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Community Alert: Street Scams

Scams just don't happen online. Watch out for these street scams in your community.

It's Like Driving on Air

Dreamshare International engaged in what is commonly referred to as a "Christmas scam" to defraud consumers during the holiday season.

They ran a series of misleading quarter page ads in a major metropolitan area newspaper beginning in November which pictured a Lamborghini Diablo priced at $250,000 and the suggestion you purchase the "unique Christmas gift" of a test drive in the car beginning at a minimum of thirty minutes for $95 and up to $400 for three hours.

The ad also promised you a free sixty minute test drive in a Dodge Viper if you purchased a minimum of a one hour test drive in the Lamborghini.

An investigation into the ad determined that Dreamshare International did not own or have access to the Lamborghini displayed in the ad and did not own or have access to a Dodge Viper. The investigation also disclosed that they had paid for the ads with bad checks totaling $32,000 and had gone by different aliases in past scams.

Door-to-Door Scams

Vulnerable seniors, who spend the majority of their time at home, are perfect targets for the mobile scam artist. Smooth-talking fraudsters can convincingly get themselves invited inside to deliver any imaginable sales pitch for products or services. Common among these are the home repair, door-to-door scams.

Home repair scam operators appear unannounced at the home and then proceed to "discover" one or a series of "defects" with the house, from shoddy roofing, to cracked driveways, to dangerous electrical wiring or plumbing. Believing these bogus claims, the victim pays the con-artist a down-payment on repairs.

Predictably, the down-payment goes to a job that is never or only partially completed. Sometimes the fraudulent repair person causes damage to the house—using their screwdriver to puncture a hole in a heating duct, for example—in order to document the need for their repair services.

Also be aware of anyone claiming to be an inspector from your local utility company. This individual may claim to be conducting a routine inspection and may request to see your fuse box, furnace, or water meter.

Upon ‘inspection’, this person informs you that a number of regulations are being violated and that certain repairs are necessary to ensure continuance of your water, natural gas, or hydro-electricity.

The inspector then gives you the name of someone who is able to do the job on short notice at a reasonable price. In actual fact, there is nothing wrong with your utilities and the inspector and the friend will split any profit from your ‘repairs.'

In one "Water Department" scam the con would just call and tell an elderly female victim that he needed to do official repairs and it would cost thousands. The next day he would show up at the intended victim's residence and obtain a check for services that were never rendered.

Door-to-door scam operators are usually friendly and appear sincere in their desire to help. Their intention, however, is to find a vulnerable senior—invariably one who suffers from loneliness, Alzheimer's or another dementia, loss of sight or hearing—which would make them susceptible to heavy-handed selling or intimidation.

Once a potential victim is identified, a scam operator will make repeat visits to the home, each time pressing the sale one step further. It is not uncommon for seniors to finally agree to purchase an item that they do not need resulting in an obligation to pay a bill that totals several thousands of dollars.

Questionable door-to-door sales of vacuum cleaners, cleaning products, magazines and home security systems are constantly being reported to law enforcement officials.

Another scheme includes painting the barn, home, outbuildings, or mobile home roofs or attachments. A cheap grade of paint, which has been further cut by kerosene, gasoline or other thinning agents, is used. After the job is completed, the traveler exaggerates the amount of paint required. If the victim balks, the traveler may use intimidation or threatens to call his attorney or even the police. They have also been known to acquire a well-known empty quality paint brand container and pour the poor quality paint inside of them and then claim that nothing but a high grade of paint was used.

A similar scam is also used with roof repair where the quality of the material is misrepresented. The driveway repair is another favorite scam. In most cases, the material used in asphalt paving consists primarily of reconditioned motor oil with a minimum amount of asphalt mixed in.

A unique scheme involves selling oak trees. The traveler will offer to sell young oak trees, plant, fertilize and water the trees as part of the purchase price. It is only after the Travelers have been gone for two or three days that the victim notices that all the trees are dying. On closer inspection, the victim discovers that he/she has purchased tree limbs that have been planted in potting soil and wrapped in a piece of burlap cloth.

The traveler may also offer to prune trees at a cost of $10.00. The victim assumes they mean $10.00 a tree, but when the bill is presented, the victim discovers the $10.00 represents each limb, not each tree.

Another scheme utilized is where they will buy cheap tools directly from a manufacturer, triple the price and sell them either door to door, along busy highway interchanges and flea markets. In addition to tools, they will also sell motor jacks, lifters, hydraulic jacks, handsaws and drill presses.

