“You think, ‘Oh, my God. My little grandson, Timmy,'” said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. “But guess what? Timmy isn’t in Spain. You don’t need to wire any money.”

It sounds flimsy when you hear about it secondhand, yet people fall for it every day — and some of those people are bright and clearheaded.

In Lewiston, a woman in her 80s recently received just such a call. She went to at least two businesses in an attempt to wire a hefty amount of money. But Western Union workers refused to send the cash. Why? Because the wire services have seen this kind of scam before and they recognized the woman as a potential victim.

“Most of them have caught on and they’ve been very cooperative,” Mills said.

That woman was spared the embarrassment and hardship of being swindled out of her savings. Thousands of others are not so lucky, and the people of Maine are no exception. Millions of Maine dollars each year are lost to scams, schemes and scoundrels, Mills told a group at the Auburn Public Library on Thursday night.

“Money is leaving our state under the worst kind of circumstances,” she said. “It’s flying out the window because of very sophisticated scams like these.”

Mills was just getting started. For the next 90 minutes, the animated AG shared what she knows, personally and professionally, of the many scams at work trying to seduce Maine people out of their money. Some are elaborate and contrived. Others are more prosaic: shifty auto sales, faulty appliances, bogus marketing and landlord disputes.

Home repair? Plenty of scamming going on there. As an example, Mills presented the case of a recently prosecuted Southern Maine man who was bilking Maine residents out of thousands with promises of handiwork. He would offer to build a garage for $10,000, for example, and insist on half of that as a deposit. No contract, nothing in writing.

“Hello!” Mills said to the room, her hands flying up in the air. “That’s a violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act. He was picking on the elderly. He’d take that $5,000 and he’d run. It didn’t happen just one time, it happened 10, or 15 or 20 times.”

Around the room, several people stirred in their chairs. Two had friends or relatives who had fallen for such trickery. Others were more familiar with the slew of scams popping up on the Internet: the bogus sweepstakes, the Nigerian “princes” offering millions of dollars for a little assistance with a money transfer, emails offering massive windfalls for very little work.

“I’ve gotten plenty of those,” Mills said. “Guess what? There is no lottery. You haven’t won a thing.”

Mills was quick to point out that falling for these scams doesn’t mean a person is naive or uninformed. Several she has worked with were highly educated and accomplished people.

“Intelligent, sophisticated Maine people have been sucked in,” she said.

Cramming? That’s a trick some companies use to sneak bogus charges onto a phone or utility bill. It might be just $2.50 or a similar amount for something marked “membership.”

Say what?

“Those small charges build up,” Mills said. “They build up in your pocketbook over the years. Look at your bills very carefully.”

Phishing? That’s an attempt by unscrupulous people or groups to get your personal information — bank account numbers, passwords and such — by sending emails that look quite a lot like they’re from companies with which you do business.

When in doubt, Mills said, call the company in question to find out if the email is legit. Otherwise?

“Delete,” she said. Do not click on any links. Do not forward the bogus email. Mills nodded with great understanding. Report the suspected spam at spam.uce.gov.

In the audience, an Auburn woman said that until she came across phishing-type activity, she thought she had to open every email before she could get rid of it.

“I had to call a computer technician to find out how to delete without opening that mail,” she said.

Robo-calls? Those are the recorded messages that sometimes greet you when you answer your phone. The voice might be telling you there is a problem with your bank account. Maybe it’s offering a dream vacation for just pennies. To the person behind these scams, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living.

“I get these calls all the time,” Mills said. “I get them at the office; that’s the really aggravating thing. I got three this week.”

Hang up, Mills advised the group. Do no press 1 or any other number. Report the call at donotcall.gov.

Not all scams come in the form of emails or phone calls or a dud repairman knocking on your door, Mills said. Scammers try to trick average people out of money all the time, and some advertise on television. They offer to help people with mortgages or debt. Others dangle purported miracle cures for health ailments or sexual prowess or for baldness, overeating or yellow teeth.

“There are companies that prey on our vulnerabilities, on our insecurities,” Mills said.

When in doubt, she advised, research the company in question before forking over your hard-earned money for that herbal supplement or bottle of pills.

Bad guys will also try to prey on our sense of goodwill, Mills said. Some so-called charities will take a massive percentage of your donation and give only pennies to the charity in question. Some won’t give any money at all to the cause. As an example, she referred to last year’s Marathon Bombing, after which so many people wanted to help the victims.

“A lot of fake charities popped up,” Mills said. “People were very sympathetic. Weren’t we all?”

There’s identity theft and health-service fraud. There are bogus prize giveaways and there are people who will try to make you fall in love with them before asking you for big chunks of money so that you can be together.

They call that one the Sweetheart Scam.

“Until money was asked for, he was telling me things I wanted to hear, things that I needed to hear,” said a local woman who recently fell for such a scam. She was not at the Thursday night forum. “By the time he asked for money, I was setting up a picture in my mind of meeting and all that stuff.”

The woman sent the man money. Soon after, he was gone.

“I felt so stupid for sending the money,” she said. “He always had a real good reason for needing it. He was in a foreign country, did his job but couldn’t cash his check because of no American banks. Then there was an accident and he lost his possessions, then got kicked out of the hotel cause he couldn’t pay the bill, etc.”

The woman reported her experience to the AG’s Office. A representative of that office made an attempt to reclaim some of her money, but without success.

Mills didn’t claim to know all of the scams that are out there, although as attorney general, she sees more than most. Every time she believes she’s seen it all, something new pops up, another crooked scheme to bilk Maine people out of their money.

“Tons of scams,” she said, almost tiredly. “It’s just incredible the number of scams that go on.”

The best means of combating the problem, Mills said, is education. If people know more about the scams that are afoot, they can protect themselves. They can also look out for their loved ones and neighbors.

“You can help,” Mills said, “by spreading the word.”

At the end of her talk, a few from the audience said they would do just that. One woman took an armful of informational pamphlets and said she would take them to her church. Another brought some of those pamphlets upstairs so the library could make them available.

“This,” said state Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, who hosted the Thursday night forum, “is very important stuff.”

It can happen to anyone, Mills said. But not every one of the victims is likely to come forward.

“I think there are a lot more of them out there,” she said. “But we won’t hear from them. People get embarrassed.”

Top 10 complaints of 2013

1. Auto sales (both new and used)

2. Contests/sweepstakes/prize promotions and similar types of scams

3. Landlord-tenant/mobile homes

4. Nigerian/grandparent/”Sweetheart” and similar types of scams

5. Home repair/construction complaints

6. Furniture/appliances/home furnishings

7. Entertainment/recreation

8. Satellite TV sales and service

9. Health services (including over-the-counter “health” products)

10. Telecommunications/slamming/cramming (charges added to bill without authorization)

Source: Maine Attorney General’s Office

For more information and links to other agencies, visit the AG’s Consumer Protection Division online: maine.gov/ag/consumer.

Call the Maine Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-436-2131.

Email the AG’s Office at [email protected]


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