Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 | 2 a.m.
For the past few months, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada has received regular calls from frustrated people asking for their money back.
The callers tell roughly the same story. A relative has been arrested in Las Vegas, and they have wired money for bail to an attorney working on the case. The problem is, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada never handles criminal cases that require bail. The callers have wired their money to a fictitious organization.
“People realize they have been scammed, and they call us to get their money back,” said Lynn Etkins, associate executive director of the legal aid organization. “We explain that it’s not us and we don’t even work on criminal cases. It’s never a great conversation to have.”
The scam is not new, Nevada Deputy Attorney General Laura Tucker said, but there has been an increase in complaints this year. The victim generally gets a call from someone either claiming to be a relative or claiming to be an attorney representing a relative. The relative is in jail, and they ask for the victim to wire bail money.
In the current scam, the perpetrators are using the name “Nevada Legal Aid” and have a tendency to target out-of-state victims who do not know the area well. Besides phone calls, victims have also received the messages via text and email. Sometimes one person calls claiming to be the relative, followed by another caller playing the role of a lawyer.
When the victims realize they have been duped, their research often turns up Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada because there is no organization called Nevada Legal Aid. There is a Nevada Legal Services in town, which adds to the confusion.
“These kinds of scams have been going on for years,” Etkins said. “Usually, it involves a relative in jail or a relative who needs to hire a lawyer. This is the first time, however, that we’ve seen Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada get used as a hook.”
The Nevada Attorney General’s office has received 28 complaints regarding the scam in the past year, but Tucker said there were probably many others. Victims of such crimes often fail to report them to authorities, she said, because they may feel embarrassed or believe they're unlikely to get their money back. The scam has reached the point that the attorney general’s office sent out an advisory Thursday warning consumers of the wire fraud scheme.
“It’s really a clever scheme because it taps into a person’s emotions,” Tucker said. “The first thing to do is be aware and know that no one is immune from this type of thing. Get all of the caller’s information. If they say they’re family members, ask a personal question only they would know the answer to.”
Tucker said social media has made scammers more effective because they can look up personal information about someone before calling. Seniors are disproportionately targeted because they are more likely to have land lines, are often not in the same state as their children or grandchildren and are less likely to investigate the claims on the Internet.
The sum requested typically ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 but can be much higher.
“You have to think of a wire transfer like cash,” Tucker said. “It’s practically impossible to get that money back. It’s difficult to trace.”
More complaints can help authorities track the criminals, Tucker said, and victims should always report fraud.