After undergoing surgery a few years ago, Jennifer Leach received a call claiming she overpaid her hospital bill and was eligible to receive compensation. It ended up being a scam and Leach said she is grateful she was able to recognize it as such.
“I almost fell for it,” she said.
Now Leach, who is an assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer and Business Education, talks to individuals about their fears of credit theft and fraud.
On Wednesday, Leach joined about fifty other law enforcement officials, community advocates and consumers at Columbia College Chicago to discuss which communities are most at risk for fraud and how people in those communities can prevent being victimized. The event was part of a nation-wide tour sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission, as well as New America Media, a nonprofit organization of ethnic media outlets, and the Community Media Workshop, a nonprofit group that promotes community journalism.
Leach warned that scammers trick consumers into giving out information by preying on individual’s vulnerabilities.
“They’re professionals, and they’re good at what they do,” Leach said.
“Their job is getting your money.”
Illinois Assistant Attorney General Cecilia Abundis, who was also a part of the panel, said college students are frequently targeted by scammers.
“Sometimes students get scammed by companies offering to reduce student debt or eliminate it all together,” Abundis said,
Abundis also warned students to be wary of scholarship scams.
“You don’t have to pay to obtain information about scholarships,” she said.
Minority communities also have to be more aware of scam threats said panelist Steven Baker, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest region.
“Black and Hispanic consumers are more likely to be victims of scams than the rest of the general population,” Baker said. “There’s a correlation between low-income and minority communities, making them more likely to buy into credit card scams.”
Jennifer Beardsley, a staff attorney for the Chicago-based Legal Assistance Foundation, agreed.
“It has to do with income and education,” she said. “It puts minority communities at higher risk for scams.”
Beardsley also said distrust between minority and immigrant communities and law enforcement makes those victims of fraud less likely to seek assistance from law enforcement.
“We want them to know it’s safe, and we want them to contact us,” Baker said.
Unfortunately, however, reporting the crime isn’t always enough.
“At most police departments you’re going to be out of luck,” said Joel Vargas, the director of intelligence analysis for InterPortPolice Global Force, a global security company.
“There is nothing police will be able to do.”
“Unfortunately in most cases there is no solution that is going to be had,” Beardsley added.
Luckily though, there are precautions that can be taken to lower the chances of becoming a victim of fraud.
“Get your credit report once a year,” said Leach. “It’s the best way to see if you’ve been the victim of credit theft.”
Beardsley also advises against rushing decisions when making financial deals.
“If it sounds too good to be true it is,” she said. “Never sign documents you don’t understand. If a deal is going to be gone in an instant, it probably never existed in the first place.”
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