Being a responsible consumer in the year 2019 means educating yourself—not just on the products and services—but of the ways scammers and thieves exploit consumer behavior for their own financial gain. As technology advances with the convenience of SMS text messaging as a security feature, financial applications that put your finances at your fingertips, and the tangled world wide web, consumer fraud scams will only continue to mutate and evolve. Here are five of the most common types of consumer fraud scams to avoid in 2019.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Financial Fraud Unit, mortgage fraud exploits a consumer’s fear of losing their home to make a quick buck. Mortgage fraud schemes come in many forms, including but not limited to equity skimming, loan modifications, and foreclosure rescue schemes. The perpetrators behind these schemes are often former real estate professionals who use their intimate knowledge of mortgages to swindle homeowners in distress. Real estate agents who are currently employed can exploit their authority to bolster the validity of their scheme. The FBI and FTC advise that consumers should be wary of any unsolicited phone calls, emails, regarding their home finances, and never sign any paperwork or documentation that they do not fully comprehend.
Debit Card Fraud
Debit card fraud occurs when an individual’s debit card information is obtained to make fraudulent purchases. Debit card fraud is one of the most difficult schemes to avoid in day-to-day life, because so many Americans have gradually transitioned from carrying cash to carrying only their debit card as means of legal tender. Anyone with access to the debit card’s information—including the businesses and vendors we trust every day—can pull this information to commit a fraud. Unfortunately, the only recourse consumers have in protecting themselves is to avoid letting their card ever leave their sight, and to keep a watchful eye on their accounts and report any suspicious activity.
Perhaps one of the most despicable types of consumer fraud is charity fraud. Scammers set up shell organizations to receive donations that do not go to those in need, but rather line the scammer’s pockets. Frauds of these type spike significantly during the holidays and in the wake of natural disasters in order to exploit humankind’s benevolence. The name of the game with charities is research. Any charity worth its salt is going to stand up to a great deal of due-diligence and fact-finding. Part of being a responsible consumer is knowing where your money is going.
Winning the lottery is a dream of many Americans, with fantasies of kicking back and never having to put in another hard day’s work for the rest of their lives. Despite the wide range of demographics with these dreams, lottery fraud scams usually effect senior citizens in the United States. The scam usually begins with a letter or email letting the individual know they have won. The correspondence usually includes details about fees that are involved with receiving their winnings. The FTC warns that individuals who have won a legitimate lottery prize of any kind should never have to pay a fee to collect their winnings, and consumers should be suspect of any unsolicited correspondence stating as such. Consumers should also be advised that United States law does not support the sale and transference of international lottery tickets, so any correspondence from international lotteries is most certainly a scam.
Studies by Javelin Strategy & Research conducted over the last seven years indicate that in 2017, there were as many as 16.7 million Americans impacted by identity fraud, with $16.8 million in stolen funds and assets. Identity theft can be committed for a number of reasons. Perpetrators can steal an individual’s information with the purpose of starting over again under a different name, or to escape their creditors. Most commonly, however, identity fraud is simply committed with the explicit purpose of stealing money from American consumers. Once a scammer has an individual’s identifying information, like dates of birth, Social Security numbers, and their mother’s maiden name, they can use that data to make fraudulent purchases in the victim’s name, withdraw funds from their bank accounts, and destroy their credit, leaving them financially arrested. The aftermath of identity fraud is devastating and can cause shockwaves across decades with exponential consequences.
If you have been the victim of a consumer fraud scam, contact a private investigator today to learn how their unique set of skills and professional autonomy can help you locate the scammer in your midst. Call Lauth Investigations International today for a free consultation (317-951-1100) and a simple solution to your consumer crisis.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communications Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation, fraud, and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
Even if you’re not a fan of Fox’s successful prime time drama, Empire, you’re likely aware of the name Jussie Smollett by now. Smollett has come under fire in the media and on the internet for his allegedly false account of a racially-motivated attack against him in January, where he alleged two men attempted to strangle him and pour bleach on him. When the story first broke, it was shaping up to be a watershed moment in conversations about how the current administration is affecting race-relations throughout the country. After law enforcement conducted an investigation into his version of events, they’ve released statements that Smollett may have hired the men responsible to help him stage the attack. The case has created divisive new conversations about the United States’ current political climate, but is also prompting career investigators to highlight the importance of thorough and diligent fact-finding in the early stages of any investigation—especially within corporations.
