already withdrawn several thousand dollars that she told Dominy was necessary to cover fees before a grand prize she had won could be sent to her. Suspicious of the sudden large withdrawals, Dominy sought the help of bank officials and police officers, eventually convincing the woman that she was the victim of a scam and that she should stop sending funds.

In Victoria, Attorney General Abbott heard from bank employee Leanne Berger. In the fall of 2003, Berger prevented a bank customer from incurring losses to an international lottery fraud. When the customer said he had won a lottery based in Spain and needed to provide his personal financial information to collect the prize, Berger grew suspicious and made the customer realize he was being conned.

In Corpus Christi, Attorney General Abbott thanked bank employees Sylvia Buentello of Robstown and Ana Vasquez of Corpus Christi for actions that protected customers from loss. Buentello grew suspicious when an 89-year-old consumer asked for overdraft protection for a $1,200 check she wanted to write. The customer told Buentello that the money was to cover fees for a $250,000 sweepstakes prize. The alert banker told the client that this was an improbable scheme and convinced the would-be victim not to send any money.

Vasquez prevented a customer in her 60s from sending $600 to claim a bogus multi-million dollar prize in the Spanish “El Gordo” lottery. She also warned the consumer against providing telemarketers with the bank account and routing numbers they requested, suspecting that they wanted the information to steal the consumer’s identity and empty her bank account.

“These bank employees have gone the extra mile in protecting the public,” said Attorney General Abbott.“Success stories like these inspired our new online course. Through it, we are building a growing force of concerned persons who will be instrumental in informing the public about scams that have devastated so many lives.”

The following are some of the schemes outlined in the online course developed by the Office of the Attorney General:

• International Lotteries - Victims typically receive an unexpected mail or telephone solicitation telling them they have won millions in a foreign lottery – usually based in Canada, England, Australia, Spain, or Germany. However, they are also told that they must wire money to authorities in the country making the award before the prize can be received. Fees are presumably to cover “taxes” and other bogus expenses to transfer the money. Some Texas seniors have lost as much as $100,000 each under this scheme.

• Contractor / Home Repair Scams - A traveling contractor shows up and says that he was doing some work in the neighborhood and, since he has left over materials, would be willing to re-pave a driveway or repair a roof at a bargain rate. He insists on being paid in advance, in cash, and ultimately performs substandard work or no work at all, disappearing with the money.

• Investments - Texas seniors have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars each by participating in investment scams that were nothing more than “ponzi” or pyramid schemes. High pressure sales pitches to invest in products such as titanium futures or currency markets lure consumers with the promise of guaranteed returns. In reality, there is no real investment program and the scam artists do little more than create bogus quarterly statements to make the victim believe that his or her money is growing dramatically.

Anyone who suspects scams should contact their local authorities or the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at
1-800-252-8011.