Young minorities, dressed in ivy league sweatshirts, often use guilt while going around selling magazine subscriptions door to door. They will play on your 'success' by saying "Wouldn't you like to help me to achieve the success you have and live in a nice neighborhood and a nice house like you?"

Good Neighbor Scam

One door-to-door scam involves a man who approaches an elderly homeowner and tells him, or her, that he has been involved in a vehicle accident and that he is the relative of the homeowner's neighbor who is not presently at home.

The con uses both the homeowner's name and the name of the neighbor while asking for money to pay for the wrecker. After being given whatever money he requests from the elderly homeowner he then leaves. Later, the homeowner contacts the neighbor and learns the neighbor does not know the suspect and has no knowledge of the supposed accident.

Handover Your Money

One money scam used a Hong Kong twist. As uncertainty swirled around the former British colony in the months preceding its return to China on July 1, 1997, an Oriental and two cohorts devised a fraud scheme based upon a story they concocted about needing to transfer money out of Hong Kong before the handover.

They would offer an unsuspecting individual a sum of money for accepting funds that they claimed would be wired from Hong Kong to the victim's personal bank account.

One man, approached at a restaurant, agreed to participate for a 15% cut of the money, and gave the three men information about his bank accounts. They in turn deposited fraudulent cashier's checks totaling more than $46,000 into his accounts at five banks.

A short time later, the three men drove him to four of the banks, and had him withdraw $32,800. They then disappeared, leaving the account holder fully responsible for the eventual shortfall as no actual funds would ever be transferred.

A second man was victimized in a similar fashion when he agreed to provide his bank account information. Two days later, he deposited a $9,600 counterfeit cashier's check into his account, withdrew that amount and gave it to the scammer who returned $500 back for his assistance.

A third victim was out $4,500 after his bank demanded he come good for the fraudulent deposit. In addition to the financial loss, victims are occasionally charged with fraud themselves for cashing bogus checks.

Bumper Car Crooks

A pair of Los Angeles police detectives investigating a series of strange, small car crashes unraveled a citywide sting that has bilked seniors out of thousands of dollars.

Two suspects stand accused of staging at least 27 minor car crashes with seniors throughout Los Angeles in order to get them out of their vehicles and trick them out of their cash.

The suspects were careful enough to cause a large-enough bump to stop the victim but small enough not to garner police attention.

And once the victim stepped out of the car, the scammer handed the victim a fake ID in a wallet to "exchange information." They would then slip cash out of the victim's wallet while the exchange was under way.

With no moral compulsion, these predators targeted people 70 or older between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. knowing the victims couldn't fight back if things went wrong and because the chances of recalling them were limited after the near trauma excitement.

Like a carefully choreographed stage play, they'd get the older person disoriented and preoccupied, similar to what pickpockets do. Police say the pair of men were convicted in a similar scam in 1988 along with a crew of six others.


Melon Drop

While traveling in a foreign city, slightly disoriented and obviously a tourist, you may be bumped into by someone who drops and breaks an object, then claims it has a high value and abusively demands compensation for your carelessness.

They have been known to charge up to $50 for $1.29 melons from Japanese tourists who, in their stores back home pay great amounts for the highly valued melons. It is also common to break primarily water filled and diluted champagne or scotch bottles bearing expensive labels which are recovered empty from the dumpster behind a fancy restaurant.

Tour Traps

Tourists traveling to Mexico are often offered local tours at a lower-than-advertised price by O.P.C.’s (outside public contacts) which work for the timeshare organizations. You will see them located at booths or offices inside the malls or the airport.

They only request a minimal "deposit" and then indicate you have to pay the balance to the tour guide when the bus come to your hotel to pick you up.

The receipt is a little piece of paper with a telephone number that never answers and the bus never comes. Since the deposit was a minimal amount, most victims do not bother to make out an official report with the local authorities.

It is amazing just how many people are willing to give money to someone they have never seen before.

Linda Gonzalez 06/30/02

The Old Switcheroo

Once with a money exchange in Kiev, Ukraine it almost turned out to be a $100-to-$1 money switch.  I gave $100 to be exchanged into another currency, and when I saw the guy doing weird stuff with the $100 bill, I grabbed it, only to find out it was $1.

Another time it was video camera sale scam in Barcelona Spain.  A guy on a scooter was selling a camera for $300 euros.  After haggling it down to $120 euros we got the bag with the "stuff".

It turned out to be a bag of sand and a newspaper.  And we SAW the camera in the bag which was switched quickly and without notice.

Dennis MV 05/04

Officially a Scam

06/04/04 - Pickpockets posing as Interpol officers have stolen more than 170,000 ringgit, or about $45,000, simply by stopping tourists in Malaysia's largest city and telling them to hand over their bags and wallets, a newspaper reported Friday.