Conducting an investigation with unimpeachable integrity is very similar to building a structure ready to withstand natural disasters. Laying a firm groundwork from the moment of the intake narrative will set an impregnable foundation allowing investigators and support staff to develop strong leads. Investigators must be prepared to ask every question—albeit inane or delicate—in order to ensure they are getting all of the existing, relevant information on the case. This is a process called fact-finding, in which a victim or witness’s statement is documented and entered into record, thereby allowing investigators to thoroughly vet every aspect of their statement. Were they in fact present when the incident took place? Can they accurately describe the alleged perpetrator? Is their story consistent across multiple iterations?
As is the case with any investigation, operatives are racing against the clock. With time, witnesses’ memories fade and witnesses themselves disappear, having relocated or simply left town. As time goes by, evidence is eroded, eventually disappearing, eliminating the leads they might have developed. This is why thorough fact-finding is so important, because investigators who are operating off false or inaccurate leads can lose days or weeks on a case as they chase a lead that will eventually come to no end. While investigators chase those dead leads, the truth about what actually occurred dissolves into obscurity.
Investigators in the Smollett case were able to vet his account of events and discover there may be more to the story than meets the eye. The case was not an isolated incident of allegedly false accusations having major consequences for the parties involved. Regardless of why an individual would make false accusations—whether it was with malice or simply a mistake—these circumstances could occur in many areas of life that could be devastating to both individuals and corporations.
Allegations of misconduct in the workplace immediately come to mind. Whether it’s allegations of theft or sexual harassment, these are the kinds of cases where it’s crucial to have the intake narrative well-documented, with detailed first accounts from all principles on the who, where, when, how, and why in any series of events. Cases regarding misconduct in the workplace have a higher chance of being litigated following the completion of any investigation, usually through civil and wrongful termination lawsuits.
A thorough and diligent private investigator is an invaluable asset to both sides of any investigation, as they are an independent third party and do not have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. Any fact-finding performed by an objective third party stands up to a much higher degree of scrutiny by the opposition. Investigators who are directly employed by any parties in either side have a lot to lose if their employer faces ruin following a lawsuit.
Which brings us to another issue in handling the fact-finding internally. Internal investigators can have a variety of qualifications depending on the corporation’s procedure. It’s true some businesses have licensed investigators on retainer to assist in regular operations, like a business who hires a private investigator to run a background check on a candidate for an upper management position. However, depending on the size of the company, the investigating party in some corporate crises is just the head of Human Resources—who might then be supervising other subordinates to do the legwork. Human Resource managers are invaluable employees who keep businesses running like clockwork, but this does not necessarily qualify them to conduct an investigation in every possible scenario, such as investigations requiring surveillance, undercover work, or properly documenting any evidence that might be recovered. This kind of oversight can have disastrous consequences in the later stages of an investigation, or even in a court of law. The opposition’s case is strengthened when there is evidence an internal investigator has not done their due-diligence.
Corporations of all sizes, trades, and levels of notoriety experience crises throughout their history. When disaster strikes and the stakes are high, it’s important to retain the services of a qualified, licensed, private investigator to begin an investigation. It’s not uncommon for a private investigator to be hired on after internal investigators have already made an attempt. It’s best to start strong, with due-diligent service from a seasoned external investigator to lay an impenetrable foundation for a thorough investigation.
Those who met their current significant other in an age before the internet often have a difficult time understanding courtship rituals in the year 2019. Even Gen-Xers who are navigating the single-scape are having trouble adjusting to the way social media and dating apps have changed the way relationships are formed in the United States. The internet has done wonderful things for the world of dating. It reignites old flames who haven’t seen one another since high school. It connects the dots between persons across the country. It brings together people from different walks of life for a far more interesting relationship. However, the anonymity of the internet and the potential to be whoever you want to be has fostered one of the most devastating types of scams that exist in the modern world: romance scams perpetrated by “catfish”.
