Debt collection scam tries to trade on Miami-Dade state attorney’s title

Miami-Dade prosecutors are warning people not to pay money to e-mailers who use the office’s clout to try and collect on phantom bills.

07/21/2014 6:11 PM

07/21/2014 6:59 PM

There is no Miami lawyer named Joseph Foster who works for the “State Attorney’s Office” — but that hasn’t stopped scammers from using this bogus identity to try and shakedown people for money via e-mail.

Miami-Dade prosecutors on Monday urged residents not to pay money to anyone purporting to collect a debt on behalf of the the State Attorney’s Office. And the warned not to even click on any links.

The scammers, which prosecutors have linked to a phone account in Thailand, might also be out to steal your personal information.

“I’m outraged that thieves would hope to use the prosecutor’s office as a tool to get cash from terrified victims,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “We have already spoken to victims who almost fell for this scheme. Only luck and good judgment saved them.”

The use of the state attorney’s title is the latest variation on e-mail and phone scams that use threats of arrest to collect phantom debts.

Consumer advocates and law enforcement agencies have long warned of paying bogus debts to callers or e-mailers, some of whom masquerade as being from the “Federal Bureau of Investigators,” “DNR Recovery” or the “Department of Law and Enforcement.” The often threaten arrests unless a debt is paid.

Often the scammers sound and read as legitimate because they are armed with accurate personal information, believed to be bought through crooked online loan officers. Victims, often senior citizens who are scared and don’t realize you can’t go to prison for owing a debt, often comply.

In the most high-profile crackdown, federal authorities several years ago indicted a Northern California man, Kirit Patel, whose companies raked in over $5 million in phony debts, with most of the money sent to India. His operatives, often claiming to be federal agents, were based in call centers there and lodged over 2 million phone calls.

The identities of the perpetrators in the scheme targeting Miami is unknown.

So far, Miami-Dade prosecutors have received about a half-dozen complaints from people in Florida and other states, though they believe there are many more victims.

The victims have turned over e-mails with familiar tactics: threats of arrest, knowledge of names and e-mails and the use of a law firm known as “Morgan & Associates.”

“It’s a new twist on an old scam,” said Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Thomas Haggerty, the chief of the cyber crimes division, which is investigating. “Now, they’re taking it a step futher.”

In one e-mail sent to a Miami-Dade resident this month, the person identifying himself as “Joseph Foster” insists $750 is overdue to be paid to “Cash Advance Inc.”

The e-mail – filled with legal-sounding jargon but with notable grammar and spelling mistakes – lists a court case number and threatens to notify employers and “press legal charges,” even raising the debt to over $6,000 if the money is not paid.

“If you take care of this out of court then we will release the clearance certificate from the court and we will make sure that no one will contact you in future,” the e-mail reads.

In the e-mail, Foster purports to work for “Morgan & Associats” and even gives a local phone number. Investigators called the number but the person on the other end, in a garbled call, hung up. The phone number has since been shut down.

Anyone with who has been a victim, or has information on the scam, can call the State Attorney’s Cyber Crimes Unit at 305-547-0837

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