Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Skimmers, scammers, schemers: When it comes to fraud, Florida has it all


Criminal prosecution would be bad enough. But deportation? The prospect that the Internal Revenue Service would send me back to West Virginia seemed tantamount to cruel and usual punishment.

I wondered if the judge would offer a choice on my day of reckoning: federal prison or the coal fields. Oh, Hobson, what would you choose?

Thankfully, the voice on the telephone, introducing himself as agent Daniel Smith of the IRS Division of Criminal Investigation (with an accent that was not of the Daniel Smith kind) explained that I could settle my tax transgression and avoid criminal arrest and prosecution and maybe even deportation. No muss. No fuss. All it entailed would be a quick and simple money order for $2,341.

I hung up muttering obscenity-laced remarks that would have warranted arrest for threatening a federal law enforcement officer had Daniel Smith been the real thing. Smithie then had the gumption to call me back and double down. “I warning you,” he said. “This get you put right away in jail.”

That was last week. It was my third IRS scam call in the past three months. All three callers claimed that my tax returns had undergone an audit that had turned up criminal miscalculations. But they never had a chance with someone like me, who after working for newspapers for 47 years, hasn’t accumulated anything worth more than a standard deduction. With a tax return that simple, I know I’m pretty much immune to audits.

But Danny’s deportation threat was something new, a sinister little twist reserved for area codes in immigrant-laden communities like South Florida.

Despite his persistence, I’m afraid that I’m really not all that special to Daniel Smith and his ilk. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received 54,690 complaints about IRS impostor scams, up from 2,545 in 2013. IRS phone scammers are not to be confused with their cousins who employ identity theft to filch tax refunds. The FTC counted 109,063 complaints in that unseemly category in 2014.

It’s probably much worse in both categories. Most folks, I’m guessing, don’t bother filing a complaint, accepting fraud attempts as one of the inevitable vexations of modern life. Like Rick Scott and Justin Bieber.

That most recent IRS scam attempt came a few days after a call from another heavily accented voice claiming he was a Microsoft techie “needing to notify you about a very major security breach” in my Windows operating system. All I needed to do to protect myself was allow him remote access to my computer so he could install a patch. Except, I’m a Mac user, beyond redemption.

It was the second time a counterfeit Microsoft rep had reached out to me, trying a ploy that is so common that Microsoft’s “Safety and Security Center” devotes a special section to the problem, warning that cybercriminals aim to “trick you into installing malicious software that could capture sensitive data, such as online banking user names and passwords. They might also then charge you to remove this software.”

Then last week someone from American Express -- an authentic, real life, honest-to-goodness employee -- rang me up to inquire about my application for a new platinum card on May 13. Not me, I replied. Well, the AmEx consumer relations rep said, someone sure as hell had applied in my name. With my full name, my address, my date of birth, my Social Security number.

Which set off one of those unavoidable odysseys in the age of fraud: call after call, negotiating the touch-tone menus of banks, department store chains and credit bureaus to disavow my felonious doppelganger. I signed up for credit card theft protection and paid for some other special service a credit reporting company offers to keep the wolves at bay (the details of which slipped my mind moments after I clicked the yes button). I think it all came to $140, which was nearly as irritating as the criminal enterprise trying to exploit me. The company website showed me that the other Mr. Me was signing up for all manner of credit cards, including Bank of America and Nordstrom twice, one application with my middle initial, one without.

I was still calling 800 numbers trying to undo the mess on Friday. The nice woman from Barclays, when I explained that it wasn’t me trying to score another MasterCard, said she understood because, “This is what I do. All day long.”

Sunny Florida must occupy a special place in the fraudster business plan. The FTC ranked us Number One — and ain’t we proud — in fraud complaints in 2014, with more than a thousand complaints for every 100,000 residents. No other state comes close.

We’re also Number One in ID theft, racking up 186.3 complaints per 100,000 residents.

Florida has 12 among the top 30 of the nation’s metropolitan areas in churning up fraud complaints. And in 2014, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro was Number One in the nation by a considerable margin in the fine art of ID theft.

We’re either excessively naive or excessively dishonest. Or both.

Last week, the Florida Department of Agriculture reported that when agents inspected gasoline pumps at 7,571 stations statewide, they discovered 103 skimming devices: barely discernible gadgets surreptitiously attached to credit card keyboards. Skimmers record customer debit card information, along with PIN numbers. (Gas pump skimmers are similar to theft devices commonly attached to keyboards on ATMs and mass transit ticket devices.)

South Florida may not be a high tech hub, but when it comes to fraud innovation, we’re a veritable Silicon Valley. The inspectors reported that we led the state with 16 skimmers discovered in Miami-Dade County, 11 in Palm Beach County and another nine in Broward. Last year, a similar sweep turned up 81 skimmers statewide.

Maybe the odd fact that consumer protection in Florida has been consigned to the state agricultural department explains something about Florida’s vulnerability to fraud. The ag boys have reported no arrests in connection with the pump skimmers. When California cracked down on gas pump fraud last year, agents there attached tiny GPS devices to the skimmers and were able to track the thieves to their lairs after they retrieved the gadgets. California has busted more than 140 skimmer scammers.

In Florida, we’re told that, just to be safe, stick to those gas pumps closest to the service station building. Apparently, fraudsters tend to attach skimmers to those pumps farther away from the attendants. Somehow, such advice seems only slightly more valuable than “don’t take any wooden nickels.”

Makes me downright nostalgic for those beseeching email pleas from exiled Nigerian millionaires so common in the 1990s. At least Major General Ajiborisha, his millions marooned in a Swiss bank account, didn’t threaten to send me back to West Virginia.