The fake officers say they are looking for drugs and, finding none, they apologize and let their victims go - after stealing valuables. The Star newspaper said the thieves operated in the district known as the Golden Triangle.

Coin Con

You are approached on the street by a scammer who is quite adept at faking retardation. He comes up to you with a packet of old coins labeled Reward! Please return to Dr. Williams, Numismatist 453-5674

Seeing as the street-person does not have the facilities to call, yet insists on trying to hand you the bag, you call the number. A person answers ( a shill ) who, surprised and thankful when you call and fully explain why you are calling, offers a $700 reward along with directions to return the coins.

He simply asks that you be good enough to give $100 to the poor guy who actually found them, which he will pay you back out of the $700. When you arrive at the abandoned lot $100 poorer, you find you are the one left holding the bag, which contains about $6 worth of slightly older or foreign coins.

Driving Around in a Daze

Below are two accounts of a similar scam which happened to Nate, a 19-year old Missionary Kid and former student, as well as to my 21-year old cousin Jon. Nate lives in St. Louis, Jon in Minneapolis.

I'm looking for the name for this type of scam. Then I'd be able to do more research on it and the psychology behind it, to help answer such questions as why seemingly normal, intelligent adults would fall for this kind of thing, and how to educate people to avoid or confront scammers.

Kevin Mills 05/15/02

Nate's Story

It was really late when I got home from work. I remember looking down and seeing the car's clock read past midnight as I pulled up to my apartment. As I turned off my car I saw a guy standing off to one side who soon made his way over.

I didn't want to open my door so I just rolled my window down a bit as he started explaining how his car had broken down on the highway and his kids were still in it. There was a lady with them, but he needed a ride to his Aunt's house to get his keys for another vehicle so that he could go and pick them all up.

He had these tears in his eyes and so, feeling sorry for the guy and thinking that if I were ever in that situation I would be grateful for someone's help, I told him to get in the car and we'd go to his aunt's house. After he got in the car he mentioned that he would gladly give me a few bucks for gas.

As we drove off to I don't know where, he said that because it was late we should go to his aunt's friend's house where she plays bingo and see if she might be there, even though it was 1:00 in the morning. After he got out of the car he said to me, "Please don't leave me here".

So anyway, after going to about 4 or 5 houses he said that we should go see a handicapped lady his aunt takes care of. So off we went. The house was down at the end of this long cul-de-sac and as I approached he told me to kill the lights, which wasn't the first time he told me to do that.

He headed off into the house and disappeared for about 4 minutes. During this time I noticed a few people looking out their windows to see who I was. At that point I was saying my prayers, asking God to keep me safe through whatever happened.

As I was taking the money from my wallet to hide it in my car I heard a noise, looked up at the house and saw the door swing violently open, the guy tearing out towards the car. Soon to follow him were three men with clubs.

The guy tried to get into my car but couldn't as I had locked the door earlier for safety. I frantically unlocked the door as the three men raced towards us. I slammed the car into reverse and screeched out of there.

The guy had been hit pretty hard and was using profanities to describe what had just happened. He kept apologizing and said that we'd better just go to his aunt's house. Instead we went to about two more places and then to a 7Eleven alleyway to see his drunken uncle who might know where she was.

After I sat waiting by the store for about four minutes he came back with three guys and a case of  beer. The situation was getting pretty tense, in a surreal way, as they told smutty stories over their beer and chips in the back and about how they'd been smoking weed all night.

After a bit of a drive I was informed that we were going to drop the three guys off at the corner up further. Well, they ended up getting out of my car and started walking away. Then the original guy, in a most convincing fashion, said that his house was just around the next bend. Proceeding further, we pulled up to a house and he got out.

As he got out he asked me for my telephone number and name and because I was both tired and relieved and just wanted to get home, I foolishly gave it. When I got home I thanked God for His love and protection.

A day later the guy called and asked for me but as I wasn't there he ended up giving my roommate the exact same story that he gave me, accompanied by tears. He needed some money for a gas can and after being offered $7 said. "Oh, what If my starter doesn't start, I'll need money for that too" so accepted $15 with a promise to pay it back.

I thought that I was doing a good deed worthy of a Christian but I was STUPID. You should simply never pick up strangers, ever.

I have since heard about a friend's cousin who disappeared for three days during which time he was drugged, robbed and shuttled around in his car. This after giving a guy a ride who told him that his car needed to be towed.

When strangers ask you for rides simply inform them that you will contact the police on their behalf. In a world where bad people take advantage of the goodness of others without remorse, it's by far the safest thing to do.


