LEWISTON — Awareness of Internet- and email-based scams has steadily increased, but the swindlers who create them continue to invent new tactics, police say.

And while the number of complaints from victims is down from its peak a few years ago, Lewiston-Auburn residents still fall prey to scam techniques, both new and old.

Just ask Scott McMullin. “I almost made a fool of myself, let’s put it that way,” he said.

The Lewiston man received an email from someone in Malaysia saying they needed a courier to help with business transactions in the United States. The email asked for his name, phone number and address, but no other personal information, so McMullin sent back a reply.

A few months went by with no further word from the Malaysian stranger, and McMullin had nearly forgotten about the random email when an envelope came for him via UPS on Tuesday, March 29.

The envelope contained a money order for $995. It was made out to McMullin and listed the address of a Louisville, Ky., company that sells eyeglasses under the sender’s name.  It came with a set of typed instructions, telling him to cash the order at a bank, keep 10 percent for himself, and send the remaining money to the contact in Malaysia via Western Union.

McMullin called a phone number printed on the instructions, but the call went straight to a messaging service. It wasn’t clear whose voice mail it was. McMullin left a message, and 15 minutes later, he says, he got a new email repeating the instructions on what to do with the money order.

He tried to cash the money order at his credit union, but they required a five-day hold, so he went to RepubliCash on Lisbon Street. There, finally, someone told McMullin what he says he should have known all along: The money order was a forgery, the courier gig a scam.

“I knew that this kind of thing has happened before but didn’t think it would happen to me,” he says.

McMullin wasn’t the only one to find out the hard way. At the very next teller’s window, a woman was trying to cash an identical money order, sent to her in an envelope with the same Kentucky return address and the same set of instructions on what to do with it.

RepubliCash receives fraudulent checks and money orders “at least once a week,” Manager Natalie Raye said.

Victims of such scams get hurt when banks cash the checks without first verifying their authenticity. When the bank realizes the check is fake, they take the amount of the check from the victim’s own account, Lewiston police Detective Scott Bradeen said Wednesday. If the victim has already spent “their” percentage of the check and sent the rest to the scammer, they may lose hundreds or thousands of dollars.

“If a fraudulent check bounces, it’s not the bank’s liability,” Bradeen said. “It’s the person who cashed the check.”

“Generally, we can look at a money order and know it’s fraudulent” because they don’t follow the specific format of money orders, Raye said. The company also uses a third-party verification service to make sure money orders are legitimate before cashing them, she said.

The scam that McMullin got caught up in follows a common template, adapted from a scheme perfected by Nigerian scam artists years ago. Scams originating from Nigeria were once so widespread that the genre is known as “419 scams,” referring to the section in Nigeria’s penal code they violate. The older scams often targeted people for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, but as more people have heard of them, fewer are taking the bait, Detective Bradeen said. “People are starting to wake up,” he said.

In response, the scammers have branched out and now target foreign countries in addition to the U.S., he said, but new swindlers have moved in to take their place, with new stories and new tactics.

Many of the newer scams take advantage of Internet-based sales and auction websites like eBay and Craigslist, and even Uncle Henry’s, Bradeen and Raye said. In these cases, supposed buyers will agree to buy an item from the legitimate seller. They then send a message claiming they can’t pick up the item in person, and ask for it to be shipped.

In order to pay the shipping charges, they offer to send more money than the sender was asking for, via a check or money order. They ask the seller to return the difference after covering the cost of shipping. As with the scam that got McMullin, the money orders are frauds.

Bradeen said there are some simple ways to tell whether an offer emailed from a stranger is a scam.

“If someone’s offering you more money than what you’re asking” for an item sold on eBay or Craigslist, “then it’s a scam, end of story,” he said.

Very poor English, with non-standard grammar or spelling, is another thing to look out for, he said. Most of all, “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

Because the scammers are usually difficult to trace or are from outside the U.S., prosecuting them is nearly impossible, Bradeen said. “If you get sucked into it, there’s nothing law enforcement can do.”

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