Special report: how to protect yourself from becoming a scam victim

Bruce Kim
Bruce Kim
Isaac Deschamps
Isaac Deschamps
Larry Lawson
Larry Lawson

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - What's a scam? For law enforcement agents who are looking to educate the public about fraud schemes, SCAM is an acronym for Stop Criminals from Acquiring your Money.

In this special Hawaii News Now report, experts talk about some of the scams affecting Hawaii residents and offer tips on how you can protect yourself.

Personal stories of great financial loss.

"Hindsight, I should have dug deeper and done more homework," one victim said.

"I worked all my life. We had our children. We really believed him," another victim said.

The state Office of Consumer Protection says there's always someone in Hawaii falling victim to a scam.

"Literally it's every day," Bruce Kim, Office of Consumer Protection executive director, said. "Every day."

From mortgage foreclosure rescue scams to fraudulent car repair schemes, the con game is big business.

"Telemarketing scams alone are like billions and billions of dollars in losses every year all throughout the country," Kim said.

One fraud scheme making headlines kicks people while they're already down. The perpetrators offer to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure for a fee.

"So you pay them the up-front fee and, lo and behold, there is no relief," Kim said.

Isaac Deschamps of Kaneohe learned that the hard way. When he found himself unemployed in 2009, he responded to a mailer from a company that promised to drastically lower his mortgage payments from about $1,800 a month to about $585.

"It was professional looking," Deschamps said. "But, of course, as soon as the money was sent to them, the professionalism just went out the door."

The up-front fee he lost -- $3,485.

"The money was gone," he said. "They all disappeared."

Experts say there's an easy way to protect yourself.

"You shouldn't be paying anybody any money up front to get you out of a mortgage problem," Kim said. "That thing can be done for free through an approved housing counselor here in Hawaii."

Honolulu police say another scam involves elderly people receiving calls from other countries, claiming a loved one has been arrested and needs bail money wired through Western Union immediately.

"They're unsure whether their grandson, their granddaughter is out of the country and they don't check because they put a sense of urgency to it, that you want to help your grandson or your daughter get out of jail as quickly as possible," Lt. Larry Lawson, Honolulu Police Department, said.

Also, seniors who drive are being approached in parking lots, and accused of hitting and damaging another vehicle.

"They're threatened to some degree," Lawson said. "They make sure that they make them feel uncomfortable and they say we're going to the bank right now. You're going to withdraw that cash from that institution and you're going to give it to me so I can fix my car."

Sweepstakes scams are still big. Those who run them say you've won a large sum of cash, and all you have to do to receive your prize is send money to cover the taxes.

"If someone calls you over the phone and tells you you've won a million dollars and you've never submitted a sweepstakes for that, most likely you really didn't win a million dollars," Lawson said.

People who stop by and offer to do your yard work or make home improvements may not be as kind and helpful as you think.

"These aren't people who you solicited out of the phone book," Lawson said. "They're just coming to you door-to-door. They have no references. They have no proof that they can actually do the work."

The Office of Consumer Protection says it handles about 1,800 new cases a year.

"To me, it's just amazing how creative people are in terms of ripping people off," Kim said.

But that number may be just the tip of the iceberg.

"They feel ashamed," Lawson said. "They're upset that they've been taken advantage of. Sometimes they report it, sometimes they don't."

A good rule of thumb to stop criminals from acquiring your money…

"Never give money to people you don't know," Lawson said. "Never give money to people you've not initiated the contact with."

"They should be extremely suspicious," Kim said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Copyright 2011 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.