Anyone who knows Jon knows what a kind and giving person he is.  So when a young black man approached him as he was leaving an ATM and asked if he would lend him some money to tow his broken down car he was at least willing to listen.  Asked if he would take the man to his mother's house, he complied.

After driving around Minneapolis for many hours they arrived at a house where three young black men and a white girl got into the car.

This was the beginning of what can best be described as some kind of back seat mind control cult abduction, the full details of which cannot be clearly remembered by the victim.

They were all very nice according to Jon, and appreciated his much needed assistance as they proceeded to empty his bank account using his ATM card for purchases stretched out over the next three days, making him do all the transactions knowing he would be the only one on any security videos.

Though the lead man, after fulfilling his role of luring in a victim, disappeared the others kept promising, as they were supposed drug dealers, that they would give all the money back and then some, even keeping receipts of everything to make him think that they would.  And though they fed him and took good care, they also kept him awake and moving around so that he could not think straight.  He figures he had 3 hours of sleep in 72 hours.

Parked within the inner city, he felt no fear, thinking they were protecting him. They had total mind control over him and even when left alone in the car he didn't consider escaping. He was in so deep that he somehow thought he had to stay to get his money back.

By Monday evening when merchants started to reject his card finally, Jon muttered "I have to go home" and they let him.  When he arrived home a squad car was waiting.

Worried to tears, we could not imagine how he would not try to escape or how such a thing could happen.  We believe that he had been drugged because of the fact that he said that he could not drive well, had memory lapses of the events and his inappropriate sense of well-being.  He also had the unfathomable feeling that nothing wrong had occurred, that he would be reimbursed and even had thoughts of getting money from his roommates and going back.

Please continue to remember him in your prayers so that he can be emotionally healed.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Marty

Breakdown Scam - Needs Tow-truck or Parking Fees Fraud

This breakdown scam has been attempted on my husband and I a total of four times in our small city. The first time was to me and I knew it was a scam, but I am a small woman and was alone so I gave the guy $10 just so he would go away and hopefully leave me alone.

Several months later one got my trusting husband then a couple of months later, the same guy tried to get him again, but of course, my husband was wiser.

Just a few days ago, someone tried it on me again.  He barely got started when I told him "No, others have tried this scam on me, get an honest job."  He vanished in a hurry.

This is the scenario:

A guy (it's been a black guy every time for us) comes up to you and apologizes for startling you, he's not there to hurt you (apparently preying on the assumed fear of black men).  This is probably supposed to make you feel guilty and open to proving that you're not a paranoid racist so you open up.

He then says his car is broken down and he needs to pay a tow truck (or he needs the money to get out of a parking structure).  He is well-dressed, a point he emphasizes to prove he's not a bum (once again hoping you are a racist who believes in stereotypes).

He even offers to show you where the car's parked (bad idea to go with him-thank god nothing happened to my husband) and he asks for $20 or $30 dollars claiming that as soon as he can get his car or get to the bank he'll come back in about an hour and pay you back, which is of course, a lie.

After this many attempts, I'm going to alert my local police department and newspaper.

Martha Davis-Merritts
Ypsilanti, Michigan 07/10/02

Twisted Bet and Glamorous Gas Granny

I have been street scammed twice with the first happening a few years ago when I was 17 and working for an upscale doughnut shop selling pretzels. On my morning shift, when the place is not so busy, an guy about fifty in a tacky suit came in, bought a pretzel and a soda, and spoke to some of us employees in a friendly manner, I think in an attempt to garner trust.

Then, about an hour later while I was out giving away samples to people walking the street he came over and questioned me about who I was and what I did. He complemented me on my intelligence and other inherently obvious abilities; then steered the conversation to the local horse track and how he had insider knowledge that a particular horse would win a race.

He gave me the name of the horse and asked if I wanted to put some money on it also. It was obvious that I was working and couldn't attend the race so he said he would gladly put some money on the horse for me and after the race come by and pay me the inevitable winnings.

I gave him twenty dollars while he mentioned in a trustworthy tone that my manager (who wasn't there at the time) knew him very well, even mentioning her name (although he entirely mispronounced it so I should have known!)

He then strutted away, disappeared behind a corner, and I never saw him again. When I checked for the race results in the local paper, the horse came in dead last.

Then, a few months ago in Las Vegas I was walking to the Hard Rock Cafe for some lunch with a friend when we were stopped in a parking lot by an older lady around 55 or 60.

She indicated that she had run out of gas and desperately needed five dollars so she could get to where she was going. Having the absolute look of credibility that she did I gallantly gave it to her.

