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Ohioans must beware of countless scams

Earlier this month, a family with five children living in Circleville became the victim of an international fraud that wiped out an account they use to help pay for gas, food and other necessities.

The mother received a text message one day saying that her EPPICard, which is similar to a debit card for people on public assistance, was frozen and prompted her to call a phone number. She was then asked to enter her PIN number over the phone. The next time she tried to use the card all the money was gone.

With the difficult economy, there appears to be an increase in the number of scams being reported in Ohio and other states.

A constituent recently shared with me a copy of a fake check that looked very real. It was part of a scam to steal the person’s banking information.

In March, the Ohio Attorney General’s office warned of a wave of similar check scams hitting Ohio. In one case, a Toledo consumer said he received an email from a company offering money for placing advertisements on the sides of vehicles. They sent him a $2,850 check and told him to keep $400, then wire transfer the rest of the money back to the company.

The Ohio Department of Insurance also recently issued a press release alerting consumers about an international mail fraud scheme involving counterfeit checks that appear to have originated from insurance companies, such as Nationwide and Progressive. The checks reportedly range from $3,500 to $4,900 and come with a letter from Reader’s Digest or a similar company informing the recipient that they won between $150,000 and $250,000 as part of a “Consumer Promotion Drawing.” Then, recipients are told that in order to receive their prize money, they must cash the check and then send a specific amount, usually between $2,000 and $4,000, by Moneygram International or Western Union Money Transfer, to a specific address.

According to the Consumer Federation of America, one in every three adults has been targeted by a fake check scam, which may involve job offers, sweepstakes awards or online transactions. The scammer tells the victim to deposit the check, and then wire transfer a portion of the money back for “fees,” “administrative charges” or overpayment. Eventually, the check turns up counterfeit and the victim loses any money they sent. Sometimes, these checks are marked “certified,” making them appear more legitimate, but if anyone sends you a check and requests money in return, it is probably a scam.

I have heard from other residents of the 17th Senate District who have been told they won the lottery in Australia, and all they had to do was pay a small finder’s fee to claim their prize. Australia does not even have a national lottery.

Unfortunately, many con artists take advantage of the trust and generosity of senior citizens. In one particularly troubling type of scam, these criminals call older Americans posing as their grandson or granddaughter. Then, the scammer makes up a story that they are stuck in another country and need money, and they ask the grandparents to wire transfer a few hundred dollars to help.

This past week, my colleagues and I in the Ohio Senate passed legislation to designate June 15 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day in Ohio, in an effort to raise public awareness about financial scams and other crimes against older Ohioans. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, 16,370 incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of Ohioans over the age of 60 were reported in 2009, up from 15,050 the year before. However, it is estimated that only one in five elder abuse cases and only one in 25 financial crimes against seniors are reported to authorities in Ohio.

A good rule of thumb is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. To report a scam or to get more information about how to protect yourself and your family from fraud, contact the Attorney General’s office at 1-800-282-0515 or visit www.speakoutohio.gov. I will also continue to do everything I can in the General Assembly to raise awareness of this issue and ensure Ohio law works to help victims and punish those guilty of these crimes.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.