It typically starts with an unsolicited email, telephone call or request through the mail. Someone you don’t know claims they have an emergency—they can’t feed their kids, they have enormous medical bills, they’re about to be evicted from their home—and they ask you for financial help.
If you send them money, even if it’s only $20, the requests for donations intensifies. Word seems to get around to others claiming to be in need and the scam perpetuates itself.
Ketchum Postmaster John McDonald said in an interview Thursday that a local elderly man recently ended up giving $81,000 to people claiming to be in need. McDonald said the man, who really couldn’t afford the loss, unfortunately got scammed.
“The amount of money that I know has been lost locally amazes me,” said McDonald, estimating that the loss locally has been between $130,000 and $150,000. “And that’s only what’s been reported to me within the past two years.”
McDonald said that nationally, as well as locally, the number of scams aimed at well-intentioned people, those who are willing to help others during a crisis, is reaching epidemic proportions.
“These people are hitting hundreds of thousands of people every day,” McDonald said. “Anytime there’s hard times, these people come out of the woodwork. If it’s a sad story, it’s usually a scam. Their victims are primarily the elderly, but no one is immune.
“They give stories so wild and these elderly people feel sorry for them,” McDonald said. “And once someone gives, they pass your name around and you get more calls. These people must have a network.
“These people don’t have real problems. These people are scam artists—that’s all they are.”
Nearly always, McDonald said, the scammers want funds sent by express mail, either in the form of a money order or cash. He said scammers avoid electronic transactions because the transaction can be easily traced.
Once the U.S. mail is used, either to solicit illicit funds or to receive illicit funds, a mail fraud federal crime has been committed.
McDonald said the U.S. Postal Service is very concerned about the prevalence of scams involving the mail, but that there are so many con artists and different types of scams these days that it’s difficult to shut down or prosecute them all.
“We’ve got hundreds of inspectors working on this,” McDonald said. But even catching a scammer can be difficult, he said, because they frequently change addresses to stay ahead of authorities.
“These people are in and out of court, but they make so much money they can afford a good attorney,” McDonald said.
The postmaster advises consumers to never give out telephone numbers, email addresses, credit card numbers or personal information unless the consumer is 100 percent confident of the legitimacy of where the information is going.
“The bottom line is that you check out anyone you send donations to and make sure they are honest and legitimate,” he said.
During National Consumer Protection Week earlier this month, the U.S. Postal Service placed special emphases on informing the public about sweepstakes or lottery scams that are now becoming more prevalent. The Postal Service especially cautioned consumers about getting involved in foreign lotteries, which are often illegal in the United States. The Postal Service advises that by law, sweepstake sponsors must state in their solicitations that no purchase is necessary to win and that making a purchase will not increase the odds of winning.
“If you have to pay to play, it’s a scam,” McDonald said.