If you follow internet culture, you’re likely aware of a television program called Catfish: The TV Show. The series is a continuation of creator Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary simply calledCatfish. The film followed Schulman’s journey through his own romance scam, in which he met a woman online named Megan through the internet. Megan claimed to be many things: a singer, songwriter, recording artist, photographer, rancher, and part of an equally-talented family. Through their online communications, Megan led Schulman to believe that her life was very picturesque, but tragically, she has cancer. After several attempts to finally meet Megan fall apart, Schulman and his production team make the trip to finally meet her and begin to realize along the way she may not be truthful about her identity. At the end of the film, Schulman and his team realize that there was never really a Megan. “Megan” was actually a middle-aged woman, Angela, who used the internet as a way of connecting with others in her insular life. The online identity of “Megan” was not entirely fiction—Angela did have a daughter named Megan, who was a photographer, and she used that piece of personal information to craft a persona that endeared her to men and garnered their attention on the internet.
Schulman’s story is unfortunately a common thread in today’s dating world. In 2011, a year or so after the documentary first premiered, studies showed that males between the ages of 40-49 and females between the ages of 50-59, made up the largest age groups effected by romance scams or “catfishing,” 28% and 35% respectively. In most confidence tricks, frauds, or scams, the goal is simply to rob an individual of their finances for personal gain. Catfish scams are particularly ugly, because it’s not just about money. A catfish’s target is often a trusting person, a benevolent person who might experience low self-esteem, and is often isolated from others for a myriad of reasons. That person makes a real emotional investment in the catfish with the intention and belief that they will spend the rest of their lives with that person when they finally meet.
“Catfish” is an appropriate name for this particular type of scammer, according to Special Agent Christine Beining, a seasoned financial fraud agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Houston Division. Even as recently as 2017, she says, romance scams were on the rise. According to the FBI’s website, in 2016, almost 15,000 complaints which fell under the umbrella of romance or confidence frauds were reported, which is 2,500 more than 2015. Beining characterizes a catfish in search of their next victim as throwing a fishing line, “The internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people. The perpetrators will reach out to a lot of people on various networking sites to find somebody who may be a good target. Then they use what the victims have on their profile pages and try to work those relationships and see which ones develop.” She offers the example of a Texas woman who ended up sending a cumulative $2 million to a man she met over the internet who “said all the right things.” This catfish targeted the woman’s strong Christian faith, and capitalized on it to pull her into his web of deception. When scammers are using social media maliciously, how are we supposed to protect ourselves in a digital age?
One of the country’s best fraud watchdogs, the Better Business Bureau, conducted a study last year on the current climate of catfishing and other forms of romance scams. While there are some discrepancies among experts as to what defines a romance scam, four consistent stages of a scam emerge:
Contacting the victims
Like Christine Beining said, scammers use the internet as a fishing line, and create dozens of fake profiles online with stolen pictures and manufactured personas in the hopes of netting a handful of victims. They hope to form an instant connection with that person, usually though an alleged common interest based on information mined from the victim’s page or profile. A potential victim loves to ski? Suddenly that catfish also loves to ski, even if they’ve never been. After a short period of time, the catfish will often encourage the victim to move the conversation somewhere else, like texting or another instant-messaging platform. This way, if their profiles are flagged by the social media platform as a scam, they will still be able to contact victims already in the net.
Like any predator, catfish depend on grooming behavior to make the victim emotionally dependent on them. They learn about the victim’s life—their hopes, their dreams, their traumas, their family drama. This stage varies in length, but it can often go on for months as catfish attempt to build an impenetrable wall of trust around themselves and the victim. Endearing themselves so allows them to have credibility in the victim’s eyes when those around them might arch an eyebrow. In a further effort to telegraph their integrity, scammers might also send gifts to their victim as one of the hallmarks of a “real relationship.” This is the stage where scammers begin to test the limits of the victim. They ask for small favors, such as small cash amounts to buy groceries or pay the phone bill so their communication may continue. It’s also the stage where catfish begin to further isolate their victims from their friends and family so the fraud can continue unhindered.
