Friday, February 6, 2004

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Attorney General Greg Abbott Warns Texas Consumers About Rising Number Of Internet Scams

AUSTIN – Attorney General Greg Abbotttoday warned Texas consumers about scam artists based outside the U.S. who are using the anonymity of the Internet to separate them from their hard earned dollars.

“The Internet is a tremendous resource for consumers, but it is also a resource for con artists,” said Attorney General Abbott. “The speed, accessibility and low cost that make the Internet attractive to law-abiding Texans also make it appealing to scam artists who operate in other countries, and who are stealing millions of dollars in an ever-growing array of schemes.”

In particular, Attorney General Abbott warned about the increased use of phony cashier’s checks for on-line sales and a new version of the “Nigerian” scam targeting charitable organizations.

Texans who sell any item online should be wary of would-be buyers who wish to pay more than the asking price for an item using a cashier's check, especially if the buyer is in another country, Attorney General Abbott said.

In a common scenario, consumers who sell high ticket items such as electronics or vehicles by posting them on an auction site or electronic classified service are contacted by an enthusiastic buyer, typically based in Africa or Europe. The buyer indicates that he possesses a cashier's check made out in an amount that is in excess of the asking price of the item in question.

The scam artist offers to send the check to the seller in Texas, with the understanding that the seller will wire the difference to the buyer – which could be several thousand dollars. The seller readily agrees, and upon delivery of the cashier’s check promptly wires the money to Europe or Africa, only to find out later from their bank that it is a worthless forgery. By that point, the money they wired is long gone with virtually no chance of recovery.

That is precisely what transpired with two Texas consumers who met with the Attorney General today.

In Houston Attorney General Abbott met with LaWanda Hall, who last year faced an ordeal when she received a $4,000 forged check as payment for her $500 computer, which she had advertised online. The scam artist told Ms. Hall to wire the $3,500 difference to Nigeria. When Ms. Hall tried to cash the check, the cashing business realized it was a forgery. She was arrested and charges were eventually dropped by Houston authorities when it was determined that she was in fact a victim of a con.

The Attorney General also heard from Janet Stramrood, of Tomball. A buyer in Holland responded to her online ad to sell her 1997 Ford Mustang for $5,500 dollars, for which she received a cashier’s check in the amount of $12,500. She sent the $7,000 difference to Europe, only to discover days later through her bank that the check with which she had been paid was worthless.

Attorney General Abbott also cautioned charitable organizations, particularly faith-based entities, about a new twist in the longstanding "Nigerian scam." He indicated that Nigerian scams are now targeting clergy and other employees of religious organizations. These scam artists send fraudulent emails invoking the names of God and Christ in an effort to appeal to the religious convictions of those who receive them.

In Austin, Attorney General Abbott heard from a priest with the Austin Catholic Archdiocese, who has been targeted by such emails for several months. The priest explained that several of his fellow clergymen and other church employees have also been receiving the bogus solicitations.

Typically Nigerian scam artists send emails presenting themselves as a high ranking official from that country, such as a finance or petroleum minister. They say they are in possession of vast sums of cash, which they must urgently transfer to the U.S. Unable to open a bank account in this country, they ask the recipient of the solicitation to allow temporary use of their personal account to "park" the funds, for which they will be rewarded with a sizable percentage of the millions of dollars that will be transferred. In reality this is a ploy to obtain the consumer's personal bank account information and to empty it. Under some scenarios the victim is asked to wire money to Africa first, to cover "processing" fees or other necessary expenses before millions of dollars can be deposited into their account. After the money is sent, sometimes thousands of dollars, the scam artists are never heard from again.

For additional information on Internet based scams and how to report them, consumers can access the Attorney General’s homepage at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

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