The trail always led beyond U.S. borders. Help was needed from other departments — federal, state or local. The number of investigations kept increasing, and new turns kept getting added to the maze.
Before long, investigators with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office became aware of their limitations.
“These types of scams occur in so many variations in all forms — phone, email, U.S. mail, fax, Internet — every single day in Hernando County,” said Sgt. Jeff Kraft, a longtime fraud investigator. “The extent of the problem is such that if we tried to investigate them all it would be literally impossible.”
Kraft said he personally took on every investigation himself 15 years ago. He spent countless hours on the phone with other law enforcement agencies and issuing subpoenas to businesses and Internet providers.
“The sheriff’s office paid the expense for the investigations, and in the end, every single one ended up being traced outside of the U.S.A.,” he said.
His agency didn’t have the authority to track suspects or obtain certain documents outside the country. He said he never received the level of international assistance he requested.
“The main way to prevent these crimes and deter this activity is by educating our residents to help assist,” Kraft said. “There are so many variations to these scams that there is no one set of rules to prevent you from becoming a victim.”
The scam artists don’t quit easily. When people become aware of a particular scam —like foreign lotteries that require money to be mailed overseas — criminals change their tactics.
Fake work-from-home ads on the Internet are cropping up more frequently. They even appear in newspapers and magazines, according to the sheriff’s office.
Potential victims are asked to submit a resume or application. They receive direct deposits or checks and they are told to keep 10 percent as payment. The money is sent to the next person, likely overseas, and over time, the money gets transferred internationally and the scam artist gets free money. Meanwhile, the victim is notified by the bank that the payments were fraud. That same victim winds up in the red by hundreds or thousands of dollars, Kraft said.
Scams pretending to be Publishers Clearing House are still a magnet for the gullible consumer.
Martha Muse of Spring Hill said she and her husband recently received a notification purporting to be from Publishers Clearing House of a cash prize of more than $9,200.
The check drew their attention, but they soon realized it was likely fake.
“I realized the letter didn’t have a (return) address,” Muse said. “My husband noticed it was on cheap type of paper.”
A phone number was listed in the letter but the couple didn’t call. They turned in the letter to the sheriff’s office, and a deputy called the number. He confirmed to Muse what she had suspected.
Another recently discovered scam involves an email from someone posing as an employee of the Internal Revenue Service. The email even includes an attachment or Internet link with an IRS logo.
The link leads to an online registration form. It asks for a birth date, Social Security number, address, credit or debit card number — and the personal identification number assigned to the credit or debit card.
“It is so important to be vigilant and help prevent fraud,” Kraft said. “It seems too good to be true in the beginning, but in the end, the true cost is much worse.”
The sheriff’s office updated its Web page to better educate residents on what to look for.