GREENSBORO — A man with a Jamaican accent delivered some surprising news to Diane Speaker in a Saturday morning phone call three weeks ago.
“He said, 'Are you going to be home within the next three hours?’” Speaker recalled. “And I said, 'Why do you ask?’ He said, 'We would like to stop by with a check for $80,000.’”
Speaker thought it was a joke.
Not a joke, but a scam.
The lottery scam is No. 1 on the top 10 scams that targeted the central part of the state in 2009, according to the Better Business Bureau of Central North Carolina. The organization represents Guilford, Rockingham, Caswell, Alamance and Randolph counties, as well as Thomasville.
The list is based on complaints and calls the office received in the past year, and largely mirrors scams that targeted other parts of the country, said Joan Stanley, director of dispute resolution for the Better Business Bureau.
The lottery scam usually involves potential victims receiving a letter from a sweepstakes such as Publisher’s Clearing House saying they’ve won millions. The recipient is asked to wire money to cover taxes or other fees. The scammers get the fees while the lottery check bounces.
But in Speaker’s case, she received a phone call. Stanley said scammers are using new methods and getting more sophisticated at running the same old scams.
The checks look more authentic, Stanley said, and scammers are even going so far as to include the names of local banks on them, adding to the appearance of authenticity.
Scammers are also teaming up to bilk victims, she said. One man who sought her office for help had wired more than $1,300 to Jamaica in the hopes of receiving $250,000. Stanley said the person who first called the man passed his information on to others. The victim was getting two or three phone calls a day from different scam artists and sent money to them all.
“Once people figure out who a good victim is, they go for it,” Stanley said.
While most of the scams that made the list have been around for some time, some have gotten more popular in the economic downturn, Stanley said. There’s the mortgage and debt restructuring scams, where scammers get desperate individuals to pay huge upfront costs for mortgage and debt relief they never receive. Legitimate consumer credit counselors charge minimal fees for help managing debt, Stanley said.
Speaker didn’t fall prey to the scam artist. Her caller claimed he was authorized by the state to collect $14,000 in taxes on Speaker’s “winnings,” and urged Speaker to use her credit card to pay it.
“I said, 'Sir, we do not have that kind of money,’” Speaker said. “And he hung up.”
The Better Business Bureau helps educate people about scams. The office maintains a national database of accredited businesses. The bureau also has reliability reports on various companies and works with the attorney general’s office to help keep consumers informed about any government action taken against a company for bad business practices.
Stanley tells clients to never give out any personal information, such as a Social Security number or bank name, over the phone. “If people are calling, they’re trying to fish for some stuff,” she said. “They’re trying to get you on the hook.”