The Calvert County Sheriff's Office and the Maryland State Police are warning residents about fund-transfer schemes -- old cons that take on many forms but that usually leave the unsuspecting victim out of luck and out of money.
Detective-Sgt. Ronald Naughton of the Sheriff's Office said the department has received numerous complaints about the schemes. He said that in the past three months alone, about 15 people have called the Sheriff's Office to file reports.
Naughton said victims of such schemes in Calvert County have lost about $25,000.
Since many victims don't call authorities, Naughton said, the schemes probably are affecting many other people. "You wouldn't think that people are falling for these types of scams, but they are," he said.
The first is the Nigerian scheme, in which the victim is contacted by unsolicited fax, e-mail or letter. The victim may be told of "over invoiced" or "double invoiced" oil or other supplies that the operators of the scheme need to get out of Nigeria.
The writer inevitably requests that the victim provide a bank account number to complete the transaction. In one variation of this scheme, a company or individual typically receives a letter or e-mail from a Nigerian claiming to be a senior civil servant.
In the letter, the Nigerian will inform the recipient that he is seeking a foreign company or individual into whose account he can deposit funds that the Nigerian government overpaid.
Rather than return the money to the government, the civil servant wants the victim to help him transfer the money to his bank account, for which the victim will receive a commission. But people who agree to participate are required to pay upfront an assortment of fees to cover purported bribes, legal fees and travel expenses, Naughton said.
He said victims of the schemes should contact their local law enforcement agency unless the amount lost is more than $25,000. In that case, he said, victims should contact federal authorities. Naughton said Calvert County authorities have not made any arrests in any of the cases.
Naughton also warned against several other forms of the fraud, including the "bequest" scheme, in which victims are told that money has been left to them in a will but that they need to pay advance costs before the money will be sent to them.
In the "money cleaning" scheme, the operators have cash that needs to be chemically cleaned, and they seek the cost of the chemicals in exchange for a share of the money, Naughton said.
There is also the scheme that involves a buyer overpaying for a purchase with a counterfeit certified check and asking for the change to be returned immediately, Naughton said. Some people sometimes buy items on eBay or other online sites and overpay with a certified check, Naughton said.
The check appears to be genuine, and the money is credited to the victim's account. However, after the clearing process, which can take a few days, the bank learns that the check is bogus and removes the money from the victim's account, Naughton said.
"People get a certified check, and they think it's safe," Naughton said. "But once the bank learns that it's a fake, the money comes out of your account. You're left holding the bag."
Finally, Naughton said, there is the Canadian lottery scheme. In this scheme, victims are contacted and told they have won money in the Canadian lottery.
The victim is instructed to send a fee to cover administrative costs. Once payment is completed, the victim either receives a counterfeit check or nothing at all. Naughton said the Canadian government does not require an administrative fee from lottery winners.
He said people can protect themselves by never making any advance payments similar to those he described. He also said people should never give personal information to someone who promises money or prizes.
To anyone considering such a deal, Naughton offered familiar advice: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true."