She didn't even bother to ask my friend because when she asked the question he was looking at me the whole time, so I felt like I had to do something. After all, who could deny an elderly lady with gold earrings and an impeccable hairdo. It seemed obvious that she was no crook!

Anyway, a few moments later we noticed her chasing after other people in another area of the parking lot, asking the same question.

Bridget Duffyhana 09/19/02

Motorist in Distress "Broken Key" Scam

01/04 - Police in Troy, Michigan are looking for a con artist calling himself a "motorist in distress" who is taking advantage of good Samaritans. Police said the man, going by the name Anthony, approaches people saying he needs help because he's broken off his key in his ignition.

He asks for $50 to pay a locksmith, and promises to return the money later. People he has scammed said he never did return the money. Police said it's occurred five times in the last month.

Scam Alert! Don't Pick Up Hitch Hikers

04/07 - Don't pick up hitchhikers is what many of us have been taught since learning to drive.

Now the Wichita Falls Police Department is urging Wichitans to listen to this classic advice. A scam artist who identifies himself as a city employee needing a ride to city hall is taking advantage of Wichitans. He asks for rides and forty dollars for gas.

Once the suspect arrives at city hall he leaves with $40 in hand.

Again the suspect is not a city employee so be cautious. Other variations on this scam include borrowing money for a tire or requests for overnight accommodations due to car trouble.

Transient Criminals in Need of Gas Scam

By Lawrence Walsh, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

05/07/04 - Pittsburg, PA - The young woman had a familiar face -- and story.

She and a male companion were in the Giant Eagle parking lot in the Homestead section of The Waterfront at noon on Sunday. She said they were trying to get back to Slippery Rock, but didn't have enough gas to make the trip.

She was frantic and practically in tears as she rambled on about how some people in the parking lot had made fun of their plight.

So where was their car? She pointed to a white Dodge Neon a short distance away with a young man sitting behind the wheel.

"It was the same car we saw last fall and the same guy sitting in it," said Frank, who had just dropped off his wife in front of the grocery store and pulled into a parking space. He had fallen for the same woman's pitch last October in the parking lot of the Olive Garden restaurant in Monroeville. He had given her $5 then.

"She was careful not to specifically ask for money on both occasions, but that's clearly what she wanted," Frank said.

"I said, 'I know who you are.' I told her where and when I had last seen her. She immediately got defensive. She said she hadn't asked me for money. I said she was trying to rip me off."

The woman walked away. Frank stayed in his car. When his wife returned moments later, he saw the couple's white car heading for a gas station adjacent to the store.

He drove over. A man had used his credit card to buy them gas. A Waterfront security car also was at the gas station. Frank told the two officers inside he thought the couple were scam artists. The security patrol car followed the couple's car out of The Waterfront.

Frank said the girl was white, appeared to be in her early 20s, had blue eyes, freckles and "scraggly long hair up on her head. She looked kind of hippie-ish. She looked nervous and might have been on drugs. She said she was from Butler."

Frank said her male companion also was white, appeared to be in his early 20s, "bald-ish and wore baggy clothes. "He was sort of urban-looking."

About 9 o'clock Sunday evening, Frank and his wife pulled into the Giant Eagle parking lot in Edgewood Towne Centre. A young woman hurried to their car. Although she wasn't the same woman who had approached them earlier in the day, she had the same story, complete with the tearful delivery.

Frank and his wife weren't sympathetic and explained why.

The young woman ran over to a dark blue car in another part of the parking lot that appeared to be an Oldsmobile from the early to mid-1990s. A man was sitting in the driver's seat.

Although he didn't get a good look at the man, Frank said the woman was white, "very skinny," had long brown hair and wore baggy jeans. "She looked like she might be on drugs, too."

Frank asked that I withhold his last name because he didn't want either of the couples to find out where he lives and vandalize his home. He said he called the Post-Gazette "to alert others about this scam."

So who are these people?

"Transient criminals," said Allegheny County police Lt. Bob Downey.

Such as the guys in white vans who engage in theft by deception by selling allegedly expensive speakers that aren't worth anywhere near their stated value?

"That's right," Downey said.

And might they also include those who take advantage of older persons at their front doors with a variety of get-rich-quick schemes that only enrich the perpetrators?

"That's also correct," he said.

Downey said the subject of transient criminals was the topic of a meeting Wednesday of the Middle Atlantic Great Lakes Organized Crime Law Enforcement Network in Castle Shannon.

So what should people do when approached by the "sob story sisters?" Call the local police and notify mall operators and store managers.