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Why not bust large domestic scams?
June 4, 2013 11:01 AM   Subscribe

So I got one of those "US Airlines" free ticket doodads in the mail. Yes, I know it's a scam. But it led me to wonder: why aren't these large-scale, domestically run scams actually busted? I assume the intent to deceive makes this particular one at the very least intentional infringement on US Airways's trademarks, and quite possibly mail fraud.

As I understand it, this scam works with an upsell for some sort of useless membership or timeshares or somesuch. So it's not as if the perpetrators of this one are mysterious Nigerians on the other end of an untraceable wire transfer — the money exchange is done in a traceable manner with a domestically-operating entity, and it seems that scams of this sort would be really easy to mount a sting operation against, and that they're large enough to make it worthwhile. Is it just not a priority for any enforcement agency?

On a similar note: how about those various scamsters robocalling cellphones? Why aren't they brought down with sting operations?
posted by jackbishop to Law & Government (11 answers total)
 
'Scam' doesn't necessarily mean 'illegal.'
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:06 AM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Lots of times, the scammers are somewhere out of the country, therefore out of legal reach.
posted by easily confused at 11:07 AM on June 4, 2013


I'd guess there is enough money in the scam that it's worth the inevitable fines and legal costs to defend themselves when they finally get noticed by the Feds. Usually the people who run these types of scams are serial offenders. Finding clever ways to dodge the law and bilk people out of their money is basically their job.
posted by deathpanels at 11:12 AM on June 4, 2013


showbiz_liz is right. This isn't illegal, nor is it really a "scam", which by definition, is an "illegal activity". Just as some people are willing to walk into a Prada store and purchase a bag to carry something in for $1,500 instead of using a free bag from the grocery store, some people are willing to visit a time share condo sales office and undergo the pitch in order to get a free ticket to Orlando, it's a choice, just like buying a handbag at Prada.

To be honest, that actually makes more sense (to me at least) than spending $1,500 on a handbag or $10,000 (good lord, when I checked rolex prices while typing this, I found one listed at $450,000!!!! ) on a wrist watch.
posted by HuronBob at 11:21 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not illegal to sell useless memberships or timeshares, and these scams are carefully worded to be highly misleading but not outright lies.

If you actually sit through the timeshare presentation and sign up for the overpriced magazine subscription and the expensive credit card and put your name on the "I'm a sucker, spam me" mailing lists, which since you also have to fill out their lengthy marketing survey they can sell you on to the other scammers as valuable demographically-selected (and self-identified sucker) data, and agree to all the rest of the icky terms and conditions they bury in the fine print, then sure, they'll happily give you your "free" flight, which by that point you've paid for several times over, unless you miss that one line buried in the fine print somewhere that unfortunately disqualifies you from receiving your "free" ticket. So sorry! Maybe next time you'll read the contract more carefully!
posted by ook at 11:33 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


at the very least intentional infringement on US Airways's trademarks,

That's not entirely clear - here's a blog post which includes a scan of one of the letters, and their logo doesn't look similar to US Airways' logo, and I'm not sure the similarity in name alone would be enough to prevail in a trademark infringement suit. Trademark infringement is generally a civil matter, so US Airways would have to care enough to sue them.

Also: In Michigan, at least, the consumer has some legal protection, and is encouraged to file a complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division if they feel they've been scammed. Whether the AG ever takes action against a travel club, or whether similar safeguards exist in other states, I can't say.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:46 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


As mentioned upthread, what constitutes a scam, may actually be a very dark gray of legal. It certainly doesn't make it moral, but it can be tough for officials to find something worthy of the cost of investigation and make the consequences bigger than a simple fine which would be greater than the amount of manpower and money spent collecting evidence to obtain this.

Additionally, there is the mitigating factor that scams like the "volunteer your phone, address, and time to be pestered by our organization and whomever we choose to sell your information to in exchange for a small gift and/or contractual loophole we'll find to not pony up" are much lower on the priority scale of law enforcement than the actual "I'm going to steal all of your base" scams.

With regards to the robo calling, according to cnn.com: "a large proportion of consumer phone spam complaints cannot be investigated because of evasion measures such as "spoofing" -- or hiding -- the originating phone number or caller ID information."

The prevailing theory is that once robo calling was made illegal, it drove the gray area market away, and left only the criminals. It is said that most of these callers are based overseas. They can spoof US numbers as noted above, or hire US-based robo calling centers (who, of course, are innocent and just being lied to by these evil foreigners as to the nature of these calls). For the remaining local folks, well... these folks probably don't care, and hope to hide in the sheer volume of calls originating from overseas (and out of legal recourse's reach), much like your average software pirateer.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:33 PM on June 4, 2013


deathpanels: I'd guess there is enough money in the scam that it's worth the inevitable fines and legal costs to defend themselves when they finally get noticed by the Feds.
The courts assess fines at a level to discourage that business model... unless you're thinking of banks.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:50 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a similar note: how about those various scamsters robocalling cellphones? Why aren't they brought down with sting operations?

How do you envision such a "sting operation" working, exactly? Issue a cell phone to an agent and then have him just sit back and twiddle his thumbs until the robocallers happen to get around to him?

The best way to stop the robocallers - or any other scammer - is for people who catch it to report it to the relevant authorities, so they can add to the paper trail that they are no doubt building. This is what I always do when I get a robocall call (report it to the do not call complaint list), this is what i always do when I get spam mail that's more aggregious than usual, this is what I was instructed to do when I got a version of the Nigerian millionaire fraud scam by paper mail back in the mid-90's.

This is also what helps the FCC to catch robocallers and hold them accountable.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:15 PM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


The best way to stop the robocallers - or any other scammer - is for people who catch it to report it to the relevant authorities

This is what I was going to say. The AGs at the state level, for instance, tend to decide to investigate/aggressively pursue things in large part on the basis of the number of substantiated complaints they get (example, example with fewer complaints but more substantial losses).

People get away with a ton of scams because the scams aren't getting reported. It's actually rather hard to avoid breaking the law once you start using telecommunications or the postal service to advertise and sell stuff; it's really not that the scammers are brilliant legal minds, but rather that no one in authority is spending the time and effort to actually catch what they're doing that's illegal and stop them.
posted by SMPA at 5:41 PM on June 4, 2013


Nthing that scams don't get reported often enough, and also, scammers do change identities and addresses when authorities start paying attention, which can complicate things a bit.

Here's some excellent reading on what happened when a scam DID get reported:

Anatomy of a Scam.
posted by kristi at 10:26 AM on June 6, 2013


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