Scoop on Scams

Ex­pert’s advice for pro­tect­ing our­selves: Keep­ing vig­i­lant is the best de­fense

RSWLiving - - CONTENTS -

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.

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.

Un­for­tu­nately, South­west Florida is ground zero for fraud.

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 cr ed­it­card 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.

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