Tag Archives: Home Repair Scams

Who Initiated Contact?

When it comes to recognizing and avoiding scams, one question that can be helpful is, “Who initiated this contact?” In many situations, the answer can be the difference between a legitimate transaction and fraud.

Scammers are proactive if nothing else—they usually don’t set up shop then wait around for people find them. There is often a “sales” element to a scam, in which the con artist has to actively approach a victim in order to offer the bait.

In other words, if the other party initiated contact, your chances of falling for a scam are increased. Let’s look at a few scenarios.

Scenario #1: Home Repairs

Think about what usually happens when your home needs repairs. You, the resident, usually start out by noticing that something needs to be fixed. You assess what needs to be done, and then make a decision as to whether you’re going to perform the repairs yourself. If you choose the DIY route, you go out and purchase materials and tools, but if the work is beyond your abilities, you’ll call a contractor, roofer, plumber or other service provider.

Now look at a home repair scam: it starts with a knock on your front door. When you answer, a stranger informs you that your gutters need cleaning, your driveway needs to be repaved, or that your siding needs fixed. You weren’t even aware there was a problem. From here, the scam takes one of a variety of paths: they may start with a minor repair for a reasonable-sounding price, then start adding on tasks (never completed) until you’re stuck with a bill for thousands of dollars. In other versions, they’ll talk you into a major repair job, collect a large down payment for the service, and then never show up to perform the work.

Notice who initiated contact in both of these examples: in the first, you called a contractor. Of course, there are shady contractors, but in general you’re going to get the service you paid for. In the second, they contacted you, and it turned out to be a scam.

Scenario #2: Lottery Scams

Here’s how a legal, legitimate lottery works: you visit the nearest convenience store, grocery store or gas station, where you purchase a lottery ticket. You wait for the little TV segment with the big tumblers full of ping-pong balls, and check your numbers against the ones drawn on television. Then you throw the ticket away, because you probably didn’t win a dime.

During a lottery scam, however, you are suddenly informed via email that you have won some lottery in the U.K., Canada, Australia or South Africa that you didn’t purchase a ticket for. If you respond to this message, you will be told that you have to pay taxes and fees before you can claim the prize. You wire a few thousand dollars overseas and never hear from them again. You’ll always lose in this situation.

Once again, the question of who initiates contact is a strong indicator of the legitimacy of an offer.

Scenario #3: Employment Scams

When you’re looking for a genuine job offer, you research local employers who are hiring, update your resume, write cover letters and send these out. If they’re interested in hiring you, they call you in for an interview (or several), and they make a decision based on your qualifications.

Employment scams work the other way around: you just check your email one day, and there’s an offer for a high-paying, work-at-home style job waiting for you, from some company you’ve never heard of. If you jump on this out-of-the-blue job offer, you’ll eventually be asked to cash a fraudulent check and wire the funds out of the country, leaving you with a loss of thousands.

“Who initiated contact?” isn’t always a foolproof method, and it doesn’t apply to every situation, but it’s a good idea to keep the question in the back of your mind. You might be glad you did one day.

Slamming the Door on Scammers

Below is the text of my first article as printed in The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Portage, Valparaiso, Chesterton and Hobart. This article appeared in the July 28, 2010 edition. The column appears on the fourth Wednesday of each month in the print and online editions. Yes, I’ve been calling myself a “journalist” because of this new venture.

Q: I’ve heard of crooks going door-to-door and tricking people into letting them in. How does this scam work?

A:  With all the attention paid to email scams, computer viruses and other electronic methods of committing fraud, it’s easy to forget that a lot of scams are decidedly low-tech in their approach. Door-to-door scams are very common and have been reported several times in Northwest Indiana over the past few years. The usual targets are people who live alone, especially the elderly.

The most common setup involves two people who knock on the door and claim to be from the power company, phone company or from a municipal department. They will ask for access to the home while they perform some task— testing water for bacteria is one example. While one crook distracts the homeowner, the other steals cash, jewelry and other valuables.

Another version involves criminals claiming to work for an alarm company. They tell the victim that their house has been selected for a possible free burglar alarm installation. This is just a ploy to case the house for a future break-in.

There are endless versions of these scams. Sometimes only one crook shows up on your doorstep while another waits outside; other times they may offer home repairs, take the victim’s down payment and never return.

The first rule in preventing this type of fraud is to never let anyone into your house without verifying, beyond doubt, who they are and why they need to come in. You can’t just take a stranger at his word these days.

If someone comes to your door, claims to represent a utility company and asks to enter your house, the first thing you must do is ask for identification. If they’re legitimate, they’ll have an ID card and will be happy to show it to you. Their vehicle will also be well marked.

Once they’ve shown you their ID, it is still a good idea to double-check. Politely tell the person on your doorstep to wait a moment, lock the door, and call the company. Ask if they have workers in your neighborhood performing tests or repairs and if anyone should be asking to gain entry to your house. If the story checks out, you can be confident that they are who they claim to be.

The behavior of the person on your doorstep can also be an indicator of trouble. If they run when you ask for ID, or become belligerent, that is a warning sign. Lock your door, call the police, and provide as much information as you can. A real utility worker will understand your concern and should not mind waiting a couple minutes.