This is where the predator’s bites out of a victim’s income become exponentially larger. In any romance scam, one of the most common plot points in the catfish’s narrative is an “emergency,” likely with themselves or a close member of their family for which they need a cash sum. It can be anything from hospital bills to a plane ticket. If the victim is always willing to send money, there’s no way to predict when the fraud will conclude. This is also where victims can find themselves in real danger. Victims who are not simply bilked out of their savings can easily get mixed up in things such as money laundering or larger scale frauds as an oblivious participant. In the most severe cases, victims get on a plane to meet the catfish and meet a violent fate at the hands of a person they thought was their sweetheart.
The fraud continues
Exposing a catfish does not mean the nightmare is over. There has been an increase in brazen catfish continuing the fraud after being unmasked, this time disguised as a good Samaritan who just wants to help the victim get their money back. They can take the form of a law enforcement officer or a private investigator. The original persona might also reach back out sheepishly—admitting that they had been caught, but what originally began as a con to get their money has now become true love. It’s not uncommon for victims to allow the fraud to continue, having acknowledged the catfish’s honesty.
If you’ve been the victim of a catfish or romance scam, contact a private investigator today to learn how they can help you expose the culprit. A private investigator’s skill set and lack of any bureaucratic ladder will allow the case to move swiftly and efficiently, as time can be of the essence when chasing a scammer, who can quickly pack up their tent and move on to another social media platform before law enforcement pins them down. Private investigators also have no jurisdictional restrictions within their cases, which is particularly crucial to exposing scammers who are operating outside of the United States. They can also empower you with crucial knowledge to prevent the cycle of fraud from continuing. While it may sound callous to some, the best rule of thumb is to never send money to an individual you have never met in real life. After all, the internet is not a substitution for face-to-face interactions. If you’ve connected with someone over the internet, and the chemistry is there, a genuine person will not have the resistance and excuses that catfish often do when the jig is up.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communication Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information, please visit our website.
Indianapolis, Indiana is home to many impressive things. The city of over 800,000 is most famous throughout the country as home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the site of the Indianapolis 500. In addition to a rich visual and performing arts culture, it’s also home to the nation’s largest children’s museum. Families across the United States cheer for one of two major sports franchises based in Indianapolis: the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, and the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. It’s also home to one of the country’s best private investigators.
Family-owned and operated for more than 30 years, Lauth Investigations International has specialized in complex corporate, financial, and private investigations worldwide. It is one of many private investigation firms based in Indiana’s capital. Given recent crime data, Indianapolis is a city where a well of clientele may never run dry. One of the areas of criminal investigation most associated with private investigators is missing persons and violent crime, so it’s no a wonder why so many private investigators have set up shop in Indianapolis, with violent crime on the rise.
Relative to its size and population, Indianapolis is comparable to Portland, Oregon or Charlotte, North Carolina. Portland has a crime rate of 227 per every 100,000 people, which is lower than the national average crime rate. North Carolina experiences a higher than average crime rate of 441 per every 100,000 people. As of 2016, Indianapolis’ reported crime rate was 823.2 per every 100,000 people. A CBS News report ranking dangerous cities placed Indianapolis as the 12th in the nation, citing the violent crime rate at more than three times the national average.
News media is saturated with headlines concerning violent crimes committed against Hoosiers, so it was a surprise to most when the FBI reported crime was actually down 10% from 2016 to 2017, especially burglaries and robberies which were down 17%. Violence—especially gun violence—however, is climbing. As of October 1st, 2018, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department had investigated 127 homicides and 109 murders, with 12% of those cases attributed to robbery. The recent murder of Tykece Mike-Jones is a tragic example. He was killed over a cell phone he was attempting to sell to a person he contacted through the internet—another in a string of killings IMPD has been putting on blast to warn citizens. According to the FBI, 2017 was the third record-breaking year for crime statistics in Indianapolis, and stats from the first half of this year have projected 2018 will be no different. Law enforcement attributes the overall drop in crime to the increased ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the metropolitan area.
