Fraud cases increase, bilking tens of thousands of dollars from local victims

Published: Nov. 4, 2021 at 6:00 PM CDT
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Scammers are hard at work and appear to be targeting Northeast Wisconsin in big ways this year, fooling hundreds of people and convincing them to give up tens of thousands of dollars or more to people they’ve never met.

“The scams are vast, and it’s ever changing,” says Sgt. Zak Holschbach, who investigates many of the reports the Brown County Sheriff’s Office receives. “You’re chasing ghosts.”

In one case he showed us, one of the so-called ghosts appeared in crystal clear surveillance video at an ATM in Chicago, but you can only see the man from the back, and so far, investigators in Northeast Wisconsin have come up empty trying to identify him.

Holschbach says the surveillance video shows a a man cashing a check stolen from a local woman, depositing it into an untraceable account, bilking her out of thousands of dollars.

It’s one of more than 230 fraud cases the Brown County Sheriff’s Office has worked this year, and the number is only growing, with 11 last week alone.

“I’ve seen cases just personally that I’ve worked that have been six-figure cases. I’ve seen lots of tens of thousands of dollar cases,” says Holschbach.

He investigates all kinds of crimes, but recently he’s been working case after case involving fraud.

“This particular scam was an IRS grant/US grant that they believed they were getting a money grant from the government,” he explains.

This is part of a new scam Holschbach hadn’t seen until now.

He says the victim, who had fallen on hard times and really needed money, received a text saying they’d been awarded a government grant, but had to pay a processing fee first.

To hook the victim, he says the scammers sent an ID with ‘California’ clearly printed at the top, but showing an Illinois donor sticker at the bottom, along with Facebook’s address in California, Abe Lincoln in the background and ‘Jane Q Public’ under a man’s picture, with the printed name ‘Agent Michael Peterson’ next to it.

“I’s very clearly a fraud,” says Holschbach.

But he says when the victim questioned it, the scammers sent more so-called proof trying to make it look legit.

The local victim ended up losing thousands of dollars.

“This was shipped to Alabama. Cash, US currency, to a house in Alabama, and the IP that was tracking the cash was actually in Africa,” explains Holschbach. “In a lot of these fraud cases, there’s usually not money coming back. That’s very rare.”

So are arrests.

Of the 236 fraud cases his agency has received this year, Holschbach says they’re seeing all kinds of scam attempts. There’s the number spoofing, the ones where someone is in distress and you have to pay to help them or you’re suddenly finding your long lost love.

In some cases, victims here are sending money to people duped in other states, or the money they’re convinced to give up and mail to someone else is immediately converted to bitcoin or digital currency, never to be seen again.

“It sure seems like it’s on the rise. It really does,” says Holschbach.

He thinks a more ‘do everything online’ world, mid-pandemic, makes check washing easier, too.

That’s where someone steals checks from the mail, changes the name and dollar amount, deposits the check at an ATM or on a mobile device and walks away richer.

In the case involving a local victim, who had written a check to pay her annual insurance bill, she didn’t even know it had been stolen right away.

As for where her check was cashed, by the man seen in surveillance video in Chicago, Holschbach says, “The name used to create this account is just another victim who had their identity stolen out of a purse in a car.”

So the big question is why is this happening more and why here?

He says it might just be because we’re Midwest nice.

Holschbach says scammers know people here are generally more trusting, making this area a good target.

While law enforcement will try to investigate, if you suddenly discover you’re about to somehow receive a lot of money, he urges you to do this first:

“Just stop and verify things. I think that is the thing. Not to get philosophical, but in life, we make emotional decisions, and that’s what happens in these cases,” he says. “The common theme is... they feel so dumb for falling for it, but (it’s) all walks of life, all educational backgrounds. Like anything in life, when you make an emotional decision, immediately, a lot of times that’s where the mistake is.”

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