Scoop on Scams
Expert's advice for protecting ourselves: Keeping vigilant is the best defense
Florida is awash in economic crimes. Eliminate your Bernie Madoffs at the top and common schemers at the bottom, and there’s still a huge problem for the rest of us. Behind the scenes, law enforcement is on full burn to catch crooks and to defend us from predators. TOTI Media asked James Miller, the assistant state attorney in charge of the Economic Crime Unit and Elder Fraud Task Force, to describe the depth of the problem and for tactics to fend off criminals. The State Attorney’s Office in Fort Myers is the prosecuting agency for the lower five counties of Southwest Florida, an area bigger than the state of Connecticut, with more than 1.2 million residents.
TOTI Media It’s bad out there? James Miller Unfortunately, Southwest Florida is ground zero for fraud. If you can commit fraud anywhere, why wouldn’t you choose to commit it where it is warm and there are individuals with means? We recently had a case where an individual ripped off a nonprofit for the disabled for nearly a million dollars. The biggest day-to-day frauds include identity theft and frauds against elderly and disabled victims. One of the big issues right now is the re-encoded credit-card fraud. A fraudster will rip off your credit card by a skimmer at a gas pump, sometimes using Bluetooth-enabled skimmers to get the data by driving by the pump. He then will usually sell the information to someone who will then re-encode your credit-card information onto the backs of gift cards. The buyer will then use the gift cards loaded with your information to buy items they can resell and, on some occasions, to perpetrate other crimes such as for materials for [drug] grow houses. These individuals are very organized. We recently had an entire group hitting gas pumps from Marco Island to Michigan and selling the data.
Unfortunately, Southwest Florida is ground zero for fraud.
TM What’s our best protection? JM Since many scams are perpetrated by email, installing upto-date spyware and antivirus software helps to filter out many of these emails. It’s also important not to open any emails from strangers. Additionally, a great tool to remember is, before giving anyone money, ask questions that would be hard for an imposter to answer, such as the name of [your] pet or the birth date of [your] mother.
TM What else? JM First of all, make sure you always watch your credit-card activity. Because of our access to I-75, gas pump rip-offs are one of the most common frauds in Southwest Florida. The best bet is to pay in cash. As far as skimmers, if you have a choice of pump, use the pumps closest to the doors. Fraudsters are less likely to use skimmers near the attendants.
TM Even when you guys convict a fraudster, the penalties are light. Are we moving for stronger consequences? JM I would say that under the leadership of State Attorney Stephen B. Russell and Chief Assistant State Attorney Amira Fox, we have made the prosecution of frauds a priority. The penalties and prosecution rates for fraud and theft are higher in general in Southwest Florida than other areas of the country. We have had individuals sentenced to 20, 25, 30 and 39 years for various economic crimes. We just had a judge give the maximum five-year sentence for a third-degree felony for an identity theft. The legislature is working to create better laws to address some of these newer crimes, creating laws that have heightened penalties for credit-card fraud, identity theft and crimes against the elderly, for example.
TM Do retail merchants or online/service providers have a responsibility? JM In most retail transactions, credit-card issuers are primarily responsible for covering fraud that affects consumer accounts. If the merchant does not enact proper security measures, the credit-card company may then be liable for payment. In an e-commerce transaction, the burden shifts to the merchant, who accepts the inherent risk of fraud and is responsible. Ultimately the market controls the protection. Merchants who do not protect themselves against fraud will not be used.
TM Any idea of how much frauds cost Florida? JM I know that nationally the estimated cost is $1.7 billion. The most recent data indicate that Florida is No. 1 in both identity theft and creditcard fraud. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in Florida there are 186 reports of identity theft per every 100,000 residents.
TM Best advice? JM Always be on the lookout. Being skeptical is sometimes your best protection. Local law enforcement is very adept at handling these matters. You can also reach out to the Federal Trade Commission. They compile reports of fraud and share them with local and federal law enforcement.
Always be on the lookout. Being skeptical is sometimes your best protection.