A poor economy may be the reason behind an increase in scams bilking local residents out of thousands of dollars.
"It's getting bad," said Minden Police detective Sgt. Heath Balkom. "Every time the economy gets bad, we get more of these."
Over the past month, Balkom and detective Chris Cheatham have worked 10 to 15 scam cases, and they believe scam artists are preying on people who are desperate for money during an economic downturn.
Balkom said there are three prominent scams that have captured his attention.
"They're doing these 'money grams,'" Balkom said. "They'll contact you and say you've won a large sum of money, but to get it, you have to pay gaming taxes – or some type of taxes – on it."
With this scam, Balkom said the scam artist asks the victim to send a smaller amount of money with the promise they will receive their winnings, plus a reimbursement of the funds they submitted.
"When you send a money gram, they will give you an address to send it to, but they can pick them up anywhere in the world," he said. "They can give a false name and location in the United States, but their telephone number will come back to Jamaica or England. We can't do anything about that. We can trace a number to where it originates, but the money order can be picked up anywhere."
Another prevalent scam is the "Secret Shopper,"
"I've seen three of these in the last two weeks where victims receive a check in the mail for more than $3,000," he said. "They'll tell you (the shopper) to go cash the check and then send them a certain amount in a money order and use the remaining money to buy certain items from specific stores. Then the shopper gets to keep whatever's left over."
Balkom said the victim follows the instructions by cashing the check and sending a large portion back to the scammer by money order.
"Then, the victim keeps the other money and spends it on whatever they want," he said. "Well, then the bank catches it, and the victim has actually committed bank fraud."
Ideally, Balkom said, the victim should refund the bank's money.
"But some people say 'no,' and we have to do what we have to do," he said. "We have to arrest the victim of the scam, which is sad. We don't like to do that because that person fell for a scam and spent money that wasn't theirs. But the person who committed the crime is in Canada or England or some place like that, and we can't get to them."
A third scam that has come to the police department's attention recently concerned a "relay" phone call.
"The scam artists are typing a message to a relay person who's translating it to the person on the other end," Balkom said.
He cited a local business that received a request for a long-distance catering job.
"The request was for a specific menu to an event in California," he said. "They gave the owner three credit card numbers and told him to run them and get the money he would need to cover the job, food and supplies and then get a money order for a specific amount and send that back to them to pay the 'party planner' or some other made-up expense."
Unfortunately, the credit card numbers were stolen, he said.
"The reason they're giving several card numbers is because they're wanting to see which ones will go through," he said. "They're hot cards. One or two of them may be declined, but that third one may go through."
After that, the money gram scam kicks in when the victim sends the scammer a money order from the stolen credit card.
"Then, the victim is stuck making restitution to the bank and paying back the credit card for any purchases made on it," he said.
An avenue of contact for this particular scam is through yahoo text, the detective said.
"It's almost like instant messaging," he said. "That's one way they (scam artists) can get away from the actual phone calls, which leads me to believe they're in the United States when they do that. It makes it a little more difficult to track them."
Balkom said the best way to know if the deal is "too good to be true" is go to the police station and let the detectives check it out.
"Everybody gets these phone calls, emails and letters saying they've won a lot of money," he said. "Just throw them away, and if you think it's legitimate, bring it up here and we'll check it out. Free money is great, but it's never free."