Firms like Lauth Investigations International can assist in many types of criminal investigation. Just as in the case of violent crimes, private investigators combine the skills of law enforcement and the autonomy of a private citizen to conduct concurrent or independent investigations into a person who vanishes under any circumstances. But not all missing persons cases are the result of a person meeting a violent end. As “the crossroads of America,” Indianapolis experiences a moderate to high level of human trafficking. One of the most complex issues in human trafficking is tracking traffickers across multiple jurisdictions as they transport victims from city to city. Law enforcement can often be handcuffed by jurisdictional issues, but private investigators use their autonomy to pole vault over this red tape in pursuit of leads that might otherwise go cold. Due to his experience in complex missing persons investigations, private investigator, Thomas Lauth has worked with Interpol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Consulate and other foreign embassies on a myriad of cases, including human trafficking.
Indianapolis private investigators are not limited to cases of violent crime and missing persons, however. Every major metropolitan area will always have cases dealing with infidelity or child custody, but private investigators based in Indianapolis have ample opportunity to service local businesses with their skill-set. Indianapolis is home to a diversified body of businesses, but its five top industries are:
Many business owners—especially small business owners—often are not aware of how a private investigator’s services can protect, or even save, their companies. Every business needs valued employees, and finding the right person can often be an arduous task. The candidate might be qualified, but how much about their record can be independently verified? Hiring a private investigator to do background checks for employees will ensure that any verification of their qualifications will be vetted. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many employers are making independent background checks a regular step of their hiring process in order to weed out potential predators in their workforce. All types of business can experience the full spectrum of employee theft (from vanishing office supplies to full-on embezzlement), violation of non-compete agreements, and offenses under the umbrella of employee malingering, including FMLA abuse. The independent involvement of a private investigator in the investigation of any employee misconduct will lay a strong foundation for any HR or legal consequences, ensuring that the investigation is thorough and objective from beginning to end. Kristen Justis, the Managing Director of Client Relations for Lauth Investigations International, commented on the role Lauth can play in bolstering local business, “We have a wealth of opportunities to help private citizens every day. We help frantic parents find their missing child, or put a spouse’s suspicions of infidelity at ease, but those are the cases that sensationalize this industry. Many business owners are not aware of how the services we offer can go a long way towards extending the longevity of their businesses.”
Every major industry operating in Indianapolis can rely on the services of a private investigator to protect their business—not just from its own workforce, but potential consumers as well. Finance, insurance, and real estate of all kinds can benefit from a comprehensive vetting of a consumer after their request for services. Financial institutions and insurance brokers may check a consumer’s credit, but a full background check on an applicant can sharpen the big picture when making a cost-benefit analysis regarding any transaction. In the housing industry, any landlord renting or leasing their property can be fully informed about their tenants when they employ a private investigator to run a background check. An analysis of Indianapolis’s economy by the Indianapolis Business Journal concluded that the apartment booms the city experienced were driven largely by empty-nesters and childless millennials, projecting that it would only continue to grow.
Indianapolis already has a national economical reputation for developing and sustaining niche markets, such as the market around motorsports and auto-racing. As the metropolis continues to grow in population and economy, so will the opportunities for Indy-based private investigators to support their community.
Carie McMichael is the Communications and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on missing person and investigation topics. For more information, please visit our website.
In addition to protecting employees from termination during an extended leave, FMLA also requires their various insurance coverage remain in effect. This protection can be guaranteed for up to 12 weeks. According to the Department of Labor:
FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.
FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
The use of FMLA within these guidelines (with some exceptions) is designed to protect hard-working men and women from losing their jobs when their family suddenly requires their attention. Life can change so fast, and employees can rest easy knowing their jobs will be waiting for them when they are able to return in top-performing condition.
