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After a phone call and a fax promised him $2.5 million in lottery winnings, Bill Grasavage did more than most people to fight an obvious scam. He called the bank to confirm the check shown on the fax was phony. He called the cops. Then he called Whistleblower.
“I have to apprise the public,” said Grasavage, 73, a retired federal employee who lives in Minneapolis. “It’s like driving your car down the highway and you see someone lying on the side hurt. You don’t have to stop and render assistance. If you don’t, then you’re not really human.”
These days, scams are everywhere. This newspaper's Sunday business section seemed to be the Sunday Fraud section, given tales about a white-collar fraudster recently released from the pen, the fleecing of Best Buy with the help of an insider and a financial columnist almost taken in by the "friend in dire straits abroad" swindle.
In Grasavage's case, the fax from “Monthly Winners Club Ltd” tries to get its victims to wire $275.99 in “tax and insurance fees.” The man who answered the Las Vegas number on the letter gave Whistleblower three different names and claimed he didn’t know anything about any lottery. Right.
Why are there so many scammers these days?
Phyllis Bourgeois got so fed up with credit card offers piling up in her mail that she called the bank to stop them. Then the automated system asked for her Social Security number.
“Everybody tells old people, do not give out your Social Security number,” said Bourgeois, 72, who lives in Brooklyn Park. She asked Whistleblower: Do I have to hand over private information to stop the junk mail?
No, though they don’t make it easy. A service run by credit bureaus, available at (888) 567-8688 or optoutprescreen.com, will stop the pre-approved credit offers, but it also asks for your Social Security number and birth date.
I decided to give it a try on Friday. When I called, I supplied my name and address. Then it asked for my Social Security number. I said "no." The computer tried again. I said no again. It gave up after a third time, and then asked for my birthdate. Same routine. Then it said I had successfully removed myself from the list.
At no time did the computer give me the option to withhold my private information, but it didn't stop the process. At least the website says that info is optional.
Who's asking for your private information?
The cases may not be the stuff of mystery novels, but last year, gumshoes in the Minnesota Department of Commerce rooted out over $45 million in suspected insurance fraud that claimed more than 750 victims.
It took nearly a year, and going public with their financial setbacks, for the Sonterres of St. Francis to achieve their goal — a modified mortgage that will keep their lender from repossessing their home.
In January, the Star Tribune reported how the Sonterres were unable to get a straight answer on their request for a mortgage modification from Chase Home Finance. That story brought a flood of "me too" phone calls to Whistleblower from struggling homeowners across Minnesota. The attention also seemed to prod Chase into action. The Sonterres suddenly got reassuring phone calls from high-ranking bank reps. Yet after a few weeks, Jennifer Sonterre said, she stopped getting her phone calls returned.
Then came the call a few weeks ago from an extremely well-known morning news program. Sonterre told me that someone at the program had read my story and wanted Sonterre to tell her story to a national TV audience. She wasn't sure she wanted to do that, but she did let Chase know about the invitation.
Five days later, the deal was in hand. On March 10, the family reached an agreement with Chase in which they would pay $60 more each month, and they would no longer be considered in default because of previous missed payments, she said.
“We are just really happy to have this behind us,” she said.
The irony is not lost on me. I wrote the story about the Sonterres to put a human face on the mortgage modification mess. I'm grateful that their lender responded, but I'm also aware that so many others in the same or worse circumstances won't get that same consideration. Many of the institutions the Whistleblower team writes about are savvy enough to correct an individual problem brought to their attention.
Yet the question remains: how do you get the attention of a mortgage lender or some other giant institution when you can't get your story on the news?
My story Tuesday described how Nancy Sanford was wrangling with the financing over her late husband's lease of a GMC Yukon. A phone call from Whistleblower succeeded where months of effort on Sanford's part didn't, leading a reader nicknamed snodgrass to post the following suggestion:
Why can't individuals get anywhere with these companies but they roll over when a newspaper calls? Are the people doing it wrong? Why not a piece on why something works and another doesn't?
The Whistleblower team talks about this phenomenon all the time, and we're still puzzled. Obviously some companies and institutions are more concerned about their public image than others. I would put the question to you: how have you succeeded in scaling the battlements and seizing the attention of the king? That's what this blog is all about. The collective knowledge of our readers could solve many more problems than our team can by making phone calls and sending emails. Tell us your secrets.
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