In 1873, President Grant signed a new postal act into law that added a range of new duties to postal inspectors’ working day. Among their new duties was the fight against what is now commonly known as consumer fraud. Con artists continue to try to put one over on the public through a variety of fraudulent schemes. Frauds can start over the telephone with a telemarketing call, over the internet, or through the mail. It may seem odd to have postal inspectors working on scams that start with phone calls or emails, but at some point, a part of the fraud often takes place in the mail. Maybe it is a check sent by a victim or a postcard or letter sent by the con artists to perpetrate their crime. In any case, these crooks are now up against the Postal Inspection Service. In addition, federal and state prosecutors ask inspectors to participate in ongoing investigations that involve wire fraud, bank fraud, and health care fraud.
Older Americans are a favorite target for con artists. They often live alone and have savings accounts. Scammers rely on them to be easily disarmed by their charm and schemes, including fraudulent sweepstakes, prize promotions, investment opportunities, and foreign lotteries. These con artists use a variety of marketing and telecommunications approaches to identify and contact potential targets.
Someone who is victimized once by a scammer is not safe. Other crooks can offer to help recover losses—for a fee, of course. No funds are recovered, and more money is lost. Or, his or her name can make it onto a “victim list” that can be sold to other con artists. It is for reasons like this that the Postal Inspection Service works to help make older Americans and their families aware of the variety of scams that they might face.
Watch out for These Common Mail Fraud Schemes:
Contest and sweepstakes frauds
In this scheme consumers are told they are a guaranteed sweepstakes prize winner. What’s the catch? The “free” prize can end up costing consumers hundreds of dollars in fees they are asked to make in order to receive their sweepstakes.
Foreign lotteries conducted through the U.S. mail are illegal. But consumers still tempted to answer that siren call of a foreign lottery should know that such lotteries are frauds. Sending money to an unknown entity does not mean consumers will be entered into a lottery. It does mean that someone will else “wins” their money.
Counterfeit financial checks or money orders
In this scheme con artists will send checks or money orders as part of an arrangement with the victim. These could be for buying something, renting property, or simply a stranger seeking help with a financial deal. The schemer tells the victim that the check or money order is for much more than is owed. All the victim has to do is deposit the check or money order into his or her account and send the schemer a “refund.” Of course the check or money order is fake, but by the time the fraud is discovered, the victim’s real money is in the hands of the con artist.
In a travel scam, victims are promised a dream vacation that turns into a nightmare. Instead of finding all their travel arrangements made, these tourists find instead that their money has gone into the pockets of the “travel agent.”
Would-be investors should always be on the alert for those enticing pitches that promise low-risk opportunities with high returns in exotic minerals, strategic metals, rare gemstones, ostrich ranching or other “can’t miss” offers. In the end, it turns out the opportunities did indeed, “miss.”
Internet auction frauds
Online auction sites can be a no-win proposition for some buyers. They place their bids for an item on the site and win. But did they? After making arrangements for payment, the goods are not sent. Or bidders receive something that was not as advertised. Postal inspectors step in when these payments or deliveries are made through the mail. Bidders need to be alert when bidding online.
Advance fee loans
For some, it can be hard to make it through the month without an advance loan. Sadly, this can make them vulnerable to swindlers. In the worst case a swindler will claim to be able to make a loan for the victim through a legitimate lending institution. It is only after the victims have paid the con artists’ “upfront fee” that they realize nothing was done on their behalf and the swindler is long gone.
Credit card frauds
For victims who have trouble obtaining a credit card, this scheme can seem to be the answer to their dreams. They are told they can get a major credit card for a fee that is pre-approved and can be obtained without a credit check. After the fee is paid (often $35-$50) the card arrives and the heartache starts. These cards can only be used to pay for orders from a specific store or catalog owned by the company that issued the card. And the merchandise may be of no interest or offered at higher prices than competitor’s stores.
This “business opportunity” lures its victims into the scheme through employment websites. “Employers” sends merchandise to the victims, providing overseas mailing addresses for the victims to redirect the packages. What the victims do not know is that the merchandise was purchased by foreign computer hackers using stolen credit card or bank information.
These long-running schemes continue to target individuals who are trying to make money while working out of their homes. The schemes promise to deliver results but are nothing more than a scam.
Good judgment is your last line of defense against con artists. You should be profoundly skeptical of any offer that sounds too good to be true. The following questions can help you evaluate questionable offers:
- Do I have to pay to receive my “prize” or enter a sweepstakes?
- Am I being told to wire money back from this check or money order that I have received?
- Am I a “guaranteed” winner or told “no risk is involved?"
- Am I pressured into responding right away?
- Do they ask for advance payment or accept cash only?
If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, be wary! Ask that all statements about the product or service be provided in writing. Check out the offer with the consumer protection agencies located nearest the company, the Better Business Bureau (BBB), State Attorney General, or call the National Fraud Information Center (NFIC).
Learn how to protect yourself further against fraud by visiting the Postal Inspection Service’s website.
Consumers are urged to report incidents of potential mail fraud; Go to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service form to download a fraud complaint form that can be filled out online, or printed and completed in hardcopy. Consumers may also report fraud complaints by calling the fraud complaint center at 1-800-372-8347.
The United States Postal Inspection Service—one of our nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agencies—protects mail, post offices and postal employees. Inspectors are on the ground and on the job, from restoring postal service after a disaster to capturing drug traffickers and protecting citizens from mail fraud. We can all be partners in prevention, by learning to protect ourselves from fraud, identity theft, and other postal crimes.
Learn firsthand from retired Postal Inspector and Postal Museum Docent Dan Mihalko about real postal crimes involving phony health “remedies!”
Postal Inspectors have investigated medical quackery for years.
There are all kinds of fake cures and remedies out there.
Take the Fat Blocker weight loss program.
The pills contain vitamins and a common allergy medicine.
They might stop your sniffles but you won't lose any weight.
Nobody lost a pound wearing these mail-order slimming shoe inserts either.
Or the Mega II Rapid Weight Reduction Program, only thing mega about this was the size of the book.
None of these programs worked and Postal Inspectors shut down the companies.
But here's my favorite, Smilin' Bob.
He was a pitchman for Enzyte, a male enhancement product.
The pills promised to...
Well, what they promised didn't happen, but they sold like crazy.
The company made a fortune but it all ended when Postal Inspectors arrested the founder and sent him to prison for 25 years, and he had to pay back five hundred million dollars.
Bob's not smiling anymore.