The Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business Affairs and the Better Business Bureau are warning about a dirty double-trick that’s being used to cheat Southern Californians out of serious money.
Investigators say the scheme involves predatory short-term loans that are marketed online, offering quick and easy cash regardless of a customer’s credit history.
Valentina Rosas submitted an application recently after an online search turned up what appeared to be a legitimate loan service. She said she was desperate to come up with the cash to pay her mortgage, after her employer had reduced her work hours.
Rosas said she was notified quickly she’d been approved.
"I had a loan of $5,000, guaranteed," she recalled.
Soon after, a man identifying himself as her loan officer called her cell phone number, and the situation quickly grew troubling.
"He said 'You need to make a deposit,'" she said. "I said, 'For what?' He said, 'A city tax.'"
Rosas said the caller told her to buy a MoneyGram worth $149 at her local CVS store, and submit it to a designated online account. That request was followed by several more.
After sending several hundred dollars worth of MoneyGrams, Rosas got suspicious, and told the loan officer she was no longer interested in the loan.
Soon, her phone rang again. This time, her Caller ID indicated the call was coming from the Better Business Bureau.
When she answered, Rosas said the caller told her he represented the BBB, had been in touch with her loan officer, and "he said, 'Miss Valentina Rosas, I guarantee you 100 percent you’re getting your loan.'"
Reassured, Rosas agreed to buy more MoneyGrams, ultimately paying out more than $1500 before she found out from investigators that the Better Business Bureau had never actually been in touch.
Instead, the call had been "spoofed," a tactic allegedly also used by IRS imposters who’ve been calling taxpayers and demanding instant payment.
"[The spoofer] is an electronic device that gets hooked to a telephone device so you can program what number caller id actually reads," said Lt. Mark Stevens of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department’s Fraud & Cyber Crimes Bureau.
"Just because the number on your phone comes back to the company you're being told is trying to contact you doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where the call’s coming from," Stevens said.
Valentina Rosas learned that the hard way.
"Right now, I’m broke," she said. "They took all my money. And I just hope they get caught."
Better Business Bureau national spokeswoman Katherine Hutt said the group will never contact a consumer on behalf of a company:
"BBB does not endorse any company, and we don’t call consumers on a company’s behalf. Unfortunately, it is possible for scammers to create a fake Caller ID so it looks like the call is coming from BBB… or from anyone," said a statement from the organization. "You can’t believe what you see on the Caller ID, so consumers should always be wary of someone who contacts them and asks for money, personal information, bank accounts, credit card numbers, etc. Consumers can always contact their local BBB to check on a business. Go to bbb.org to find the office nearest you."
The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs says people should be extremely cautious when applying for online loans.
"There are other options," said Chief Investigator Rigoberto Reyes. "Such as a credit union, a regular bank, or an advance on a credit card… that’s going to cost a lot less than going to these types of companies."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business Affairs.