Pete Giancola was looking for a bass boat for his son, so he went looking on eBay, where he found one listed for a good price.
He began the purchase, but it didn't take long for "the bells and whistles to start going off" for Giancola, an insurance agent trained to look for fraud.
First, the seller wouldn't let Giancola's friend, who lived in the state where the boat was located, drop off the money personally. So Giancola, who lives in Jordan, checked the boat's registration in Wisconsin and found it was fraudulent.
Giancola backed out of the deal before it was too late and was so angry that he vowed the "seller" would never take anyone the way he'd come close to being taken.
But he learned there was no place to turn.
"The FBI couldn't help me," Giancola said. "The Minnesota attorney general's office said they didn't have jurisdiction. So did the attorney general in Florida. I was told I could fly to Florida and take civil action. I wanted to make sure this didn't happen to someone else, but I can't."
Like thousands of other Minnesotans being scammed on the Internet or on the phone, Giancola found it nearly impossible to do anything. Americans are now taken for more than $5 billion per year in various scams, according to Federal Trade Commission estimates.
And while the prevalence of scams is growing as criminals take advantage of increasingly sophisticated technology, prosecutions are few and far between.
"We're working it aggressively," said the FBI's Paul McCabe, a special agent in the Twin Cities. "But, sadly, there's so much [fraud] we just have to go after the biggest offenders. Sometimes the best thing we can do is education."
Police blotter checks from Twin Cities suburbs in the past few months show dozens of victims or potential victims.
In Plymouth, a woman selling a dress on the Web got taken. In Deephaven, a victim was tricked out of $1,300 in an Internet scam. In Corcoran, someone paid more than $9,000 for an item they never received.
Last month, Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis warned of a scam in which people were being told in bogus e-mails that the agency had awarded them $2.5 million, and was seeking personal data in order to collect.
And just last week, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety issued a warning about scams in which a con artist pretends to be the relative of an elderly victim, who claims to be in trouble in Canada and needs bail money. An Olmsted County woman lost $7,000 in the scam.
According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, there were 2,189 reports of fraud in the Twin Cities in 2006. Numbers are not available for 2007, but experts believe they will show another increase.
Thieves are getting more sophisticated, often sharing "sucker lists" of people who have nibbled at offers in hopes that they'll bite at the next one.
U.S. citizens lose about $120 million per year by biting on fake foreign lottery scams and another $100 million or so in a Nigerian scam, in which victims are promised large sums but first have to put up money of their own, according to the United States Postal Inspection Service.
At the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, operators get as many as 100 calls per month about scams, many from elderly victims and their kin.
"A lot are either from elderly people or their sons and daughters calling to ask about an offer they got," said Barb Grieman, the organization's vice president. "Sometimes they get to us before they've paid any money, sometimes not. It's sad."
The overpayment scam
Perhaps the most prevalent scam currently is the one Greg Shaddrick almost fell for. Shaddrick, from Blaine, put a vehicle up for sale on the free classified website craigslist.org in November. A potential buyer stepped forward and, after some negotiating, agreed on the price.
A few days later, the Shaddricks received a cashier's check for $7,500 -- much higher than the price agreed upon -- with a request to send the "extra" money to someone to whom the buyer supposedly owed money.
But they became suspicious and called the bank, which told them that the account number on the check was bogus. Banks are obligated to process cashier's checks before they actually clear. If they don't clear, the person cashing them is responsible to pay the money.
Shaddrick called police. Like Giancola, he discovered that a large percentage of those tricked by con artists never see justice.
"When we tried to raise the awareness of the criminal's methodology, everyone's response was, 'Not my issue,'" Giancola said.
The percentage of victims who get their money back is small, and the number of scammers caught is limited, the FBI's McCabe acknowledged.
The FBI is the only agency with jurisdiction across state lines and in other countries, and it doesn't have enough people to chase every case.
So agents concentrate on looking for serial scammers and fraud rings.
When victims call, the FBI directs them to fill out a report on its website. Agents look at patterns and then go after repeat perpetrators. The FBI now has Internet scam offices in Nigeria, Russia and other Eastern European countries where most originate, McCabe said.
But there's another problem: Getting cooperation from foreign governments can be tricky.
McCabe said the local bureau solved a major case involving a ring from a Middle Eastern country last year, leading to the arrest of a ring abroad. But when agents wanted to hold a news conference, officials from the country backed off, not wanting the publicity.
In Minnesota, neither the FBI, the attorney general's office nor the Department of Public Safety could cite any other recent prosecutions for Internet fraud. The U.S. attorney's office in the Twin Cities has won a handful of such cases in the last four years.
Several enforcement issues
While scams still proliferate the old-fashioned way, on the phone, technology has expanded fraud opportunities exponentially.
Paul Luehr was at the forefront of the fight on Internet crime as a federal attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FTC before going into private practice. He said authorities took awhile to recognize the magnitude of the problem and have recently taken strides to combat it.
"It's a problem that has plagued law enforcement since direct-mail scams," said Luehr, managing director in the Minneapolis office of Stroz Friedberg LLC, a consulting firm specializing in computer forensics. "History repeated itself when the Internet came along."
Investigating each fraud can take hundreds of hours, so authorities are not likely to spend much time on them unless the loss is more than $50,000, he said.
"There are three issues from the law enforcement side," Luehr said. "There are jurisdictional boundaries to overcome from perpetrators out of state or out of the country. There are physical boundaries between the perpetrator and victim. And the relatively small amount of money lost per incident doesn't justify the expenditure of resources for that one crime."
But things have improved in recent years, he added. The FTC's database can be accessed by any law enforcement agency to look for patterns -- perpetrators or victims -- but not everyone uses it.
Laws have been made stronger for repeat offenders and those targeting the elderly. And reporting forms have been standardized so victims only fill out one for all branches of law enforcement.
But the efforts don't impress Giancola, who almost bought the bogus boat.
He wonders how many people the fake seller took money from. He was told by Wisconsin DNR officials that the address tracked to a Middle Eastern grocery store in Miami, and he wonders if scam-fed money is being used to fund terrorism.
"I was really mad. I had called Minneapolis officials and they said it was a civil issue because it was a solitary case," Giancola said.
"I hate to think this is out of our control," said Grieman, of the Better Business Bureau. "But the number of calls just keeps increasing, so we know people are still being taken."
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702