Commentary

Yes scams are numbingly commonplace. But since people keep falling for them, it’s crucial to spotlight the grifters.

June 24, 2021 12:04 am

Stock photo via Getty Images.

I hope there’s a special place in hell reserved for the ringleader of an overseas scam that fleeced thousands of Americans — mostly the elderly — of an eye-popping $10 million. They included a Chesterfield County woman, listed in federal court records as “VICTIM #1,” who was taken for nearly a half-million dollars.

That was most of her savings, “June” told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I’m guessing the woman, who’s in her late 60s and cares for an adult son, didn’t want to use her full name because she’s embarrassed. Or, as June told the newspaper: “I can’t tell you how deeply ashamed I feel because I’m a smart person, but smart people supposedly don’t let this happen to themselves.”

She shouldn’t be so hard on herself. Nor is June alone. 

You may think I’m being too harsh with the Hades allusion I’ve trotted out for Shehzadkhan Pathan and the hundreds — if not thousands — of his ilk around the globe. Sure, the crimes he faced were not murder, rape or assault. Yet schemes such as Pathan’s drain bank accounts, diminish individual feelings of security and leave people questioning their own sanity.

The 40-year-old Pathan, who operated a call center in India, pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. He’ll be sentenced July 1 at the U.S. District Court in Richmond. His scams disproportionately targeted the elderly, federal prosecutors said. 

Many Americans by now have learned about variations of Pathan’s ruse. I’ve been writing about them since at least 2014, when the oldest of the Chesley Trio received a scam call at our abode in Hampton Roads. 

Using spoofing technology, a phone call to your home or cellphone says it’s coming from the “Social Security Administration.” In the latest come-on, if you pick up or return the call, you’re connected to a reputed agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Someone claims your bank records were found inside a car far, far away with lots of illegal drugs, like cocaine. 

Cash is demanded — by mail — to make your alleged lawbreaking go away. And if you make the mistake of paying up? Requests for more money will keep coming. And coming.

It’s gotten to the point you need a guide to track all the schemes now proliferating:

There’s the puppy scam, in which Virginians think they’re buying an adorable puppy from an online breeder, but the dog doesn’t exist. (It’s yet another reason to adopt a shelter dog.) 

The “utility scam” involves someone informing you that your bill is late, and unless you provide a prepaid card to resolve your so-called debt, your electricity or gas will be cut off. (That’s not how legitimate companies operate.)

Or somebody informs you, by phone, mail or email, that you’ve won a lottery or prize contest that you didn’t even enter. To claim your winnings, pay a fee up front – just for taxes, bank fees, etc.

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office noted that Americans lost more than $1.9 billion to fraud and scams in 2019 — a 28 percent increase from the year before. 

“I want to encourage all Virginians, no matter what age, to be wary of any calls, emails, or contact where someone is promising money or goods for little or nothing in return, and pay special attention to any deals that require you to send money or pay up front,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in a news release this year. 

Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Herring, suggested several tips to avoid becoming a scam victim. They included never wiring money or sending cash through a pre-paid card. It’s difficult to recoup the money if it’s not legit. 

Don’t give unknown callers your financial or other personal information, Gomer said. Get on the National Do Not Call Registry and don’t answer unfamiliar phone numbers; scammers will ignore the registry and reach out anyway.

Readers who believe they may be victims of a scam or fraud should contact the state’s Consumer Protection Section at (800) 552-9963 or [email protected], Gomer told me Tuesday by email.

Pathan, the robocall scammer I mentioned earlier, faces up to 22 years in prison at sentencing. A U.S. Department of Justice news release noted, however, that “sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties.” 

My editor, Robert Zullo, sometimes dissuades me from writing about these illicit schemes. “What’s new?” he’ll say. Aren’t these scams merely variations of what’s been happening for years?

Yes, they are. And yes, people keep getting fooled. 

So I’ll keep alerting folks on ways to protect themselves. The information might prevent plenty of regrets. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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