According to Charlie Plumb, an attorney who represents clients in all phases of management, abuse of this protection should be investigated, provided the employer has an “honest suspicion.” He goes on to say, “This honest suspicion standard is really intended to protect the employer against a claim they are interfering against FMLA leave and/or being retaliatory.”
A familiar scenario is one where an employee has been granted leave under FMLA for a serious illness or injury. The employer then happens to see posts from the employee on social media having fun out with friends, exercising, or driving. The employer might think, “If they’re well enough to do these things, they must be well enough to work.” While this might sound like an open and shut case from the employer’s point of view, Allen Smith of The Society of Human Resources Management, provides an example where this philosophy proved problematic:
“Joan Casciari, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said she handled a case that involved an employee who was put on FMLA leave for depression. The employer later discovered, through surveillance, she was doing Christmas shopping with her family and having a wonderful time. But her doctor confirmed “retail therapy” was consistent with her condition and the fact she could shop did not mean she did not require FMLA leave.”
Luckily for the employer in this anecdote, they did their due diligence and consulted a medical professional who could corroborate the circumstances of her FMLA qualifications. Some employers are far hastier. When employers do not conduct comprehensive and objective investigations into suspicious FMLA claims, they can open themselves up to lawsuits that can be devastatingly expensive and a public relations nightmare.
Vigilance of adherence to the guidelines of FMLA becomes manageable when Human Resource directors keep an eye out for certain patterns of behavior, such as absence patterns, especially when they coincide with non-work events (holidays or something personal that they may have mentioned in the past). Employers should also be suspicious of absences directly contradicting any medical certification in frequency or duration.
Once an employer has a reasonable suspicion of FMLA abuse, they should most certainly investigate. However, internal investigations into these kinds of abuses can be very messy for Human Resources and upper management. The aforementioned scenario involving “retail therapy” could have been a disaster if the company had not done their due diligence. Some employers are not so diligent.
Another scenario involving a maintenance worker at a nursing home and rehabilitation center panned out much differently. The employee in question noticed his superior was exhibiting a pattern of absence he found suspicious. He began reviewing surveillance footage to compare to his own personal log of her comings and goings in order to prove she was abusing company time. After discovering the independent investigation, the superior served a series of performance adjustments to the employee before terminating him. The termination came after the employee had submitted an FMLA request. The court found the dates of his termination tied in too closely with his request for FMLA, allowing the employee to take the case to trial.
Scenarios like these are why Human Resources and management should 1) be vigilant of FMLA abuse, and 2) conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation in order to ensure the company is protected from litigation. Many companies choose to handle investigations internally in order to minimize the amount of exposure. However, internal investigations spearheaded by current members of staff, will not only disrupt daily operations, but can also have negative effects like the case of the nursing home. The employee conducting his own investigation may have had honest suspicions of his superior’s misconduct, but he was certainly not a unbiased source to investigate.
Private investigators are probative routes often overlooked when a company has an internal investigation. There are many circumstances under which companies do not want to give up control over an internal investigation, and a private investigator is the definition of a third-party. However, the objectivity of a private investigator is the number one reason why companies should consider them as an option. The personal biases of the persons involved in the previous examples caused the investigation to go south. As an independent contractor, a private investigator’s only loyalty is to the truth. They are vital to ensuring an investigation is a transparent expedition for the truth. This goes a long way towards protecting a business from subsequent lawsuits or bad press.
When handling an investigation internally, employers are limited to what surveillance they can attain from their own equipment or social media. Private investigators are licensed to track individuals and photograph their activity in public. Persons who fraudulently claim to be out for injury can be photographed doing tasks directly contradicting their FMLA claim, like yardwork or lifting heavy groceries. In addition to tracking their public movements, private investigators may also conduct undercover operations in order to investigate any frauds. They are invaluable in this regard as they are not known to those within the company. Whether you’re looking for an FMLA weekender or an FMLA moonlighter, if someone has made a fraudulent FMLA claim, a private investigator is the most-equipped professional to prove or disprove the suspicion.