Editor’s Note: The Journal-News spent March investigating the most important issues facing Butler County and its residents. One of those investigations was into an issue that can face all residents: Scams. This story first published on Sunday, March 3.
LaQuita Collins and her husband wanted to put in new kitchen cabinet in their Madison Twp. home in June 2016. They and hired a contractor who was recommended by someone at her church in June 2016.
After four meetings with the contractor, they picked out the cabinets and were told it would take about six weeks. The couple paid the contractor about $9,142 for the project. In the meantime, they took out their cabinets so they could paint and make some other repairs.
However, the new cabinets had not been delivered in July as promised. Collins started making phone calls to the contractor throughout August trying to find out when the job would be finished. She said she even called the contractor’s wife to have him call her. The couple also went ahead and replaced the cabinets.
“I was not going to give up on this,” Collins said.
Collins later got her money back, but that’s frequently not the case when it comes to scams. Nearly everyone who owns or uses a smart phone, tablet or computer has been propositioned, approached or otherwise offered an opportunity to take part in something whose goal was to take advantage of them.
With the huge volume of victims and money lost to scams, local officials are continuing to fight back. Last month, two local detectives were honored for their work in helping older victims of scams, the demographic that is frequently targeted.
Different months bring different scams. In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day in February, complaints about romance scams increase. As March begins and tax season is in high gear, complaints concerning income tax issues or IRS arrest scams requiring an electronic payment to avoid being arrested by the IRS for fraudulent tax returns will be rising, according to Dominic Binkley, a pubic information officer for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
So far in 2019, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office Help Line has already received a number of scam complaints in these four categories:
• IRS Potential Scams Reported: 215
• Microsoft Potential Scams Reported: 128
• Sweepstakes Potential Scams Reported: 102
• Grandparent Potential Scams Reported thus far in 2019 – 62
In 2018, those same four scams topped Ohio Attorney General’s list:
• IRS Potential Scams Reported: 4,168
• Microsoft Potential Scams Reported: 705
• Sweepstakes Potential Scams Reported: 510
• Grandparent Potential Scams Reported: 413
There were more than 300,000 victims and estimated dollar losses of more than $1.4 billion in 2017 — and these only the victims who reported being scammed to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, better known as IC3. The IC3 opened in May 2000 and in its first annual report, in May 2001 there were 49,711 complaints with an estimated dollar loss of $17.8 million. In its 2017 report, there were 301,580 complaints filed with an estimated dollar loss of $1.4 billion.
Those totals do not include scams and other fraud crimes reported to state and local law enforcement, according to Lauren Hagee of the FBI’s National Press Office. The IC3 also refers scam and fraud complaints to local and state law enforcement for investigation.
In 2017, the IC3 reported that Ohio ranked eighth in the number of scam crime victims and was 14th in the nation in victim losses at $30.6 million.
Sandra Guile of the Cincinnati office of the Better Business Bureau said they have received a lot of calls in the region about romance scams, sweepstakes/lottery scams, income tax scams, home improvement scams, energy/utility supplier scams and robocalls.
“If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer,” Guile said. “The IRS won’t call you if there is a problem because they contact people by mail. If you’re in trouble with the IRS, call them directly to set up a payment plan.”
In robocall complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, Ohio ranked 17th in the nation, according to a survey by AllAreaCodes.com. That organization said the peak robocall season of the year is in the weeks leading up to April 15.
Scams against the elderly have been described as “a silent epidemic” and “scourge and a silent killer” by Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser.
Last month he recognized Middletown police Detective Steve Winters and Hamilton police Detective Jon Habig for their work on the Elder Abuse Task Force.
Habig was recognized for his computer work in what Gmoser described as “untangling a bowl of spaghetti” involving a scam of a Hamilton victim and a victim from the Columbus area. The 22-month investigation resulted in a conviction and a 7 1/2-year prison term for one person and an extradition warrant is still out for the second person involved who is now a fugitive in Jamaica.
“These cases take a lot of time and a lot of patience for me and the victim,” Habig said. “It takes time for banks to get information back to us and sometimes the victims don’t understand the time that’s needed.”
Winters was recognized for recovering $9,142 from a contractor who took a couple’s money for kitchen cabinets that were never intended to be delivered. He said about 50 percent of the investigations don’t result in an arrest and said many of these cases breaks your heart.
“If anybody asks you for money, that should be a red flag,” Winters said. “When in doubt call the police department or call someone else. Nothing should be an emergency.”
Winters said its likely that 50 percent of people making a hotel reservation will have had their credit card number compromised or in local restaurants by workers who copy down credit card numbers for a customer paying their check.
“As a society, if you can’t take care of the young and the old, what good are you?” he said. “We’re all going to be there someday.”
In the past six years, Assistant Prosecutor Gloria Sigmon has prosecuted 290 crimes against the elderly and other white collar criminal cases. That total included 175 elderly crime cases. The results of those elder abuse/white collar criminal cases have resulted in prison terms for the perpetrators and more than $5.5 million in court ordered restitution.
According to the IC3 2017 annual report, people over the age of 60 are more likely to be victimized by internet-facilitated criminal activity. That age group ranks number one in terms of victimization and dollar losses. There were 49,523 complaints with adjusted dollar losses listed at $342 million.
Scam victims share their stories
A few months after Collins and her husband hired the contractor to replace their cabinets, they got more aggressive about finding out what happened.
In September, the contractor called her and told her the cabinets were crushed in a forklift accident. He said he would re-order them and later said she would get a refund. Collins contacted the manufacturer and learned that that no cabinets had ever been ordered by the contractor.
She contacted the Better Business Bureau but received no help and said the contractor still has an “A-plus” rating. She called the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and said she received no help there either.
Finally she got in touch with state Rep. Candice Keller, R-Middletown, who contacted Susan Monin at the Butler County Prosecutor’s Office.
Collins later met Middletown police Detective Steve Winters, who works with the prosecutor’s Elder Abuse Task Force, at a dinner meeting at a local union hall.
“Something put us in the same place at the same time,” she said.
Winters and another officer were there to talk about scams and holiday crime issues. When they were introduced, Collins said that Winters had been trying to contact her about her issue and wanted to talk with her.
A few days later, she met the contractor at the Middletown Police Headquarters where she got all of her money back. She also said Winters insisted that the contractor make the restitution in cash or be in jail later that afternoon.
However, financial restitution didn’t happen for Judy, a Middletown woman who got caught up in a romance scam with a businessman from Austin, Texas whom she never met.
Judy, 78, who declined to give her last name for personal safety reasons, said her husband had died in 2013. Two years later, while she was on Facebook, she was contacted in an open conversation that eventually moved to private messages after two months. This went on for three years, and that both exchanged photos and other personal information.
“He said he had a business in Austin, Texas and moved to Malaysia where he was installing garbage containers on the outside of high-rises,” she said.
Judy said he completed the job and received his check but no bank in Malaysia would cash it. Because of that, he could not purchase his airline ticket back to the U.S. To help her friend, she gave him her bank information so he could access her account. Judy had set up a separate account for these transactions at a different bank. These transactions amounted to $12,000.
“I didn’t realize I was being scammed,” she said. “When I found out it was a scam, I told him never to contact me again and I closed all of my accounts.”
She said ended up selling a house she owned to pay off $10,000 of the debt that had been run up. Judy also said she lost about 40 pounds as a result of the stress that was caused by this scam.
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