Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Con men and the "free gift scam"

Not talking about a "buy one get one free" or "buy five and get a free gift", those are often perfectly legit. Sheryl will give you a free Reiki Teddy bear if you buy a certain number of her retail perfumes, but that's very upfront, an honest incentive. This is something altogether different. I did a little research online about recognizing scams and cons (aka confidence artists) after we got a couple of suspicious phone calls. My mother is in an age group where she gets preyed upon by nefarious types on a pretty regular basis.

Here is a variation on the "free gift" scam. Picture this:

A guy from a shipping company calls on the phone to verify your address in order to deliver a large package. "What? we didn't order anything."
"It's got your phone number on it, but the rest of the address label is illegible-- we don't even have a return address. So, if it's not yours, then I don't know what we're going to do with it. We can't store it, haven't got the space."
"But we didn't order anything. . ."
Then the guy chats with you for awhile in a friendly way, just making conversation, comes across as a real regular guy, makes jokes, seems to be in no hurry. He takes his time in sealing the deal.
"So, are you SURE you didn't order this, because it's a really nice army generator, heavy duty. Maybe somebody you know sent you a gift or something. Do you have any use for a generator?"
"Well, yeah, as a matter of fact we do need one, pretty badly-- ours is on it's last legs."
"No kidding. I guess I'd feel better about delivering it to you then. Because we're just going to mark it down as "lost in transit." Like I said we don't have any place to store this, can't send it back either. . . we just need to get rid of it. Is it OK if we deliver it tomorrow?"

The phone call went on for quite a while: the guy was extremely polite and ingratiating. Just trying to do his job. We'd be doing him a big favor by accepting this package, and after all, it does have our phone number on it. The entire rest of the tag is obliterated, except the word "seacrest" and do we happen to know anything about that?

But that's as far as we got. Unfortunately they've confirmed our address (it's listed anyway). The somewhat scary part: the fact that we have a generator and could use a new one one. How did they know who to target ? As free gifts go, not everyone wants a big old generator. Out here, however, everybody wants one. We got a bit roped in because we thought, well, what could be the harm in having a package dropped off-- we'll leave it sealed for awhile and it will just be like a lost and found. If nobody claims it, then I guess it's ours. That's basically how the idea was sold to us. The guy even said they'd pick it up again within 2 weeks if we didn't want it.

How do I know it's a scam? First, it makes no sense. No legit shipping company wants to knowingly deliver a large, expensive item to a wrong address. It costs some money to send a truck out here, and you just don't "lose" something on purpose. I'm sure every shipping company has ways of dealing with illegible tags, and this isn't one of those ways.

The guy wouldn't identify himself, the name of his company, nor would he give us a callback number. Packages get tracked, they get signed for every step of the way. And a big generator ships insured-- there would be follow up, that is, if this item really exists at all (which I doubt). He also said the item is "already on the truck". Oh yeah? already on it's way to some completely unknown destination? Just waiting for an address to be dictated by telephone? Our smooth talker made a couple of small mistakes, but overall he was pretty good and pretty convincing.

Anyway it has all the earmarks of a con: the victim gets a free offer for something that they actually need pretty badly; something big and expensive. But it's just a little shady, slightly dishonest because the con man would rather that you felt a little bit naughty, a little bit lucky, and a little bit ashamed so that you don't go around talking to other people about it; especially the police. So today, I think, the story will change just a bit. We'll get another phone call. Shipping delayed, perhaps. Or, "you can have it for the cost of shipping". Something like that. I don't actually expect a big truck to show up in the driveway with a free gift. Box of rocks maybe, at best-- and a demand to pay a shipping charge before we open it, but I don't think so. I can think of several other ways that it might play out, but we don't really want to play.

I think the guy is going to call and request credit card info or cash on delivery or some such-- it could easily be an identity theft scam. Very safe for him, no face, no name, no phone number-- no recourse. Again, I'd be really surprised to see an actual truck out here-- with license plates, etc. Too risky for the con man. But it could happen.

So, watch out people. This guy came across as very nice. Not a fast talker, but a more or less constant talker, not giving you enough pause to think. He took his time, apparently called about a week before also, just laying down a little groundwork.

We'll be telling all our friends and family out here about it. And they'll tell their friends and so on-- so at least this guy may not be able to pull his scams in this small town.

No comments: