The Cop Column

April, 2005

Sgt. Rick Hord, Public Information Officer

Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office


             Techno-Savvy Scam Artists


            Crooks don’t give you money, they take it. 

          Because that seems so obvious, the cleverest crooks with a high-tech edge, turn that concept to their advantage.

          A woman in north Okaloosa County appeared to be on the verge of a fantastic windfall just after Christmas. An e-mail message told her a wealthy overseas relative had left her six million dollars. Four thousand dollars would take care of the processing fees.

          The woman replied that she didn’t have four thousand dollars. A few e-mails later she was first told some attorneys were “working on the problem.” Before long, the mailman brought a Wells Fargo Bank certified check in the amount of $4,788.60. She cashed the check, took the cash to the supermarket, purchased two Western Union money drafts of two thousand dollars each and mailed them to an address in Lagos, Nigeria.

          A few days later, the bank told her to return the $4,788.60. The check was a  forgery.

          Too late. All but $788.60 was in some crook’s pocket in Nigeria.

          Sadly, that crook will get away with it. Crime that crosses international borders is exceedingly difficult to prosecute, even if the host government wants to help. In the case of Nigeria and several other countries, it’s hopeless; the crooks have literally found themselves a safe haven.

          The “Nigerian Scam,” in operation for many years, is still commonly referred to by that name, even though it has spread to several other countries. What is new is the ability to print a prospective victim’s name on an authentic-appearing multi-thousand dollar counterfeit check.

          Computers, high quality color printers, scanners and copiers, and graphics programs have transformed counterfeiting. Not long ago, only a skilled artist with special equipment had any chance of producing realistic fake checks or bogus bills.

          Until recently, almost all counterfeit bills were of the 20-dollar denomination. Anything larger would attract too much attention, and anything smaller wouldn’t be worth the effort. Like counterfeit checks, however, fake money is now seen in any denomination from one dollar to 100. They’re most commonly passed at convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, and other high-volume cash businesses.

          What’s next? Crooks will expand their use of technology to fool the unsuspecting. A potentially worrisome development is the ability to trick caller-ID. Several commercial businesses now specialize in what’s called “Caller-ID spoofing.” It’s advertised as a way to facilitate legitimate business for bill collectors and private investigators… or for executives who want to play golf but need to make calls from the “office.” 

          The crime potential is obvious: a crook trying to get his hands on your personal information or a sleazy solicitor trying to talk you into a dubious “donation” could fool your caller ID into thinking a government office, law enforcement agency, or reputable bank or business is on the line.

          The moral of the story is: whether it looks like a $20 bill, a cashier’s check, or a legitimate telephone call, be cautious.