Phone scams by 'relatives' in distress ravage Bulgaria

20th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Since joining the European Union in 2007, formerly communist Bulgaria has struggled to get rid of its image as the bloc's most graft-ridden member.

Sofia -- "Do you hear me? I crashed my car and killed a child. You have to help me with money!" This hysterical phone message, blurted out between sobs, has raised alarm -- and cash -- across Bulgaria.

Many, mostly elderly people, unaware the message is a scam, have fallen prey and turned over large sums of money, thinking they were helping a distressed relative buy their way out of trouble.

"This fraud has spread greatly over the last two years, playing on people's emotional vulnerability," Oleg Yakimov, head of the general crime police directorate, told AFP.

Elena Dimitrova, a chemist from Sofia, was a recipient of one such telephone call.

"The young woman who cried on the phone sounded just like my niece," she said. "If I had the money on me, I would have given it. I was lucky they called me when the banks were closed."

Just a year before, Elena had scolded her elderly father for taking seriously a call from a man claiming to be his son who said he had caused a fatal accident and needed money to bribe an investigator.

"And now I was the one tricked by the fraudsters. I cannot believe I did not ask who was calling, and that I made things easier for them by calling the sobbing girl by my niece's real name," she said.

Yakimov is less surprised. "The fraudsters are good psychologists and have experience from other scams," he said.

Many pretend to be police inspectors, taking the receiver from the "relative" to give details of the crash, instructions where to deliver the money and using police language quite convincingly, he said.

They call random phone numbers and use pre-paid mobile phone cards that make it impossible to track them down, he added.

The money demanded ranges from 500 to 30,000 leva (250 to 15,000 euros, 350 to 21,000 dollars). It usually has to be placed under a stone in a park or in a garbage bin, or must be given to a particular taxi driver or even a child, victims said.

"The poor dupes may suffer a stroke or a heart attack when they discover the truth. We have had cases that had a fatal outcome," said Yakimov.

He complained that Bulgarians' belief that corruption is rampant among their country's officials and institutions -- concerns also held by Brussels -- actually helps crooks.

Since joining the European Union in 2007, formerly communist Bulgaria has struggled to get rid of its image as the bloc's most graft-ridden member.

The European Commission put Sofia under unprecedented strict monitoring and though a progress report in February noted some improvement, Brussels complained that Bulgarian courts still appeared reluctant to indict, try and convict people involved in high-level corruption and organised crime.

Last year, corruption and fraud concerns even prompted Brussels to freeze over 800 million euros (1.1 billion dollars) in EU aid to the newcomer.

"Lately, we have seen corruption at all levels of power," noted Yakimov. "People believe that if they offer money, their problem can be solved."

A recent report by the Sofia-based Centre for the Study of Democracy found that more and more Bulgarians "consider bribing an efficient tool for solving any problems that may arise with institutions."

In another report released this month by Transparency International, 330,000 Bulgarians -- or five percent of the adult population -- said they or a close relative had paid a bribe in the past year. Another 16 percent refused to answer the question.

Scams have been around for years. In one scenario, fake police officers stop people in the street after they've withdrawn large sums of money from the bank, telling them it is counterfeit and confiscating it, Yakimov described.

But phone schemes have proved enduring. "This kind of scheme has stayed around longer than others and keeps growing," said Yakimov.

Earlier in the decade, callers would tell victims they had been granted a US green card or won luxury holiday but first had to contribute a certain sum.

A later scheme saw fraudsters posing as a relative who lived abroad and asked the victim to pay for spare car parts to be delivered to their own home in the "relative's" name.

Police have arrested a few bands linked to phone scams in central and northern Bulgaria, but said many were picked up on other infractions.

Apart from asking mobile phone operators to request identification when selling pre-paid phone cards, police say there is little to do to combat these fraudsters.

One suggestion has urged more local media coverage of the scams. Maybe then people will be more cautious when answering the phone, Yakimov said.

Vessela Sergueva/AFP/Expatica

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