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FDIC Consumer News - Winter 1996/1997

Important Update: Changes in FDIC Deposit Insurance Coverage

The FDIC deposit insurance rules have undergone a series of changes starting in the fall of 2008. As a result, certain previously published information related to FDIC insurance coverage may not reflect the current rules. For details about the changes, visit Changes in FDIC Deposit Insurance Coverage. For more information about FDIC insurance, go to www.fdic.gov/deposit/deposits/index.html or call toll-free 1-877-ASK-FDIC (1-877-275-3342). For the hearing-impaired, the number is 1-800-925-4618.

Fraud from Abroad

We all learned over the years to safeguard our money when shopping, traveling or investing abroad. But more and more, you can lose money to a con artist in Africa, the Caribbean, or anywhere else in the world, without leaving your home or office.

Con artists around the world are getting more sophisticated and all it takes for them to reach you is the mail, a fax machine, an answering machine, or even your home computer. Don't kid yourself that these international scams only happen in the big cities. If you live in a small town you are just as vulnerable. Here are a few example of the kinds of scams that can easily cross international boundaries to enter your home.

A fax arrives from Nigeria promising you-- believe it or not--millions of dollars if you will help retrieve many millions more from a bank. But first, you will be required to pay various types of government and legal fees to get the money out of Nigeria. In the end, your money and the scamsters vanish. Unfortunately the U.S. State Department estimates that this scam is grossing more than $250 million a year, and the amount is rising.

You find an urgent message on your answering machine, pager, or computer e-mail falsely claiming a family member has been injured, you've won a prize or there is a problem with your credit. You are given a phone number to call. The area code perhaps is 809 (Dominican Republic); 758 (St. Lucia); or 664 (Montserrat). Area codes like these and dozens more easily could be mistaken for U.S. or Canadian and can be dialed without requiring a country code used in most international calling. If you return the call, however, it could cost you plenty-sometimes $25 per minute. The Federal Trade Commission warns that those urging you to call "have an incentive to keep you on the line as long as possible because they receive a portion of the international long distance charge." The con artist trying to persuade you to call gets either a commission or a kickback from the foreign phone company.

A few years ago the Internet was an exotic and remote source of information. Today it is a new channel for some of the tried-and-true scams of old. The National Consumers League in Washington says the Pyramid or Ponzi Schemes-in which you are promised high returns on your investment, but the money goes only to those who invested before you-are at the top of its list of the five most common scams found on the world-wide information highway.

Sweepstakes are now the number one fraud being operated from Canada, says Michael Hartman, a U.S. Postal Inspector in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You may be told you've won a $25,000 prize, but first, you must pay $2,000 in "taxes" or fees. The victims get no prize of any value. If anything is received it is worth less than the "reimbursement fee."

The mail and the phone can also bring investment scams into your home, including such popular ones as higher interest rates or tax shelters in a foreign bank. Check these out carefully before sending any money. Many unlicensed "phantom banks" use names that are very similar to the names of some of the largest banks in the world. And in some of the scams they even claim to have FDIC deposit insurance. In reality, they are none of these things. To see if a bank is FDIC-insured, look in a directory of financial institutions at a library, contact a local bank for assistance, or ask the FDIC's Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs (listed on Page 11). Call the Internal Revenue Service if the claim is that you can shelter your money from taxation by depositing it abroad. Also check with your state banking department to see if they have a banking license, because a business license isn't enough to legally carry on banking activities in the U.S. In another investment scam, some victims bought overpriced semi-precious gemstones as a hedge against inflation. Now they are being told by con artists in Canada who sold them the stones originally that if they invest in just another stone or two to complete the collection, it will be purchased by a group of overseas collectors. But there are never collectors. It is another ploy to get the victims to buy more stones that are worth less than 10 percent of the claimed value.

You may wonder how these cross-border scams can be pulled off and even endure. The Nigerian fraud, for example, has been bedeviling law enforcement agencies for about 12 years. There are a couple of reasons.

First, the victims of scams often are reluctant to report to police that they were taken because they are too embarrassed.

Second, foreign scams are often disguised, such as by using a commercial mail receiving agency in the
U.S. As mentioned earlier, area codes in Canada and the Caribbean appear to be domestic.

Third, prosecution can be tough. Take the case of unlicensed banking operations-most of which operate
out of the Caribbean and the South Pacific. There are few restrictions on banking, and bank privacy laws
in those places make it almost impossible for U.S. law enforcement agencies to gain access to bank records, notes Gene Seitz, who deals with bank crimes for the FDIC's Division of Supervision.

Of course, efforts are always under way to deal with these crimes across national borders. For example,
the U.S. Secret Service in 1996 worked with the Nigerian Police Force to arrest some 40 persons in Nigeria in connection with a long-running scam centered in that country.

On another front, last fall the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Industry Canada (the Canadian counterpart to the FTC) formed a task force on deceptive cross-border marketing practices that targets citizens in each other's country.

Consumers, of course, can take action to defend themselves against fraud, whether it's domestic or cross border. Much of it involves ordinary common sense. Here are some tips from experts in the field:

If you get a card in the mail that gives you a phone number to call about your prize, or if a stranger
calls with a suspicious offer, don't get suckered in, says John Bordenet of the American Association
of Retired Persons.

Tips on how to handle such callers.

Don't hesitate to call the police or sheriff's department. Chances are if you are being approached, so are others in your community.

Think about what is being offered. As Postal Inspector Hartman says of the sweepstakes and gem scams: "Does it make sense to have to pay money to collect a prize? Does it make sense to buy another stone to sell yours?"

If you think a call, fax or a letter is a scam, contact the National Fraud Information Center at 800-876-7060. You will talk to a trained person who has heard it all before. If you wish, they will report the situation to law enforcement agencies. But the information will be kept confidential.

Just a final thought. Remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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Last Updated 07/28/1999 communications@fdic.gov