BY KEN LITTLE
When it comes to the world of scams, it's a jungle out there.
It's the job of Gary W. Cordell to get the word out about fraud scams that are making the rounds.
"There are no free lunches. Our grandparents used to tell us, if it sounds too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true," Cordell, director of the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs, said during a recent interview at The Greeneville Sun.
Cordell also met with Sheriff Steve Burns while in Greeneville last week.
The director said the range and sophistication of scams targeting average citizens is growing by the day.
There are scams involving auction fraud, counterfeit cashier's checks, credit card fraud, debt elimination, DHL/UPS e-mails, fake employment or business opportunities, escrow services fraud, identity theft, Internet extortion, investment fraud, lotteries, Nigerian letters, phishing, Ponzi schemes and a variety of money- wiring scams.
RECENT LOCAL CASES
Local police reports of scams or attempted scams are common.
Two Greene County residents filed similar reports last week with the Sheriff's Department about a telephone scam originating from a 619 area code, in the Sacramento, Calif., region.
One woman told deputies that she was called at work by a man who told her she needed to pay $480 "in the next 30 minutes for check fraud and bad checks, and if she didn't pay this, she would have a warrant out for her arrest," the report said.
The caller had the last four digits of the woman's checking account.
The woman hung up and contacted her loan company. She was told by an employee "it was a scam and that she didn't owe anything and they had not been trying to contact her," the report said.
Another woman told deputies she received a call at home from a man who said he represented the "Federal Regulatory Department."
He asked the woman if she had ever been in jail, had any speeding tickets or any dependents, the report said.
She responded that she had a small child, and the man "told her to find someone to care for her because his department had warrants on her for credit fraud."
In order to "stop" the warrants, she was told, she needed to send $400 via Western Union within four minutes. If she did not comply, the man said, he "would have somebody pick her up," a report said.
The woman called a relative, who spoke to a person at the phone number she was given. The relative then accompanied the victim to the Sheriff's Department to file a report.
A pet-shipping scam making the rounds across the state uses the Internet and e-mail.
Cordell's office recently issued a news release warning citizens about it.
An Internet site and e-mails promise a free purebred, or rare, pet from another country or another state.
Scammers post ads on Internet sites such as Craigslist or eBay, promising a free, rare animal. All the consumer needs to do is pay for shipping to receive the pet.
But once the shipping fee is paid, victims are asked to pay for a special crate for their new pet. Then victims are asked to pay for taxes, airline shipping fees and for a health department checkup.
Needless to say, no animal is ever shipped, Cordell said.
Such scams are popular and play on the emotions of animal-lovers or others with special interests, Cordell said.
"There is no puppy. There is no exotic animal," Cordell said. "The American people are good. The people of Tennessee, they want to help others."
Cordell said he and his wife were recently victims of identity theft. He discovered someone had obtained the number on his debit card and made purchases at a Walmart store in North Carolina.
NATURAL DISASTER SCAMS
Scam artists also come out of the woodwork after natural disasters, Cordell said.
The tornadoes that devastated sections of Greene County in April 2011 are one example, Sheriff Burns has said.
The severe flooding in the Nashville area several years ago also brought to light incidences of price-gouging and unethical contractors, Cordell said.
"Nashville two years ago experienced the flood of the century," he said. "We're not immune. One thing people need to watch out for is fake disaster officals."
Available technology makes it easy to reproduce "official" identification that appears legitimate, Cordell said.
The same kinds of scams could happen in Washington County, which recently experienced heavy flooding, he said.
"With a flood, a lot of times, you will have a need for a contractor to come in," Cordell said.
The website for the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs is http://tn.gov/consumer/ It includes guidelines for home repairs, and hiring a reputable contractor.
"We give them a checklist," he said.
It's generally better to hire a local contractor for disaster-related repairs, Cordell noted.
"We find it's best to use a Tennessee-licensed contractor," he said.
Senior citizens are frequently targeted by scammers, Cordell said.
"A lot of these con artists prey on them [senior citizens]," he said.
One popular money-wiring scam that crooks use involves notification about a family emergency or a friend in need of money.
Cordell said many of those who engage in Internet scams are in other parts of the world, such as Africa and the former Soviet republics. Organized crime groups have gotten into the act because some scams are very profitable.
Consumers should be particularly wary any time they are asked to wire money overseas, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
"Any time you are asked [to wire cash overseas], head for the hills," Cordell said.
Be careful when making purchases online, he added.
"The average consumer has more tools to investigate on their own," he said. "Do your research."
Cordell offered advice to consumers when there is any doubt about hiring someone for work, making an Internet purchase or responding to a suspicious phone call.
"Be very skeptical," he said. "It could save you a lot of heartache and a lot of money."
Cordell, who has a private business background, became director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs shortly after Gov. Bill Haslam took office.
The Division of Consumer Affairs website also includes information about consumer alerts and recalls, mortgage settlement scams and new credit card regulations.
Consumers can obtain free credit reports through a link on the website. Or, they can go to https://www.annualcreditreport.com/
"I encourage everyone to pull up a free credit report and check to see if anyone has opened an account in your name," Cordell said.
WHAT TO DO
Scam victims should contact their local law enforcement agency. The Division of Consumer Affairs can be reached at (800) 342-8345, and provide additional assistance, Cordell said.
Cordell toured East Tennessee to warn citizens about the dangers posed by scams.
"We're trying to do some innovative things to get our message out," he said.
Sheriff Burns said his meeting with Cordell was productive.
Plans are in the works to link the Sheriff's Department website, http://greenecountysheriffsdepartment.org/, to the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs.
"We're going to work with them on that," Burns said.