Scammers’ phone threats strike fear, lead Omaha man to drain his savings

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:00 am

A series of threatening phone calls this month caused an Omaha man to lose his savings to phone scammers.

The victim, who asked not to be identified, paid $1,400 in three payments during October to individuals claiming to be from the “State Sheriff’s Office” and the “Legal Department of the Federal Crime Enforcement Network.” The swindlers repeatedly threatened to arrest the victim if he didn’t immediately pay fines that they claimed he owed.

The Omaha man, a 26-year-old student at ITT Technical Institute, said he obliged because he was scared.

“Everything I did was out of sheer fear,” the victim said in an interview.

Such scams are far from uncommon, said Jim Hegarty, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau that serves Nebraska, South Dakota, the Kansas Plains and southwest Iowa.

Nationally, he said, the BBB receives hundreds of complaints each week about scammers who threaten their victims.

In early October, the Omaha victim received a phone call from the 716 area code but didn’t answer it. A couple days later, however, he received a voice mail from what appeared to be a 911 line, telling him to call the initial number back because there was a warrant out for his arrest.

When the victim called, he reached “Officer Richard Henderson,” who claimed that the man owed a $500 fine because charges had been filed against him because of an unpaid loan. The fake officer told the victim to buy a preloaded money card for $500 and call back with its number within 12 hours — or be arrested. The victim did.

A week later, the swindlers asked for another $500, this time claiming there was a federal lawsuit against the victim. The Omaha man paid $400 this time, promising to pay the rest when he could. But over the next 12 days, the victim continued to get calls asking for $500 more.

Last Friday, the Omaha man gave in to the demands and sent the $500, borrowing part of it from a family member. When he called with the information about the money card, however, he overheard a background conversation that raised his suspicions.

He called the BBB and filed a police report later that day.

“The biggest mistake I made was, I didn’t stop and think,” the victim said. “I just reacted because of fear.”

Hegarty said it’s rare that such scammers are caught. They typically come from out of the country — most notably Nigeria, Jamaica, Canada and Ukraine — to avoid U.S. law enforcement.

The BBB president gave these tips to avoid future scams:

» Get the person’s name and affiliation and tell them you will call back. Call the agency they claim to represent and it will tell you if the call is legitimate.

» Don’t give a caller any personal information, including banking or Social Security numbers.

» If the call is from a debt collector, ask the caller to provide proof of the debt by mail.

» Never transfer money to a stranger by wire transfers such as Western Union or MoneyGram or by using preloaded money cards like Green Dot MoneyPaks.

» If a caller threatens you in any way, contact police.

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