Steamboat Springs The e-mails, letters and phone calls are pouring in to Routt County residents. Each person is a winner, the notes promise, as long as you are willing to pay a processing fee, taxes or just repay the extra money accidentally included in the winnings.
But local bankers and law enforcement officers are warning that these schemes are nothing more than attempts to bilk residents out of their hard-earned money.
"All banks are seeing fraud at unprecedented levels," said Greg Dixson, regional president of First National Bank of the Rockies. "There's so much going on; it's amazing."
Dixson said he gets updates about new frauds a couple of times a week. With one recent attempt, local residents received checks saying they won a lottery or drawing for $3,500. The letter included a check, but stated that in order to release the money the recipient first needed to pay taxes or a collection fee on the prize. If residents were to cash the check, they would discover it is invalid - and they are out the "taxes" they paid to the sender, Dixson said.
Routt County Sheriff's Office investigator Ken Klinger said people should be aware of anything promising quick riches.
"It's typically that you've won a lottery or some happy horsecrap thing like that, and it's always a scam," he said. "You get an e-mail saying, 'Lucky recipient, I've been trying to contact you and finally decided to e-mail you. : Please contact us so we can make arrangements to get the money to you.' Of course, they want you to pay the taxes."
Another scam Dixson said has increased in recent weeks advertises for a "mystery shopper" job that pays residents for visiting local retailers. A person is given a fake check and asked to go into a store to "test" their money-order service. The shopper sends his or her own money to the scammers, but the payment check to cover the cost of the "test" is denied.
Banks are warning customers, especially those vulnerable to the scams, to take extra precautions, Dixson said.
"It's typically naÃive people, senior citizens, people who are desperate for cash and have an absolute need," he said. "Senior citizens, they live on a fixed income, they have (individual retirement accounts), they have Social Security, they are perhaps not sophisticated investors, and they're very trusting."
Klinger said one elderly couple in Oak Creek was scammed out of $4,000 when they thought their grandson was injured and needed assistance. After they sent the money to someone pretending to be with their grandson, they found out it was a scam.
Deputies investigating the transaction found that an order sent to Calgary was picked up in a Montreal office within 15 minutes. Klinger said deputies attempted to get the money back to the Oak Creek couple, but once the money crosses the border, U.S. law enforcement is often unable to recover the cash.
"We've tried to involve the FBI a number of times, but they run into the same thing," he said.
Dixson said banks help protect customers by using software that detects abnormalities in check sequencing or other variables.
"We can only (inform) the people who bank with us," he said.
Many of the recent scams seen in Routt County originate in Canada or Nigeria.
"Just about anywhere," Dixson said. "You really can't pinpoint one location. It's pretty creative."
Some suspected scams come from more local sources.
Two Steamboat Springs residents were arrested May 7 on suspicion of racketeering and extortion. Troy Cox, 23, and Cartina Graham, 32, were arrested as part of an ongoing investigation into fraud, Steamboat Springs Police Department Detective Dave Kleiber said. Both suspects are scheduled to appear in court for a status hearing at 1 p.m. May 19.
The best way for residents to avoid scams is to be skeptical and keep a close account of finances, Dixson said.
"No. 1, don't ever give any private information out over the phone or fill out a form unless (you've) initiated a transaction," he said. "Nobody's going to call and say 'Hey, we're so-and-so, can you verify your Social Security number for us?'"
Dixson also recommended checking each bank statement as soon as it comes in the mail and to check all credit card statements as soon as they arrive. Residents should also ignore any suspicious e-mail using poor grammar, capitalization or spelling, Klinger said.
"Regardless of who they bank with, they can always go and talk to their banker if they lack information, have any questions or are suspicious," Dixson said. "That's a resource where they can start."