When Robert LaRouche thought he hit the jackpot, the first thing he wanted to spend it on was his family.
“When we get together, we’re on the other side of 75 people,” Robert said. “And I said, ‘Jeez, if I win this… we can have a Christmas get-together.’”
The caller claimed to be from a state agency. They told Robert he was the second place winner in a lottery, and that he won $350,000. All Robert had to do was pay a one percent processing fee.
A few hours later, someone else called saying they were from the IRS.
“They said that not only were the federal taxes were paid and the state taxes, but I had a seven percent luxury tax, which was $24,500,” said Robert.
Robert then went to his local bank and wired over the money—all $28,000. Then, he waited.
A few hours later, Robert got another call.
“They said, ‘Hey, the person who won it is disqualified. You are now the winner,’” described Robert, remembering the conversation.
The caller then told Robert he had to pay a $100,000 tax fee to claim the first place prize. That’s when Robert had a bad feeling he was scammed.
Although Robert admits falling for the scam, he also says the scammers knew just the right things to say, starting off by claiming to be from a government agency.
Scammers won’t stop there. In other cases, scammers are known to disguise themselves as a family member needing money in an emergency, or as a utility representative claiming your bill is past-due.
That’s what happened to George Uyar, a small business owner in the Stratford area.
When he got a call last July from someone saying they were from United Illuminating and were going to shut off his deli’s power, George panicked.
“I told her, ‘Look, the bill has been paid on the 17th,’” said George.
But the caller insisted his payment wasn’t in their system, and threatened to shut the power off within 30 minutes if he didn’t pay immediately.
George didn’t think he had any time to waste. Connecticut was in the middle of a heat wave and he had a lot to lose.
“All the soda and the beer [would] get hot,” said George. “They have the ice cream. The ice, it [would] get melted.”
So George followed the caller’s instructions. He went to a convenience store and put the full amount— $984 —onto a Green Dot card. He then scratched off the back, revealing the card’s personal number. As soon as he recited it to her, his money was gone to a scam.
“She told me, ‘You’re all set, you’re okay, don’t worry. They’re not going to shut the power,’” recalled George.
And they never would have, since that call wasn’t from UI.
“We never actually ask for one form of payment,” said Michael West, who is the Director of Corporate Communications at UI. He says there are key differences between how scammers operate versus how utility companies do business.
“We always work with the customer to try and figure out how to mitigate any outstanding bill,” said Michael. “It’s never a threatening manner. It’s not about, you know, ‘Give me the money today or you don’t have power tomorrow.’”
That time pressure doesn’t give potential victims time to think things through, and the scam is done before they realize what’s happened. From beginning to end, it took just a few hours for Robert LaRouche to lose $28,000.
It took George Uyar just 15 minutes.
Consumer experts say you should never rush into making a decision. There are red flags to watch out for, and these are some tips to help you avoid a potential scam:
- If someone calls you claiming to be a family member or from a specific organization, hang up and call them back at a number you trust.
- Don’t send cash, money orders or other payments like Green Dot cards to someone you don’t know.
- If you get a call from a private number, let it go to voicemail.
- Never give out bank or credit card account numbers, social security numbers or any other private information.
- If you win something or are getting a free gift, it generally should be free, so question any fees they want you to pay for your prize.
However if you do become a scam victim, contact your local police immediately.
Click here to read The Federal Trade Commission’s full list of ways to protect yourself from scammers.