Spanish speakers added to scammers' list

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, May 25, 2013

— Scammers look for weakness. They appeal to greed, compassion or fear. They'll use any trick.

One of their latest targets is Spanish speakers.

"It's no different than taking advantage of the disabled or the elderly. Those are populations that are vulnerable, and scammers, they don't care," said Crusita Barrios, immigrant outreach program director at the YWCA of Rock County.

Barrios said she has helped several clients who have received calls in their native language, demanding money for something they didn't order.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection reports an increase in such cases in the past two years.

"Hispanics statewide have been specifically targeted in scams that began as phone, online or mail-based purchases of goods, but that turned into aggressive and threatening demands for additional money or purchases," the department said in a recent news release.

Barrios' latest case started in March when a local woman saw an advertisement on a Spanish-language TV channel and ordered an herbal treatment for menopause.

She paid $152 with a money order. Then the trouble started.

She got a phone call from Florida. The caller said she owed $4,000 because she had not paid for the orders the company had been sending her, the caller said.

The debt was sent to a collection agency, the woman was told, but the caller said he was an attorney and could represent her if she would send a money order for $400.

The woman did not respond but continues to receive harassing phone calls, including one last week. Barrios is helping her file a complaint with the state.

Barrios said her clients typically don't have a lot of money, but they feel intimidated.

"They will pay up because they don't want to have that debt hanging over them. I don't care how poor they are, they are going to want to pay up," Barrios said.

Barrios tells them: Don't.

Most legitimate companies will agree to work out a payment plan, Barrios said. The company's first move should not be to threaten the consumer.

Barrios said the most common calls she gets concern satellite TV service. It appears some people with deep knowledge of a satellite company are getting lists of the company's clients and then demanding money for services they didn't order.

Barrios said she called the satellite company and was told it had received dozens of such calls, but it wasn't the company that was demanding more money.

Officer Chad Sullivan, who serves on the Janesville Police Department's Latino Advisory Committee, said he has heard of a similar TV-service scam, but that he hasn't noticed a trend.

Sullivan called the state consumer protection agency, which had heard the same story in the Milwaukee area.

"I don't think it's rampant in this area, but I can see it happening," Sullivan said.

The state consumer news release related three recent incidents:

-- A Milwaukee man ordered vitamins advertised in Spanish on the radio. He tried to cancel future orders, but the company continued sending vitamins and monthly bills.

A company "lawyer" then called, threatening to sue for $10,000 if the man did not continue to buy the product.

-- A Madison consumer received a sales call from a Spanish-speaking salesperson who offered two cell phones and a calling plan at a great price. A package arrived with two perfume bottles inside the box, each filled with water. The company will not answer her calls.

-- An elderly Madison couple received a sales call offering books for English learners. They did not want to buy the books. The company continued calling, claiming it had recorded the consumers saying "yes" to the offer and therefore they had to pay. The company threatened to sue for thousands of dollars if the couple did not send a money order.

Sullivan said police are used to hearing tales of woe from people who responded to offers that seemed too good to be true.

"Any way they (scammers) can think of, they're going to attack," Sullivan said.

Last updated: 10:32 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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