Video: Phone gangsters

By Chief Consumer Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 10/5/2004 5:01:42 AM ET 2004-10-05T09:01:42

I've been covering phone fraud for years and every time I try to tackle one of these criminal chameleons I am struck by how ruthless they are. Many are phone gangsters. They work in gangs, they are very tough and they are extraordinarily elusive. Their victims are often the most vulnerable and the least able to take the monetary or the emotional hit.

It is hard to explain how clever and sophisticated these guys are unless you can infiltrate them with hidden cameras or catch them somehow in the middle of their crime. So, when we noticed a short AP wire story about the conviction of a Canadian conman who was caught on audio tape scamming a Phoenix woman, we jumped on the story. We called the FBI agent on the case, Julia Halferty, a longtime crusader against telemarketing fraud, and asked if we could have the tapes. She was enthusiastic. She felt by airing them, others could be protected.

But the Justice Department wasn't so quick to respond. We filed Freedom of Information Act requests, we cajoled, we pleaded, we made scores of phone calls. Ultimately, it took two and a half years to persuade the FBI to release the Phoenix tapes.

In the meantime, we discovered other FBI cases where the agency wiretapped phone gangsters. In all, the diligent and dogged producer of this story, Sandra Thomas, collected 50 audio cassettes. They contain hours and hours of chilling conversations between heartless conmen and their unwitting victims.

And frankly, the more we listened to the tapes, the more outraged we became. For weeks, the ugly, nasty calls, the filthy language, the scary threats these guys make, were played out in our office. I can only hope no one in your family ever gets one of these calls. If someone you love falls for them, they can be a devastating emotional roller coaster that takes its toll on people -- sometimes even kills them. The daughter of one woman who was persuaded to send most of her family's nest egg told us how, when her Mom found out she had been scammed, she killed herself.

It's astounding how often people get taken in these phone schemes. The FBI estimates losses from telemarketing fraud emanating just from Canada exceed $100 million a year. That may be a low figure because victims often don't report the crimes because they are too embarrassed or they never do realize they have been taken.

So, please take a look at how these scams work. Here's also what you can do if someone you love is a target. And don't hesitate to call the FBI if you have information about probable victims and ongoing phone calls.

How the prize scheme works

  • It usually starts with mailings that offer chances to enter sweepstakes or join lottery clubs, often based in foreign countries. If you respond to one of these, you are marking yourself as a potential victim. Your name will go on a sucker list and you will be hounded relentlessly. Even if you don't participate initially, they will keep trying in the hopes of eventually breaking you down.
  • You will get a call telling you you have won a prize. They will urge you not to tell anyone or your jackpot could be jeopardized.
  • You will be advised you need to pay advance taxes or fees (for attorneys, money transportation, international transfers, money exchange rates). They will ask for the payments in cashier's checks or most often by wire. And, you will be hit again and again for various fees until you start balking. If you stop paying, you may be threatened that you'll lose everything if you don't pay, or, you've broken some law. They may even say though your prize hasn't been delivered, you can be prosecuted for tax evasion.

Sound clip: "You're dealing with an officer. And I am within my right to arrest you right now if I would want to. Okay? So let's get things clear. You're going to get some money at the bank. Right now."

  • You may even be bilked by phone conmen linked to organized crime like the mafia and motorcycle gangs. Here's a conman showing his true colors:

Sound clip: "Who the f*** you think you're talking to? I'll come down there and break your f***ing knee caps."

  • If that doesn't work, conman may try a "comeback" or "reloading" scheme. They might call you posing as police, judges, investigators or an IRS investigator. That person may tell you he/she is investigating the conmen who scammed you. That usually comes as a big relief to victims who want very much to believe someone can help them. Again you will be told to keep this a secret because the investigations are under grand jury gag order or something along those lines. The conmen will work very hard to prevent others who care about you from finding out what is going on.
  • Often, the supposed authority figure will ask you for money so he/she can use it for a sting to catch the crooks red-handed.
  • Even if you run out of money, they will press you to pay. They will threaten you, scare you, suggest you cash-in investments or mortgage your home. Here's a conman trying to get money out of a man who is a stroke victim, a man who has already lost everything to conmen:

Conman: "You've paid $37,000, so the balance of $50,000. Now I need to know how fast these taxes can be paid sir."
Victim: "I'm very, very, very broke."'
Conman: "Oh, you're broke? You don't have any investments you can borrow from sir?"

How the investment scheme works

  • The other major scam these conmen tend to run evolves around investments. It's very similar to the prize scheme, but involves investments instead of lotteries.
  • It starts with mailings about everything from foreign sweepstakes to investments.
  • Then you get calls from New York brokers or foreign investment experts who offer to get you in on a special investment that is guaranteed to pay huge returns. The investments are always limited to certain people like you and are "limited offers." You are told if you're a "good client," you will get many other chances to get on the ground floor of big pay-off investments. They will ask for the payments in cashier's checks or most often my wire.
  • They'll want and will take everything you have and threaten if you tell anyone about the investments or phone calls, all the deals are off.
  • When the threats no longer work, then the conmen try the "comeback" or "reloading" scheme. They might call you posing as police, judges, investigators or an IRS investigator. That person may tell you he/she is investigating the conmen who scammed you. That usually comes as a big relief to victims who want very much to believe someone can help them. Again you will be told to keep this a secret because the investigations are under grand jury gag order or something along those lines. The conmen will work very hard to prevent others who care about you from finding out what is going on.

How to detect a con

If someone you know seems to be getting an unusual amount of sweepstakes, lottery and investment offers in the mail it's your best clue they either are or are soon to be targeted and already under the spell of phone gangsters. Some people end up getting hundreds of pieces of mail just in a week's time.

Phone gangsters always give their victims reasons why they should not talk about their prize winnings, tax payments or any investigations with anyone  So if you suspect a loved one is under the spell of these criminals, just asking them may not be enough. And looking at their checking account may not provide clues either. Conmen often ask the victims to get cash and wire it or send cashiers checks.

If anyone calls asking you to send money for prize winnings or secret investments, hang up immediately. The more time you spend talking with these men, the more chance you have of being duped. They are often highly skilled conmen who will pursue you relentlessly if you give the slightest indication you can be engaged.

Where you can call for help

Contact the FBI by calling 800-251-3221 or find the number for your local FBI field office at:
http://www.fbi.gov/contact/fo/fo.htm

You can also file a complaint online at:
http://www.ifccfbi.gov/cf1.asp

Here's another Web site on "tip-offs to rip-offs" and "how can you protect yourself":  http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/tmarkg/target.htm

You can learn a lot more at these Web sites:
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/telemarketing/ditchthepitch.htm
http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/telemarketing/doj.htm

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