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Cops say scams are flooding area

Be especially careful out there -- The recession has brought scam artists out in full force, sending letters with false checks, or false claims of lottery winnings; emails promising riches; phone calls fishing for private information for identity theft; even cell phone text messages.

"We're seeing scams left and right -- ranging from the grandparents' scam to craigslist," said Detroit Lakes Police Sgt. Tim Eggebraaten.

"We're getting reports of scams three or four times a week," said Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon. "Someone in Fargo fell for the Nigerian scheme -- that's been out for almost a decade."

Employees at the customer service counter in Walmart just last week prevented two elderly people from falling victim to the "grandparents scam" and wiring money to Canada, Eggebraaten said.

Scam artists call the elderly pretending to be their grandkids in trouble in Canada. They are asked to send money quickly and quietly.

"The Minnesota Nice grandparents are saying 'we'll be right down there. The Walmart customer service people (who handle moneygrams) are on to it, they tell them it's a scam," Eggebraaten said.

Another common scam targets those who offer items for sale on craigslist online classifieds.

The scam artist will send a $1,000 check to "purchase" a $500 item, then tell the seller a story, like "my wife was just killed in an accident and I don't want it anymore. Keep $100 for your trouble and mail me back the rest," Eggebraaten said.

Then the check turns out to be forged and worthless, and the seller is out $900.

Just depositing a scam artists' check can provide your bank routing number and account number, giving them a window of about 24 hours to clean out your checking account, he said.

"Anytime people tell you to use Western Union or the MoneyGram, it's really tough (to catch the scam artists) because they can pick it up anywhere," Eggebraaten said.

Gordon said economic hard times are making some people desperate for cash, which makes them ideal targets for scam artists.

"These are not legitimate checks, they are not legitimate money orders, but because of computers, they look very legitimate," he said. "I've had people stand here in this office and argue with me that it's not a scam, that it's a legitimate money order ... anything that comes in the mail offering any kind of money is not legitimate."

That check is almost always for an unusual amount, like $3,497. It's rarely a round figure like $3,500, because people are more suspicious of round figures, Gordon said.

Scam artists also regularly monitor the obituaries online, wait 30-60 days, then contact the surviving spouse "to make it look like a transaction had occurred with the spouse that had passed away," Gordon said.

Most scammers are operating out of the Ukraine via Canada, he said.

The Internet offers its own set of perils. The IRS does not do business over the Internet and lending institutions do not ask for personal information via email.

"If you haven't done business with that company, don't open the email," Gordon said. "If you respond over the Internet, there are keystroke programs that come in and get your passwords for online banking."

Delete such emails without opening them, he advised. "If you open it, you're showing someone in another country that you have an active email account."

If you suspect you have opened a fraudulent email or are being targeted by scam artists, notify your credit card companies and banking institutions.

Cyberspace rip-offs are almost impossible for local law enforcement to track down, and because the fraud usually involves less than $5,000, they typically fly under the radar of federal agencies as well, Gordon said.

You should also check your bank and credit card statements carefully, since some scams involve withdrawing a small amount, like $12, each month from your account. That way they can continue sucking money out of a lot of accounts over an extended period of time, Gordon said.

Even call phones are no longer a refuge. Recently an estimated 400 people in the area received text messages on their cell phones telling them to call a number to avoid problems with a bank card.

The text messages appear to be more of a hoax than a scam, since the phone number they were supposed to call was not a working number, Eggebraaten said.