Even armed with knowledge, none of us is immune to being scammed. What should you do if you realize you’ve already let criminals into your house?

First, do not let them know you’re onto them. A cornered crook can be dangerous. Remain calm, try to remember as many details as you can, and wait until they are gone to lock the door and call the police. Your safety is far more important than any cash or objects the thieves might get away with.

Make sure to talk to your family, friends and neighbors about this type of crime, and always stay vigilant.

Non-electronic scams are still a threat

A lot of the articles I write concern scams and fraud that in some way depend on electronic communications (email or websites) to function. Nigerian 419 scammers have probably saved thousands of dollars on postage since the widespread adoption of email.

However, not all scams occur online.

Just this week, I heard about two separate cases locally. One was an elderly person who let two men who claimed to be from the power company enter his home. They quickly found a large stash of cash in the victim’s bedroom.

There was also the case of a person just out of high school who got a letter in the mail tell him he’d won the lottery. He ended up wiring just under $2,900 to a criminal overseas.

The home entry scam almost always targets elderly victims who live alone. If this sounds like your relative, neighbor or friend, you need to warn them about this type of robbery. Make sure they know never to let anyone in without seeing identification and confirming the visit with the power company (or whoever claims to be visiting). Also, encourage them to keep their money somewhere other than inside their house. I know there’s been a recession lately, but 1929 was a very long time ago, and we have FDIC and NCUA insurance in case of a major meltdown. Perhaps we should ask this most recent victim which turned out to be safer: keeping his money in a financial institution or in his house.

A lottery scam is a lottery scam, and it doesn’t matter if the message is in your inbox or on paper. I think a lot of people know about the email version of the Nigerian 419 scam, but when it shows up on paper, they let their guard down. It’s sort of the opposite of 15 years ago, when everybody immediately trusted everything that showed up in an email.

I wish there was a statistic on email vs. paper Nigerian 419 scam success rates. I’d be willing to bet the paper version actually snags more victims. Just remember that it doesn’t matter what form it takes, it’s always fraud.

Repair scams: never let strangers into your home.

Just this past Wednesday in Highland, Indiana, two men gained entry into a residence and stole cash. They claimed to be testing the water for bacteria after an alleged line break.

Once again, a real-life case reminds us of one of the most important rules of scam and fraud prevention: never let anyone inside your house unless you know, beyond reasonable doubt, who they are, why they are there, and what they are doing.

It’s not enough to just believe what they say. You have to verify.

Any time a municipal employee needs access to a residence, they will be carrying identification. Always ask to see it. If you are still unsure, call the department they represent and confirm that someone is supposed to be making visits that require entry. Be polite about it—there’s no need to be combative at this point—but have them wait outside and lock your door while you call.

If they bolt, that’s an obvious sign of a scam in progress. Call the police instead. If they become angry or abusive, that could be a sign, but it could also just mean you’re dealing with a bad employee. Make the call and report the behavior while you’re at it. You don’t have to let anyone in—tell the city to send somebody nice. They work for you.

Be extremely cautious if two people are standing outside your door; a lot of times these crooks work in pairs. However, if there is only one person and you decide to let them in, go ahead and lock the door while they’re in the house. Sometimes a second person is waiting to enter while the resident is distracted.

For obvious reasons, these scams (which are really just robberies) tend to target people who live alone, since they can’t be in two places at once. They also specifically target the elderly, so make sure your friends, neighbors and relatives are aware of the dangers. These crimes can occur anywhere.

Finally, if you’ve let someone in your house and realized your mistake before they’re gone, don’t let them know you’ve caught on. A cornered criminal can be a dangerous object, even though it appears most of these perpetrators are relatively nonviolent. Get a good description of the person, their vehicle and a license plate number, if possible. Wait until they’re gone and call the police once you know you’re safe. Your health is far more important than your possessions or your cash.

Yet another type of scam that targets the elderly: home repair/utility scams

Wednesday’s edition of the NWI Times had an article called “Lansing police warning of scam against elderly.” It’s specific to one incident in one location, but the lessons apply to everyone.

This is another con that’s been around forever and is currently experiencing a resurgence. A group of people (usually three men) shows up at your door, claiming to represent a utility company or similar. While two crooks distract the homeowner by “checking the utility box” or something, the other searches the house for cash and valuables.

To me, this is a far worse situation than wiring money to a thief overseas, even though your monetary losses may be smaller. I mean, these people are in your house. If you’ve let them in, then suddenly realize your mistake, and they know you’ve figured them out, you could be in real, immediate, physical danger. A frightened criminal is a dangerous criminal.

Crooks pulling this con usually concentrate on the elderly, so make sure your parents, grandparents, and others know not to let anyone in their house who just shows up on their doorstep, no matter who they claim to be.

If a group of people shows up at your door, asking to be let in to “check” something, politely decline and close and lock your door. If you think there’s the remotest possibility that they might be telling the truth, call the utility company and ask. However, since real utility companies almost never operate in this manner, I’d call the police instead. If they’re really from the utility company, two things will be true:

  1. They won’t run away the second you shut the door
  2. They’ll understand why you reacted as you did, and will be able to prove that they are who they claim to be.

Stay vigilant out there, and make sure any elderly people in your family or neighborhood know about this scheme.