The Consumer Protection Section’s Economic Crimes Division helps local law enforcement and prosecutors identify, investigate, and prosecute consumer fraud of a criminal nature.
For the past four years, Todd and Jessica Steinhaus of Coshocton posted thousands of Craigslist ads across the country advertising tickets to the World Series, NBA Finals, Super Bowl, and concerts featuring Katy Perry, Kenny Chesney, and Usher.
Their claims were false. But they were believable enough to dupe unsuspecting consumers in 36 states and Canada into sending money. The Steinhauses scammed consumers in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities out of more than $200,000.
A cooperative investigation led by the Ohio Attorney General’s new Economic Crimes Division involved the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Brooklyn Heights and Mount Vernon police departments, and Coshocton County Sheriff’s Office. In December, the pair pleaded guilty to four felonies. Todd Steinhaus was sentenced to six years in prison and his wife to four.
“This is one of the worst cyber scams that we’ve seen so far,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said. “These first-degree felony convictions should make every scammer out there think twice before preying on Ohio families.”
Experienced team leads effort
The Steinhaus case is an example of those being pursued by the Economic Crimes Division, formed a year ago within the Consumer Protection Section to help local authorities identify, investigate, and prosecute consumer fraud of a criminal nature.
Led by Principal Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Blanton, a former Jackson County prosecutor, the division includes three other attorneys and two investigators.
“We’ve built a team of people with experience and training who can take some of the burden off of conducting these time-consuming and complex investigations,” Blanton said. “Our goal is to be a resource for local law enforcement and prosecutors. We’re striving to provide indictment-ready cases to county prosecutors.”
Felony charges filed against 14
The division’s investigations have led to felony charges against 14 people. Eight have pleaded guilty, and other cases are pending.
“We work to get in there while a situation is hot,” Blanton said. “These criminals don’t leave a long trail. The people who are good at it have a plan for making themselves hard to track. They know how to switch things up when the heat is on.”
For example, if a scammer convinces a consumer to wire money to a particular location, that business may have security video that could help identify the individual. But it’s vital to contact the merchant quickly while the footage is available. New law adds teeth
To give the division more ammunition, the Attorney General initiated legislation that allows it to subpoena phone records, Internet protocol addresses, and payment data in suspected fraud cases. Senate Bill 223, which the legislature passed unanimously, also makes cyber fraud penalties consistent with those for other thefts. It takes effect June 7.
Unfortunately, many of these crimes go unreported. Elderly people are frequent targets, and many fear admitting they were conned.
“The people who are running these scams put a lot of time into their efforts to seem believable,” Blanton said. “They talk about family, and gain their targets’ trust. They’re also very persistent — more persistent than seems normal.”
Many people don’t file police reports because the incidents don’t seem like crimes in the traditional sense.
“Sometimes these matters seem like civil disputes. They can seem fuzzy,” Blanton said. “If law enforcement lets us know of suspicious situations, we’ll chase them down to see if a crime was committed.”
- Failure to deliver — Scammers advertise goods, services, or property online, but never deliver after receiving payment.
- Work from home offers — Con artists offer jobs as “Internet entrepreneurs” or “web-mall hosts,” which require up-front fees. “Secret shoppers” are asked to cash a check and send part of the proceeds elsewhere to test another business’ customer service. In each case, job seekers get little or nothing and are out their cash.
- Payment fraud — Individuals legitimately selling goods or services online are contacted by a “buyer” who overpays with a fake check or credit card and asks to be reimbursed the difference.
- Grandparent scams — Scammers pose as friends or family members in need to convince their targets to wire money.
- Contractor fraud — “Contractors” arrange to do home improvements, sometimes even draft contracts, but do little or nothing after taking consumers’ money.
- Visit the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG) at www.OHLEG.org 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.
- Provide details by sending an e-mail to EconomicCrimes@OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov.