A few days ago the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General issued a warning about a new and rather complicated scam that is resulting in people being cheated out of thousands of dollars. It starts with the scammer starting a relationship on a variety of apps that contain built-in-chat features such as Facebook Messenger or Words with Friends. In other instances the scammer may start the relationship through online dating services such as Match.com. Similar to the more typical romance scam, after the scammer has managed to gain the trust of the targeted victim, the victim of the scam is asked to send money to his or her new friend in order to help with some minor problem. This payment would generally be the end of a less complicated scam, but in this instance, it is only the beginning because the next day, the scam victim receives a phone call that appears on his or her Caller ID as if he or she is being called by the Department of Homeland Security or some other law enforcement agency. In this phone call, the scammer is told that the money he or she sent was paid to a terrorist group such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda and that they are in danger of being arrested and imprisoned for sending money to a terrorist organization. They are then instructed to contact a particular lawyer who can help them resolve this problem. Fearful of being criminally prosecuted, the victims of the scam contact the recommended lawyer who requires the payment of a retainer fee of $1,000 or more. Of course, the entire scenario is a scam and the victim has been scammed twice. First, by paying money to a scammer for a non-existent emergency and second, by paying a retainer to the phony lawyer.
Developing relationships quickly with people online who early into the relationship are already asking for money is a strong indication of a scam. This is the basis of many of the romance scams about which I have written many times. In regard to the second part of this scam, it is important to remember that scammers can easily “spoof” a telephone number and fool your Caller ID so that it appears that a call you receive is from a legitimate law enforcement agency when in reality it is being made by a scammer. The lesson here is that you can never trust your Caller ID to be completely accurate. Finally, no legitimate law enforcement agency will demand a payment over the phone and you should never pay a lawyer a retainer without meeting with him or her in person.
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