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August 30, 2019

Media contact: Liz Brocker (701) 328-2213

Reported losses of $2.13 million this year to date

BISMARCK, ND – Variations of old scams making the rounds across North Dakota are still finding new victims, said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. This year to date, 93 North Dakota residents have reported losses of more than $2.13 million to scams.

Seven victims responded to robocalls supposedly from the Social Security Administration or the IRS. The social security scam message warns individuals that their social security number had been compromised or linked to a crime in another state and they would be arrested if they did not comply with the “agents.” When the victims responded, the “agent” informed them that to correct the problem and avoid arrest, they needed to purchase pre-paid cards and provide the number from the back of the card to the case agent, who would then use that information to verify the victim’s identity. Once the identity was verified, the so-called agent promised to deliver a refund check and a new social security card. One of the victims reported that when he purchased the pre-paid cards, the retailer tried to warn him that it sounded like a scam. The “IRS call” scam - in which fake IRS agents say there is a problem with the tax returns and threaten the persons with arrest unless they pay overdue taxes and fines immediately with prepaid cards - also hooked a victim. Most victims lost between $500 and $1,000, the value of the prepaid cards they had purchased, but one lost $2,900.

“It doesn’t matter who you think the call is from or what reason they give, if you are instructed to send money or purchase prepaid cards or gift cards, you know it is a scam, every single time,” warned Stenehjem. “Prepaid cards are the same as instant cash. All the scammer needs to get the cash are the numbers on the back of the card and an internet connection.”

In other instances, there were significantly higher losses, including for seven people who fell victim to the “government grant scam.” All but one of those victims were pulled into the scam because they received a message from a “friend” on social media that they were eligible for a government grant. The other victim responded to a telephone message. The scam artists convinced the victims that they were approved for large grants, but certain fees had to be paid before the funds could be released and then those fees would be reimbursed. At first, the victims reported they were told to purchase prepaid gift cards, but as the amounts got larger, some victims sent cash. The seven victims lost a total of $60,620.

Sixteen victims lost $129,529 to the “computer tech” scam. One current version involves a message that the user’s antivirus software will be automatically renewed unless they take action. When they responded, the victims were told they could get a refund through direct deposit to their bank account. After giving the “technician” access to their bank account, they were sent a fake screenshot showing a deposit to their account for a much larger amount. The technician said he would be fired unless the account holder agreed to return the accidental overpayment, but it had to be in the form of prepaid gift cards.

Two older North Dakotans fell victim to the “grandparent scam,” in which the scam artist claims to be a grandchild or young relative involved in a crisis or emergency situation and in desperate need of money so they can resolve the legal situation and come home. The victims lost $140,000.

The phony “lottery and sweepstakes win scams” claimed 14 victims, for a total of $207,400. Twelve of the victims responded to telephone calls claiming they had won a major prize, but two had received “prize notification” letters. Again, all the victims were told they would receive large sums of money – their winnings – after certain fees had been paid, and that they would be reimbursed for those fees. The victims purchased prepaid cards, mailed money orders, and even sent cash.

“It is alarming to note that many victims sent cash, not just once but repeatedly, even taking out loans to cover the continuing demands from the scam artist. Only after someone else raised concerns did these individuals realize they had been conned,” said Stenehjem. “Often it is a family member who files the report because the victim is reluctant to admit they fell for a scam, let alone disclose the extent of their loss,” he continued.

Unfortunately, every year the consumer protection division also receives dozens of reports from victims of “romance scams.” Con artists create phony identities on dating websites and chat rooms and seek out lonely or vulnerable adults, using the information on the victim’s profile to establish a “connection.” The con artists often pretend to be serving in the military overseas or temporarily working in another country. They spend hours each week communicating via social media or email, until the victim believes it is a real relationship based on common interests and shared experiences. Then the conman springs the trap, claiming a short-term financial crisis such as unexpected legal fees or a medical emergency and promises to pay the money back within a few days. Trusting the emotional bond the scammer has created, the victim sends money. Before long, there is another crisis or need, and the victim sends more and more money, until the victim is broke or finally realizes that there is something wrong. The 16 victims identified so far this year have lost a total of $1.3 million.

Although the majority of these scam victims were over 65, Parrell Grossman, director of the consumer protection division, said the next highest age group of victims were the 18-24 year olds. “It goes to show that anyone, at any age, can be susceptible to a scam artist’s lies. Don’t give a scam artist the chance to con you,” said Grossman. He provided the following tips:

  1. Prepaid cards are for gifts, not payments. No legitimate federal, state, or local government agency or official will ever ask you to purchase prepaid gift cards or send money. They also will not call out of the blue and threaten to arrest you.
  2. Don’t believe everything you hear from someone you have never met. If the sweepstakes or lottery official claims you need to send money for fees, even if they send you a check to deposit and wire back to them – it is a scam.
  3. Tell someone. Before you give up your money or your personal information, talk to a family member, a trusted friend, or call the Consumer Protection division at 701-328-3404 or toll-free 1-800-472-2600. 

In addition to the scams detailed above, victims have lost money to the “jury duty” scam, “online classified ad” scam, “warrant for your arrest” scam, and many others. Find more information about these common scams.

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