The call came in on his business phone last month.
It was about 4:00 p.m., Kye Lee remembers, when the caller—a man who introduced himself as a Public Utility District (PUD) agent—was demanding that he pay $621.56 for unpaid electric bills.
“If I didn’t comply with the payment right away,” Lee said, “he told me that my electricity would be cut off in a few minutes.”
Baffled, the 64-year-old Korean immigrant says he had to drop what he was working on at the grocery store he owns in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. How could that happen, he asked himself, when he knew he had paid the last bill on time?
“I have never been late paying my utility bills for seven years [since I have had my business],” Lee said through a translator. “But I believed the caller because he gave me a precise amount.”
Scammers getting more sophisticated
Consumer scams like the one that Lee fell for have become more widespread in many cities across the country.
In Washington state, some scammers—from notarios (notary services) and lending companies to debt collectors—prey on immigrants, who may be more vulnerable to their ruses as a result of limited English-language proficiency or simply because they aren’t aware of fraud schemes.
According to Charles Harwood, northwest regional director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), more than 100 cases of customer fraud were filed nationally in court last year. Most of these fraudulent organizations seemed to have credible and legitimate business operations.
The FTC and other law enforcement agencies, Harwood says, received 2.6 million scam-related complaints, not including those in the Do Not Call registry, a list that consumers can join to alleviate unwanted telemarketing calls to their home and cell phone numbers.
With the use of online tools to get background information on consumers, investigators say, many scams have become more sophisticated—and seem more convincing.
‘We can’t just be quiet’
“We can’t continue this. But we can’t [solve this] without the help from the media that report for these communities. We really, really need your help,” Harwood told a group of ethnic media reporters at a recent news briefing in Seattle organized by New America Media.
He urged people to speak out, especially those who have been victims of scams, saying that it is important to let the consumer advocates and law enforcers know how they can help when the problem occurs.
“We can’t just be quiet when we’re victims of scams because we won’t be able to know about it,” he said.
As for Lee’s case, the fake PUD agent insisted that, in order to continue having electricity at his store, he had to pay at least $450. Although Lee said that the checks that he had sent to the PUD went through, somehow he found himself believing the scammer and did what he told him to do.
“I asked the caller, ‘Why this is such a short notice?’ And he told me that a previous notice was sent in the mail two days ago, but I failed to respond,” Lee said. “He even told me that I was lucky to have been given a day-long extension.”
Lee was then instructed to go to a nearby Albertsons Supermarket and purchase a prepaid card called Reloadit to pay his bills. After the purchase, he called the bogus PUD agent and gave the prepaid number on the back of the card.
He asked for a confirmation receipt but never received it. He never heard back from the caller. Lee informed the PUD and was told that he had been scammed.
“I felt helpless,” he said.
How to avoid being scammed
Many people like Lee are convinced by phone scammers, in part because “the call feels very personal” so it is difficult not to believe them, according to Jennifer Leach, acting assistant director for the FTC’s division of consumer and business education in Washington, D.C.
“Even if the call is random, as a lot of them are, the victims say it feels like ‘they know me,’ because they have some information about them,” she said. “It feels like they have some sort of relationship with them that they easily give up their information.”
The victims, Leach said, may be in denial when it happens to them. But she says that by speaking out to authorities, it helps shine light on the fraud.
“Scammers are professionals,” she noted. “It’s their job to get your information, to get your money — and they are very, very good at it.”
Studies have shown that there are two main ways to avoid being a victim of a scam, she said: 1.) Tell someone about the offer; and 2.) Take your time before you make a decision.
“There’s something about it when you say it aloud, and it doesn’t matter whom you talk to about it,” she added. “The scammers want to take your money as fast as they can. So if you make it longer for them, they may also move on.”
Many undocumented immigrants may be hesitant to report scams to authorities for fear that it could alert the government about their immigration status.
“We don’t care about immigration status,” assured Leach. “We don’t track it; we don’t report it. We just don’t care about it.”
Awareness is key to avoiding scams, said Shannon Smith, consumer protection division chief of the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
“If you know someone who was a victim of scam, family or friends, it is important to tell us,” she said. “That person was not the first, and I am afraid, won’t be the last.”
In Yakima Valley, about two hours away from Seattle, notarios reportedly have been targeting undocumented farmworkers.
“I have seen thousands of farmworkers who have been impacted by notarios,” said Laura Contreras, an immigration attorney for Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
For example, after President Obama announced his 2012 executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Contreras recalls, some of the notarios in the valley started charging $100 just to get the form, even though anyone can easily download it from the Internet for free.
“Notarios are long-timers—and they even advertise,” she said.
According to Alan Lai, crime victim service director of Chinese Information and Service Center, some of the worst cases happen when immigrants scam fellow immigrants.
One Vietnamese man posing as a USCIS officer, he said, falsely promised other Vietnamese immigrants that, if they paid him, he would expedite their application to become a U.S. citizen. Dozens of Vietnamese immigrants lost about $100,000 to this scam, Lai said.
Do victims get restitution for the money they have lost?
While the FTC does not handle individual cases, Harwood said that the agency has been able to get some of the money back, as part of a lawsuit against the scammers, for the victimized consumers.
Last year alone, Harwood said that through the FTC’s law enforcement efforts, there were about 740,000 consumers who received more than $65 million in restitution.
Some of the victims, however, may not be able to get the full amount that they have lost to scammers, and “it may take two to three years” for a lawsuit to be resolved.
“Even if, say, they only get half of their money back, I believe that justice has been served for them,” Harwood said.
Still, for Kye Lee, his experience with a scammer has made him more determined to help increase awareness in immigrant communities.
“As a victim, I feel humiliated and frustrated. It’s really difficult to get fooled,” Lee said. “But I know better now, and I will do what I can so people would not experience what I did.”
To report consumer scams and fraudulent activities in Washington State, call the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP; or Washington’s Office of the Attorney General at 1-800-551-4636 or 206-464-6684.
This story is part of a series of ethnic media roundtable discussions on consumer scams across the United States, conducted by New America Media, in partnership with Federal Trade Commission and other law enforcement agencies.