SALT LAKE CITY — She's a really lucky woman, but not because she got a call today congratulating her on winning a car and some cash.
This senior citizen's big break stems from the fact that she avoided a scam that is affecting elderly Utahns across the state. In this case, the "lucky woman" ignored the advice of her caller and didn't phone the 876 area code number he told her to call to claim her prize. Instead, she excitedly called her son in California first to tell him about the prize she had just won and he told her, sadly, that she was being scammed.
Then he called the Deseret News to say that the Jamaica phone-number scam is recirculating in Utah — its target seniors, its goal nasty. Those who fall for it will be fleeced, said Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce.
Consumer Protection investigators have taken several calls this week about the scam. The good news, she said, is that the callers were reporting it, not saying they had already been victimized by it. The word seems to be getting out.
There are variations, but the Jamaica scam, which takes its name from the fact that the phone number is a Jamaica number, goes something like this: An elderly person receives a call saying that he or she has just won a good amount of money, a vacation package or a car. The "winner" is then given a phone number to call back to verify winnings and get more detailed instructions or asked to wire a "modest shipping and handling fee" or both.
The scammers either take that handling fee and run, or make money from the 876 area code phone number. Dial it and you're calling Jamaica, at international rates that may be very large. The toll can be "astronomical," said Giani — "sometimes hundreds of dollars," which you don't discover until you get your phone bill.
A similar scam provides a toll-free number that is rerouted to a Jamaican (or other foreign) number without telling the caller and, again, huge tolls are racked up.
Giani offers tips to avoid phone scams, many of which specifically target older people:
"No. 1, you're not going to win a car, especially if you never entered a contest. And if you won $50,000," she said, "what contest did you enter?
Anytime someone says to wire them money to claim a prize, forget it. That's a red flag, she noted.
If you wonder if you're being scammed, call the Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601.
"We are as good as the public will allow us to be," Giani says. "If you call us first, we can save you a lot of money, a lot of headache. And folks here are ready and willing to take those calls ….After, it's too late and nine times out of 10, we will not be able to get your money or personal information back."
She also tells people to talk to their elderly parents about scams. "Check in with them and find out what's going on. Some may have been victimized."
"If I could do a cartwheel, I would," she said of the fact that none of the division's callers had been successfully scammed. "People are asking questions."
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