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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2012 > Knowing How to Investigate Common Scams May Reveal Actual Crimes

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Knowing How to Investigate Common Scams May Reveal Actual Crimes

With the holidays approaching, ‘tis the season for shopping, celebrating, and . . . scamming? Unfortunately, some consumers will fall victim to scammers at this time of year. However, some scams are actually thefts, so it’s important for law enforcement to investigate them as potential crimes.

Scams involve deception or the abuse of a position of trust, and they become criminal when the scammer actually has the intent to deceive consumers and never make good on his promises. Common scams that officers should recognize are home improvement fraud, phone scams targeting older residents, credit repair scams, Craigslist or eBay scams, and prize or sweepstakes fraud. These scams may involve the underlying crimes of forgery, telecommunications fraud, identity fraud, and passing bad checks.  

The Attorney General’s Economic Crimes Division, formed a year ago within the Consumer Protection Section, can help local authorities identify, investigate, and prosecute consumer fraud of a criminal nature. Led by a former prosecutor, the division includes four attorneys and three investigators.

In addition, the Ohio Attorney General’s Peace Officer Training Academy (OPOTA) can assist officers with a course specifically tailored to investigating scams as crimes.

First, you must look at the evidence you have from the victim. For example, in a gift card scam, officers would have the victim’s statement; purchase receipts; bank statements; and, if the victim purchased the gift cards online, any electronic information such as the website address, the seller contact information, and possibly an IP address.

Second, try to figure out what additional evidence you would need for a case. Talk to your prosecutor about what is needed for an indictment and conviction. If you are investigating a phone scam aimed at taking advantage of the elderly, for instance, a great place to start is locating any documentation that could identify the suspect.

With economic crimes, identifying a suspect is always difficult because he may have many aliases. A victim’s phone records may lead you to a suspect. Also, contact the money transfer service to try to get a name or ID of a suspect or at least the cash pick-up location.

As with other crimes, subpoenas and search warrants are useful during evidence collection. Suspect target interviews also can provide valuable evidence. When preparing for such an interview, know the ins and outs of the alleged scam. That way, you can make a suspect commit to a particular story. You can confront the suspect with what knowledge you have about the scam and possibly catch him in a lie. Be patient and relentless with what you know to be true, as the scammer probably will continue to lie about his crimes. Be sure to record the conversation to document the meeting.

When gathering evidence, look for consistency in the scam’s pattern. For example, ask about the amount of money taken, whether the victims were told to write checks to a variety of people, and what the suspect’s excuses were for not providing the product or service even though money had been collected. This evidence will establish a pattern that there was never an intent to follow through with the promises made.

In using all of these investigation tools, the main question you must answer is, “Where did the money go?” Following the money will reveal the theft, and, most times, the actual thief.

Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst

To request the Attorney General’s assistance in an economic crimes investigation, visit the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG) at and click on “Economic Crimes—Assistance to Law Enforcement” in the left-hand column. Fill out the brief form and a staff member will respond. Or send an e-mail to

For more information about OPOTA’s Economic Crimes Investigations course and other courses, visit or or e-mail