MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - When a Facebook message appeared in Jennifer Helms' inbox, she thought the offer was too good to be true.
It stated that if you sent a gift card, you would receive more money later.
“I wish that was real. I have $3,” Helms told The Investigators.
That wishful thinking got the best of Helms.
She’d lost her restaurant job after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Then, her sister passed away so she and her mom were preparing to pay for a funeral.
With the promise of very quick cash, Helms sent her very personal information to the person who sent that message, including a photo of her license and social security number.
“I don’t know why I did this,” she said. “I guess because I was desperate.”
“Scammers play on that desperation,” said Daniel Irwin, who does research and investigations for the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. “They play on the need for money, they play on the need for assistance.”
Irwin’s phone has been ringing off the hook as calls have poured in from potential victims who sense something wasn’t right and from others who had been scammed.
Irwin verifies each person’s report and then enters it into the BBB’s Scam Tracker, an online tool that uses real-time data to create a heat map.
Using it, you can find scams in your area, search by scam type or enter other specific information a scammer may have used to try and reel you in.
“So if you got a phone call from a phony bill collector who gave you a specific name and something doesn’t seem right. You can go on Scam Tracker and type in the name of the company they gave you,” explained Irwin.
The hope is folks will educate themselves using the tool now so they don’t lose money later.
Over 580 scams have been reported locally so far this year with a total loss of more than $130,000.
At this point last year, the Mid-South BBB had published fewer than 350 scam reports for a loss of $76,000.
That’s a 65% increase in scam reports and a 73% rise in total losses this year compared to last.
Irwin says the pandemic has fueled the increase.
“People have lost a lot of money, people have lost jobs, people don’t know where their next meal is coming from and these scammers pick up on that and they play on the desperation,” said Irwin.
Helms called the BBB to report she’d lost over $600. Her identity was also stolen.
Irwin says it’s unlikely she’ll get her money back or that the scammer will be caught because a scammer’s paper trail often leads overseas or to nowhere.
For those reasons, and others, Irwin says under-reporting is a huge issue.
“People are ashamed to report a scam. Sometimes they’re embarrassed, other times they don’t want other people to know that they’ve been scammed,” he said.
Helms wants people to know that she was scammed so they too don’t fall for an offer that is too good to be true.
“Don’t do it. No matter what they show you, don’t do it,” she said.
The BBB suggests you speak with someone before you hand over your money or personal information - like a family member, friend or the BBB itself.
If you’re purchasing something online, the Bureau suggests you use a credit card to dispute charges if you don’t receive an item you paid for.