CLEARWATER — The Craigslist ad displayed photos of a gray 2004 Volkswagen Passat equipped with heated seats and power locks.
Tara Morrison was interested. Her 17-year-old daughter hoped to buy a car with her savings.
The vendor said the car was in Kentucky. Morrison could pay half before it was shipped to Clearwater and the other half once it arrived.
She sent the money via Western Union, as the seller requested.
The car never came.
Morrison, 43, is among dozens of residents who have reported scams and identity theft schemes to Clearwater police. Some have called to ask police if the tempting offers were legitimate. Others, like Morrison, came forward after falling prey to a scheme.
"It was an unfortunate mistake. None of us caught on," Morrison said. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true."
Clearwater police launched a hotline Wednesday for residents seeking guidance in sorting out the real from the phony offers they receive.
The hotline is staffed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. by about eight civilian employees at the Police Department. They will keep a log of reported scams and answer questions from concerned residents.
"There's different types of scams that have been used across the city," said Detective Meg Hasty of the Clearwater Police Department's economic crimes unit. "They just keep popping up."
The unit has five detectives and a sergeant and has investigated dozens of scams and identity thefts. Last year alone, the unit worked about 250 tax fraud cases.
The scams come in phone calls, advertisements and emails. Recently, detectives have noted a new scheme: Craigslist car ads.
Morrison found the ad in May. Through emails, the vendor told Morrison her husband had just died and she had moved from Tampa Bay to Kentucky to be with family. Morrison signed up for an online buyer protection plan. Thinking it was a legitimate deal, Morrison sent half of the listed price of about $2,600 to the seller.
A week passed — no car. The vendor later emailed her, demanding the other half of the money.
"It looks legitimate up front," Hasty said, "but of course, the car never comes and you never get your money back."
The ad is still posted on Craigslist.
Other scams include receiving congratulations for supposedly winning the lottery or a sweepstakes the victim never signed up for, or getting a call from an "attorney" with news of a dead relative in Africa who has left a large fortune.
The scam artists then request cash in advance to cover transfer fees. The victim sends the money in the form of a wire transfer or prepaid debit card, but never hears from the mysterious caller again. The promised lottery winnings or inheritance never arrive.
By the time victims contact police, it is usually too late to recover their stolen cash. Wired money is typically impossible to recover once the cash has been collected.
"Once it's picked up," Hasty said, "it's gone."
Elderly residents are among the most common victims.
"They are a great target. A lot of them are lonely. They live by themselves," Hasty said. "We're hoping we can have them call us."
Last fall, Margaret Jetton, 83, of Clearwater began receiving calls from strangers promising to transfer millions of dollars to her if she paid a small fee. The calls were sometimes just minutes apart.
"I didn't answer them at that point," Jetton said. "It went on that way for, oh gosh, two months."
She contacted police. Hasty traced the phone calls. Some were local numbers. Other calls were made from overseas.
The calls diminished when callers realized Jetton wouldn't fall for the scams.
"Once they find out you're not going to give them any money," Hasty said, "they stop calling."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.