Business

Victim of a scam in Florida? Join the club

MANATEE -- Florida is the top state in the nation for identity theft. It also holds its own for Medicare fraud and various tax-related schemes.

Fraud probably isn't the most settling topic to discuss over lunch. But with seemingly more scams showing up on the phone, in email and in the mail every week, the Bradenton Kiwanis Club put one of the state's fraud experts on the spot this week to help its members stay aware.

Alexander Warmka, a regulatory consultant with the state's Division of Consumer Services, told Kiwanis members scammers are at work every day.

"So as you can imagine, they keep us busy all year long with thousands and thousands of dollars worth of complaints," he said.

As the nation's third-largest state and home to generally trusting generations of retirees, it's no surprise Florida is a happy hunting ground for fraud operators. Several times a year, customers of gas stations in the Bradenton-Sarasota area fall prey to credit card skimming devices that grab at cash more effectively than a mugger.

Businesses suffer, too. Bradenton-based Bealls has department dedicated to keeping its stores from being ripped off.

Fraud isn't something that happens to other people, Warmka told his audience at the Kiwanis regular Tuesday lunch meeting at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. Fraud schemes show up in email inboxes, over the phone and in the mail. While much of it gets ignored or trashed, some of it attracts victims, especially if it's something they can't identify as a scam.

"The moment I think I've heard of every single scam out there, something else pops up," Warmka said.

Still, there are some schemes that show up over and over. Warmka's agency keeps a Top 10 list of the fraud and business complaints it gets every year.

Last year, those top categories alone accounted for more than 35,000 complaints. Far and away, the most come in regarding violations of do-not-call lists. Others on the list include issues with fuel pumps, cable bills, telemarketers, car repair and travel agents.

Becoming a victim of fraud can be as simple as letting a credit card get out of sight, as often happens when a server at a restaurant takes a card to ring up a bill. Dennis Maley, who attended the Kiwanis meeting, said he recently had one of his credit cards billed for $590 in fraudulent charges. He doesn't know how the scammers got his financial information, but he was happy that his credit card company reversed the charge.

He hopes never to join the ranks of Floridians who've not only had credit information stolen, but identity information as well.

"When you have your information get out, it's always over your shoulder: identity theft," he said.

Warmka couldn't say that fraud cases will lessen or that his agency can fully protect the public. What he did do was offer his agency's help to stop bad situations from getting worse. The Division of Consumer Services, he said, is the best first call to make when fraud seems to be in the offing.

The agency can be contacted via its website myfloridacfo.com/division/consumers.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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