Protecting your cash |

Protecting your cash

Criminals are always thinking of new and innovative ways to defraud unwitting victims through various forms of identity theft and scams, and police are warning potential victims – particularly the elderly – to watch out.

“The elderly represent a real target-rich environment for these people,” Nevada County sheriff’s Capt. Ron Smith said Friday. “The rule of thumb for these things is that if it seems too good to be true, it’s probably not true.”

Local law enforcement agencies receive several reports of identity theft every week, including stolen credit cards and bad checks, plus scams involving callers who request personal information or used illegally obtained personal information, according to police records.

“People are always being solicited to engage in Ponzi schemes, lottery schemes,” Smith said. “And then there’s the Nigeria scam.”

Many scammers will tell someone they won a jackpot, but have to send money to claim the winnings. They will lure a gullible investor with promises of great returns, or promise millions to someone if they would help a person (sometimes an exiled Nigerian) in need.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, which operates a nationwide identity theft hotline, there were 45,175 victims of identity theft reported in California in 2005. California, with 125 victims per 100,000 population, ranked third in the nation behind Nevada and Arizona.

Many elderly people fall for the scams perpetrated through identity theft because some are lonely, trusting and want to participate in something exciting, Smith said.

“You’ve won!”

One elderly man in Lake Wildwood received a call from someone who said he won the Canadian lottery, while he had never played the Canadian lottery, Smith said.

“He really believed he won this lottery,” Smith said. “His bank contacted us and I went out there to talk to him. He was lonely and just wanted to participate in this thing.”

Charles Heinkel, of Nevada City, was savvy enough to avoid a newer scam: Shortly after he bought a new car from a Roseville company, a woman phoned him to say he hadn’t answered a request to renew his warrantee.

“She said without identifying herself that the warrantee on my new car was about to expire and that I had to renew it immediately,” Heinkel said. “She told me to dial number one and a man would tell me what I had to do to keep my warrantee.”

Thinking this to be strange because he had just paid for the warranty, Heinkel hung up and contacted Gary Szakacs, the Roseville car salesman who sold him the car. Szakacs said it was a scam.

“These people seem to be targeting the elderly,” Szakacs said, adding he does not know how the scammers get information about his customers. “It’s ridiculous. They’re just vultures preying on these people.”

Another Szakacs’ customer, a Butte County widow in her 70s, was not so lucky, he said. She forgot she had already paid for her extended warranty, so after the scammer called, she sent a check for $550 to the “warranty” company to activate her warranty.

Szakacs has called the Florida company several times to try to get the woman’s money back, with no luck, he said.

Where to report

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, people should act immediately if they think they’ve become victims of identity theft or fraud to minimize the damage to personal funds, financial accounts and reputations:

Contact the Federal Trade Commission to report the situation at 1-877-ID THEFT (877-438-4338).

For further information, check the FTC’s identity theft Web pages at

You can also call the Sacramento offices of the FBI at (916) 481-9110 or the U.S. Secret Service at (916) 930-2130 to report crimes relating to identity theft and fraud, or visit the California Department of Justice at

To contact staff Writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail or call 477-4236.

Most popular frauds

(and average losses)

The Nigerian letter, $5,000

Check fraud, $3,800

Confidence schemes, $2,025

Fake investments, $2,000

Non-delivery of merchandise,


Phony auctions, $385

Credit card fraud, $240

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