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Phone scammers preying on Minnesota Nice, but the key is don't answer

Joe Atkins of Dakota Countyu (Courtesy of the Minnesota House of Representatives)

INVER GROVE HEIGHTS, Minn.—Foreign scammers have been hammering Dakota County, authorities say, preying on the Minnesota Nice culture where folks are too polite to hang up the phone.

Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins recently turned the tables on a scammer when he decided to call the number given to him by a constituent who was being harassed.

The number appeared to be local, but as Atkins spoke with the man who had threatened to send the sheriff after him if he didn't pay his taxes, he learned that the man was actually calling from somewhere near Hong Kong.

"He seemed rather forthright in telling me what he was doing," Atkins said. "He said he could make as much in a day scamming people than what he could make in a month working a manufacturing job. He said Minnesotans are easy, because they don't hang up."

Atkins started the call playing dumb, asking obvious questions and then trying to get the scammer to send him money for gas so he could get to Walmart to wire the money.

At that point the scammer dropped the pretense and spoke plainly about being in a warehouse with about 400 other men who made regular calls to the U.S. every day.

"I asked him, would he do this to his own mom? He, of course, said no, but that he wasn't calling his mother," Atkins said.

After Atkins shamed him for what he was doing, the man seemed to have second thoughts, he said.

"He literally said he was planning to do it just for another few months, and then he was going to quit," Atkins said. "He told me he was from a poor part of China. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling sorry for him."

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said the scams keep coming, mostly to the elderly, and are always changing. He's considering asking the county for a deputy that can focus only on scams, so he can get a handle on the scope of the problem.

"We go to the nursing homes and meet with them," he said, regarding an information campaign to try to educate the elderly about the scams. "Every time we're there, a hand goes up" indicating they've been scammed.

He recently met with the FBI and the U.S. attorney to try to coordinate with federal law enforcement to disrupt these groups.

"My chief deputy got one of these calls while he was in my office with me," he said. "I have no way to go to Hong Kong to arrest them."

Leslie said the easiest way to avoid being scammed is to not answer the phone to unknown numbers.

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