BY CHARLES MEMMINGERWith all the Internet scams floating around, it’s good to know that some enterprising criminals have not caved in to new technology and prefer to try to fleece people the old fashioned way, by telephone.

That’s how I came to know a fellow who called my house recently. He said his name was Jim Hernandez and he asked to speak to someone named Maw-tha Memmingarble. I asked him if he was looking for Martha Memminger, my bride of more than 30 years and he said, yeah, she’d do. He said he was calling from Publishers Clearing House.

I told him she wasn’t home which seemed to perplex him. I asked him if she had won some money from Publishers Clearing House and he said he could only talk to her. I asked him where he was calling from and he said, “my office.” I said, “Where’s your office?” He said Florida. He actually gave me a 1-800 number and asked me to have my wife call him.

This struck me as curious. I’ve never heard of a scammer leaving a phone number. It would seem to be a pretty good way for the law to catch up with you.

So I called Publishing Clearing House and went through several levels of recorded messages in an attempt to get to someone in the security department I could rat this guy out to. At each level I was told by the nice voice that if this call involved someone purporting to work for Publishing Clearing House telling you you’ve won a prize but you have to pay a fee to get it, don’t send money. Publishers Clearing House NEVER asks for a fee from prize winners, the voice says. The closer I got to an actual human being the more insistent the message became to never send anyone money who claims to be from Publisher’s Clearing House. After reaching, I think, Level 42 where the Security and Scam Department resides, a real person got on the line.

I told him I thought I had been contacted by a scammer and he said, “You didn’t send him any money, did you?” I said no. He said, “Good. Never send anyone claiming to be from Publisher’s Clearing House money.” I said, “I sort of got that message already.”

Then he apparently started to read the cliff notes on Publishing Clearing House’s position on scam artists, which was, basically, report them to police and, in case you didn’t catch it previously, NEVER send them money. I interrupted him and said, “Hey, I’m not sending anyone any money, I just wanted to report this guy to you and give you his number.” That did not seem to be part of the Publishing Clearing House program on dealing with scam artists. They don’t investigate guys like Mr. Hernandez. They just give out friendly advice about not sending people money.

I decided to try the 1-800 number to see if it was real. It rang a few times and then was answered by Hernandez’s “personal assistant.” Actually, it was another recorded message but the nice lady said she’d try to get the great man himself. Within seconds he was on the line in the flesh. I asked if I had reached Publisher’s Clearing House and he said I had. I told him I had talked to him earlier and he had left this number. His fascination for my wife seemed to have dissipated as he supposed he had a fish on the hook. He must have hundreds of calls out waiting for people to get back to him and it really couldn’t keep them organized. He figured anyone who called back was already falling for his pitch.

“So, why did you want me to call you?” I asked.

“You have won a prize,” he said.

“I have? That’s great! What is it?”

“You have to pay a $2,500 fee to claim your prize.”

“Yeah, but what is the prize?”

He mumbled something about it being a good prize but that he needed the $2,500 up front.

At this point I broke the news to him that I called the real Publishers Clearing House and confirmed that he was not associated with them. I told him I knew this was a scam and that I was going to send his name and phone number to the Florida Attorney General’s Office. In fact, I said, I was going to send it to the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office also.

That seemed to disappoint him.

“You know,” I said, “This could be YOUR lucky day. Because you might win a free trip to Hawaii. Once the indictment comes down.”

I guess he had tired of our little chat because the line went dead. I tried the number again a few days later and it was still up and running.

This guy is either the most cunning criminal in the history of scams or one of the dumbest. But unlike those lazy Nigerians who use the Internet to send out millions of scam e-mails, Jim Hernandez is old school.

How did that old phone company slogan go? Reach out and put the touch on someone?