Fraud — Alive and Well

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This old French saying is true in regard to a wide range of topics, among them the prevalence of scams.

Over the weekend, New York’s attorney general sued Donald Trump for $40 million, saying the real estate mogul helped run a phony “Trump University” that promised to make students rich but, instead, steered them into expensive and mostly useless seminars, and even failed to deliver promised apprenticeships.

Trump claims that the Democrat’s lawsuit is false and politically motivated, saying that Trump University provided Attorney General Eric Schneiderman with nearly 11,000 student testimonials praising the program, and said 98 percent of students in a survey termed the program “excellent.”

Ultimately a court will decide, but if Attorney General Schneiderman is correct, many of the 5,000 students who paid up to $35,000 thought they would at least meet Trump;  instead all they got was their picture taken in front of a life-size photo of the tycoon.

“Trump University, with Donald Trump’s knowledge and participation, relied on Trump’s name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand,” Schneiderman said.

The lawsuit says many of the would-be moguls were unable to land even one real estate deal and were left far worse off than before the lessons, facing thousands of dollars of debt for the program, once billed as a top-quality university with Trump’s “hand-picked” instructors.

State Education Department officials had told Trump years ago to change the name of his enterprise, saying it lacked a license and didn’t meet the legal definition of a university. In 2011, it was renamed the Trump Entrepreneur Institute, but it has been dogged since by complaints from consumers that it didn’t fulfill its advertised claims.

If these charges are proven true, Trump will hardly have been the first to fool gullible clients into fraudulent education programs.

The internet has proven has proven a powerful tool for con artists intent on taking advantage of the innocent and naïve.

A plethora of sites offers everything from online classes that would lead to doctorates — without disclosing that these universities and colleges aren’t recognized and their degrees have no validity — to counterfeit college degrees and transcripts.

“Our quality cannot be matched because we use the same exact printing equipment as every major university,  including the same transcript security paper,” one site claims.

These frauds represent only a small percentage of the ways thieves try to rip people off on the internet.

Email scams also remain popular. The fact that they still steadily turn up in people’s inboxes after so many years is testimony to the fact that some people are still falling for them.

One variation tells the recipient that he has won millions of dollars and congratulates him repeatedly before requesting the “processing” fee of several thousands of dollars. Another purports to be from an acquaintance saying that he or she was traveling, has been robbed of all their cash and needs money to get home. In reality, this acquaintance — whose contact list has been hacked into — doesn’t know anything about it.

Old-fashioned phone and mail scams are still going strong as well.

In recent weeks, a member of the Jewish community was contacted by an individual claiming to be from the IRS, who told him of a large payment that was due and informing him that he “would be picked up” the next morning by an IRS agent.

Fortunately, before handing over any money, he reached out to his accountant and to community activists who warned that, in all likelihood, it was an extortion attempt. A call to the real IRS confirmed that the call was indeed a fraud.

A more frightening incident occurred in the same community a week earlier, when a housewife was called and informed that her brother was in an accident. Shaken, the woman gave the caller her husband’s cell phone number.

The caller then immediately contacted the husband and told him that they had his wife at gunpoint, threatening to shoot her if he spoke to anyone or did not comply with their demands.  Frightened, the husband drove to a local store to wire the thieves money via Western Union, all the while being warned that he was being followed and was in danger. After three agonizing hours, the victim’s wife was able to contact him and convince him that at no point had she actually been in danger.

In another variation of this swindle, the caller says he has just been in a car accident with a relative of the victim, and claims that he is holding a gun to the family member’s head, and will shoot unless the victim pays thousands of dollars in damages.

In all cases, recipients of such calls are urged to stay alert at all times, remain calm and let logic — not emotion — reign. Under no conditions should one reveal confidential information to strangers. Remember: If something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is, and when threatened with extortion, contact the authorities immediately.