How’s this for a bit of creativity?
Earlier this year, a company with the impressive sounding name of Mouch & Thompson, PLLC, sent a letter (see PDF below) to low-income residents in the Charleston, West Virginia, area with an offer that was hard to refuse. The first 50 recipients of the letter to show up at Mouch & Thompson’s offices in downtown Charleston on February 15 would be guaranteed a rental assistance grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Or so wrote Wesley Mouch, the firm’s president.
Unfortunately, the invitation was nothing more than an identity theft scam by persons unknown. Mouch & Thompson didn’t exist, and neither did Wesley Mouch except in Ayn Rand’s fervent imagination: Mouch was a principal character in her novel Atlas Shrugged, published more than 50 years ago.
“A lot of people showed up at what they thought were Mouch & Thompson’s offices,’’ says Tammy Arthur, office manager of the Consumer Protection Division in the West Virginia Office of the Attorney General. “That’s no surprise. Times are tough and people thought, ‘Oh, a grant, something I don’t have to pay back’.” Investigators were tipped off to the scam and posted surveillance teams at the supposed Mouch & Thompson offices. “The crooks never showed up,’’ Attorney General Darrell McGraw said in a press release.
The case is a cautionary tale, and similar schemes are extremely common across the country. Scammers are aggressively seeking to take advantage of Americans in a time of great financial distress. In the Mouch & Thompson scam, for example, the con artists were after personal identification information such as Social Security numbers.
“There are many scammers out there who are only too anxious to come up with fictitious programs to prey on those hard hit by the recession,” said the Recovery Board’s Roy Kime, who is heading up the Board’s efforts to monitor scams.
Scammers often claim that they can help eligible Americans obtain Recovery money or other government funds. In one scam, a website claimed that, for a small credit card charge, Americans could order a compact disc or get access to another website explaining how to receive a $12,000 government grant. Those who took the bait ended up getting charged a monthly fee of up to $69.95. Other scammers claim that, in order to receive money, people need to provide personal information ranging from credit card and bank account numbers to Social Security numbers. To date, scammers have swindled thousands of dollars, and a few schemes have resulted in identity theft.
The scammers use a variety of ways to pick the pockets of the unsuspecting public. Many fraudulently use official government insignia or photos of President Obama or Vice President Biden to lend their claims an air of credibility. The scammers also employ a variety of media to reach gullible citizens, including e-mail, traditional mail, phone calls, and even radio advertisements.
Perhaps most important, the scams hinge on the public’s lack of knowledge of Recovery Act programs. Scammers claim they can assist in acquiring grant or loan money or tax rebates available under the Recovery Act. However, the law has provided funds directly to individuals in only a few instances. In the spring of 2009, for example, the Recovery Act provided "Economic Recovery Payments" through the Social Security Administration to individuals receiving Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits. And in 2009 and 2010, a Recovery program called "Making Work Pay," which was administered by the IRS, provided a refundable tax credit to individuals.
The Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are warning the public about stimulus scams. Investigators say that citizens should avoid providing any personal information to companies offering access to Recovery money and should immediately notify their state’s Attorney General if approached with such offers.
Sample Scam Letter
Attorney General of West Virginia's Response to the Scam
Back to Featured Stories