The state Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection issued an alert Thursday, May 24, to warn consumers about the prevalence of advance fee consumer loan scams based in Maine, the most recent example involving a financial center that purports to be located in Belfast.

In a news release issued just after 3 p.m. Thursday, the BCCP outlined details of such a scam, which was executed under the guise of a fictitious company known as BellBrook Finance Center.

BellBrook Finance Center reportedly solicited the family of a deployed active-duty service member from Virginia. The company promised a $5,000 loan in exchange for electronic advance payments, including a $2,000 fee for insurance, $895 for a lenders’ fee, and $887.50 for five up-front monthly payments. The funds were paid through a money card company called Green Dot. The family reportedly sought the loan to fund a trip for the service member’s wife to visit her deployed husband overseas.

“The prevalence of advance fee loan schemes is concerning,” said David Leach, Principal Examiner with the Bureau. “BellBrook Finance Center is not licensed in Maine as a consumer lender, nor listed with corporate filings in the Secretary of State’s Office.”

Leach stated law enforcement officials in Belfast confirmed no such company is located in the city, and that the Belfast Police Department has received other complaints about this scam.

Leach said a call to a number listed for the company resulted in a “hang up” by an employee who refused to cooperate with the investigation.

When consumers follow-through with transactions of this kind from bogus lenders, Leach said, victims are often directed to transmit funds to an alternative location — often thousands of miles from the phony company address. Once the advance fee is sent to the perpetrators, there is little chance of recovering those funds.

“This case is among the most disturbing we’ve investigated in recent years, given the family’s circumstances, the planned use of the loan, and the excessive amount of up-front fees,” Leach stated in the release.  “BellBrook Finance Center preyed on a military family who could ill-afford to lose thousands of dollars.”

Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said Thursday afternoon that there is no known connection between BellBrook Finance Center and the Belfast area, and no evidence that any local people are involved in any way.

“What I know about it is it does not have anything to do with any of the businesses in Belfast, the residents in Belfast or any individual we know of who has ties to Belfast,” he said.

McFadden said police believe the information the scammers used to create the illusion of an existing financial institution could have easily been found in a simple internet search, and that some of the information attached to BellBrook Finance Center, such as physical addresses, indicated the company could have been doing business here.

“Searches of popular websites provided all the information the scammers needed to set up a fictitious business,” said McFadden. “But someone who isn’t from here would have no way of knowing it’s fictitious… None of the people who actually occupied those places [in the city] had anything to do with the scam.”

McFadden said another layer of the scam is how the routing number attached to the victims’ electronic payments to the company indicated the cash was headed for Belfast, but the routing numbers show the money was wired to a location that was no where near Belfast.

“Unfortunately, some individuals fell victim to this type of situation, and they unfortunately lost money as a result,” said the chief.

McFadden said it is unknown exactly how many people lost money to this particular scam, but said he does not know of any local victims. Many of the victims reside in New York, Virginia and Oregon.

Police and the BCCP are also working to sort out what law enforcement agency or agencies can handle the scam complaints, as it does not appear to fall under the jurisdiction of the Belfast PD since it does not involve local residents and the company is not located here.

McFadden advised all residents to remain aware of these kinds of scams, and reminded the public that the way the scams are executed changes constantly.

“They’re always changing their method of operation,” he said. “That’s why we need to stay on our toes.”

The Bureau notes that Maine has many reputable licensed lenders, and advises consumers to never wire or mail certified funds to unknown lenders. The Bureau recommends that consumers deal only with known, licensed lenders, and encourages consumers to call the Bureau toll-free at 1-800-332-8529 to verify the status of lenders or check the Bureau’s licensed supervised lenders at credit.maine.gov.