Old confidence schemes lure new victims in South Florida

The Pigeon Drop. The Lottery Scam. The Bank Examiner.

These confidence schemes and a host of others have been around for decades, victimizing thousands of people out of millions of dollars.

But despite the best efforts by law enforcement authorities to educate people on the very basic message that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, professional con artists continue to find targets in parking lots across South Florida.

"People never seem to stop falling for these things," said Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal. "What's amazing about these scams is they never fail to work. You would think that sooner or later the word would get out and people would figure out that if someone says they want to share their newfound fortune, a bell should go off."

The Pigeon Drop

Delray Beach Detective Tom Whatley recently got a new case to add to his file when a woman was approached in a Publix parking lot and told about a financial opportunity.

"It was a good tip, like pennies on the dollar for Home Depot stock," Whatley said. "They took her to the bank, she withdrew the money. They told her to go see the Home Depot manager and when she came out, they were gone."

And on March 26, a Delray Beach man reported he was approached at a Wal-Mart by two men who claimed they had found an envelope with $15,000 inside that they would split with him if he gave them $1,700. The victim withdrew the money from an ATM, handed it over, then walked inside the store with one of the suspects to claim the $15,000 because they had claimed the manager was holding the cash.

Within seconds, the man turned around and the suspects were gone.

Here's a rule of thumb Whatley recommends following: "If you meet somebody one day and suddenly you're in the bank teller line ¡V 100 percent that's an automatic scam," he said.

The Lottery Scam

A completely sincere-sounding woman walks up and displays a "winning" lottery ticket that can't be cashed in because she's not in the country legally.

Can you help?

She's persuasive, playing to your sympathies. You'll get a percentage of her winnings. You'll just need to withdraw money from your bank account as a measure of "good faith."

Some consent right away. Others hesitate. Then another person sidles up. Perhaps they make a phone call to "confirm" the legitimacy of the ticket. Or they try to ask for a cut of the money for themselves.

Don't fall for it.

The Bank Examiner

The victim is told about suspected fraudulent activity by a bank employee. The victim is asked to "test" the bank teller by withdrawing cash, which is handed over to the "examiner," who's gone with your money before you have a chance to realize what's happened.

And who are the marks?

Police say generally, though not always, the elderly make up most of the victims.

"The older generation is more trusting," Whatley said. "In our age group we say 'No thank you' and keep moving. I tell everybody to say 'No thank you.'ƒ|"

Sgt. Keith Conley, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's financial crimes unit, said he's had victims crying on the phone as they describe the way they were swindled.

"Some of them are so embarrassed they don't even want to report it," Conley said.

Most frustrating for detectives is the lack of a trail. No physical evidence. The criminals stay out of the view of security cameras. As a result, arrests are uncommon and the chances of getting your money back are slim.

"They're hit and run," Whatley said. "They rarely come back to the same location."

The suspects use finesse and acting skills to pull off $10,000 cons in a matter of minutes.

"That's the trouble with these things," Leljedal said. "The people are always the nicest folks in the world. They're the last people on earth you would think are thieves, because they are so genuine and likable."

Stay Safe appears every Saturday in the Local section and online at Sun-Sentinel.com/crime. You can e-mail questions or column suggestions to StaySafe@Sun-Sentinel.com, or send them to Stay Safe c/o Sun-Sentinel, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301.

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