Phone scams exploit the elderly

by Town Reminder

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SOUTH HADLEY – In order to collect the prize, she had to first pay up. And stay silent.
The 93-year-old South Hadley woman was instructed to withdraw $22,500 and send the cash to an address in Florida. She was directed to do so by a caller who had contacted her earlier in the day to inform her she had won a secret contest from a Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes. The money, she was told, was a required tax payment. After she paid the taxes, her windfall would come.
But unfortunately, it fell flat. The woman became the latest victim in a series of phone scams.
South Hadley Police Chief David LaBrie said his department is contacted at least once a day by individuals who have either fallen victim to a scam or have realized they’ve been contacted by a scam artist. But in the past week, he said, multiple residents have unfortunately believed con artists and paid out large sums of money.
“They’re preying on trustworthy people,” said LaBrie. “The criminals are taking advantage of these individuals’ trust.” And often, these victims are elderly.
When the 93-year-old woman visited her regular bank branch, the teller with whom she conducted her transaction recognized her longtime customer’s behavior as unusual. LaBrie said when the teller asked the woman what she was doing with a large sum of money, the woman said she was buying a car. Still suspicious, bank officials alerted the police department.
“They thought something was up,” said LaBrie.
South Hadley Police Detective Jesse Camp followed up with the woman. “Through a long conversation telling her about scams,” said LaBrie, the woman revealed she had won a sweepstakes and was supposed to keep it a secret.
Camp that evening attempted to intercept the enveloped of cash mailed by the woman, but learned it had already been delivered. Working on the case days later, Camp followed up with the woman to ask if she has been contacted again by the same caller. She had been, and explained she’d been told to now pay $30,000, via a cashier’s check, to clear up federal taxes involved in her sweepstakes win. She mailed the money, withdrawn from a different bank branch, the day prior.
The detective was able to contact a night supervisor from the United States Postal Service in Texas, the state to which the envelope was mailed, and relay the scam. Luckily, the envelope was located and pulled from the distribution center. But some individuals aren’t as fortunate.

Family member scams

Last week, an 82-year-old South Hadley woman was contacted by a man who presented himself as Officer Elkin from the Belchertown Police Department. Her son, said the “officer,” had been arrested in town. In order to keep the arrest out of the newspaper, and to prevent her son from going to jail, she needed to pay $2,000. Not in cash or check, but in Green Dot MoneyPak cards.
Specifying the Granby CVS on West State Street as the location at which she could purchase such cards, the “officer” instructed the woman to obtain four, $500 cards, said LaBrie. Once she had purchased them, the woman needed to call the “officer” and relay the numbers found on the back of each card so he could use them.
“Half an hour after she gave the fake officer the numbers, her son called her to check up,” said LaBrie. “He had never been arrested.”
Similarly, LaBrie said a bogus charity for wounded police officers is circulating around. “There’s no such charity for that that goes out soliciting money, that I’m aware of,” he said. When the South Hadley Police Association, a real charity, makes over-the-phone or in-person calls to raise money, callers provide a phone number to the police station and a specific officer to whom residents can speak for verification.
Other family member scams to which residents have fallen prey include callers saying a grandchild is in jail in a different state or foreign country, family members have been involved in an accident and need money to retrieve vehicles, and situations where family members are held hostage. Here, scammers prey on the emotions of their victims, hoping hasty decisions are made before a victim has time to review the situation.

Overpayment scams

Online marketplaces, like Craiglist, often pose as easy ways to sell wares and make a quick buck. But sometimes, interactions with buyers can go awry.
In this type of scam, a buyer will purchase something from a seller and overpay by a large amount. Say, instead of sending $100, the buyer sends a $1,000 check. The buyer contacts the seller and recognizes the “mistake,” and then asks for the seller to cash the check anyway and send back, say, $850 via a bank check. The seller is told to keep some extra money for troubles caused.
“By the time the original check clears at the seller’s bank,” said LaBrie, “It’s too late. It takes three or four days for that check to clear. So now the guy is out the $850.”

Account verification, IRS scams

Usually, a Social Security Number is used for verification purposes. And residents are often instructed to establish trust with those who are privy to their personal numbers. But last week, a 71-year-old South Hadley man quickly realized this is not always the case.
LaBrie said the man received a phone call from someone who called themselves a Social Security Agent. The false agent asked the man if a series of numbers was his Social Security Number. Oddly enough, it was. The fake agent also knew the man’s date of birth.
“He had all the right information,” said LaBrie.
The agent said the call was to verify various bank accounts among different banks. “That’s what threw the man off, he didn’t have accounts at those banks,” said LaBrie. “He wondered why he was asked about that.” The man hung up and contacted police.
Recently, a similar scam finds residents being contacted by false IRS representatives. Residents are alerted to overdue taxes. If a certain amount of money is not paid to the caller, it is alleged the police will arrest the resident.
In an Oct. 31 press release, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said, “In recent weeks, we continue to see these telephone scams in every part of the country. We have formal processes in place for people with tax issues. The IRS respects taxpayer rights, and these angry, shake-down calls are clear warning signs of fraud. This is not how we do business. We urge people to be careful when they get these threatening phone calls.”
The bottom line in all of these cases, said LaBrie, “is if anybody asks you to send money or checks, you need to double check the validity on that, especially if it involves large sums of money.”
He said the elderly are the most at-risk population. “I urge family members to tell other family members about these scams. To have a check before you send money anywhere.”
Usually, if a circumstance is too good to be true, it usually is. And sometimes, an odd situation, such as a police officer asking for money to keep an arrestee’s name out of a police log, is too weird to be true.
“Unfortunately, a lot of elderly residents are very trusting,” said LaBrie. “The callers are very polite. They spend a lot of time on the phone with a victim, easily earning their trust.”
And unlike unauthorized charges on a credit card, if a resident withdraws money from an account willingly, despite unknowingly being a scam victim, the money a resident sends cannot easily or often be recovered.
“We get called all the time,” said LaBrie. “Relatives have to talk to their elderly family members, neighbors and friends to let them know they can’t be sending money anywhere for any reason. These scams are becoming more and more prevalent.”

How to deal with, report a scam

Recognizing being involved in a scam is not as obvious as it may seem. But the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office offers some tips residents can follow.
If someone requests personal information, always verify the company or person’s identity first. According to the office’s website, “Ask for their name, organization, phone number, and address. Confirm this information through an outside source, such as the company’s website or a telephone directory.”
Scammers are hard to track. LaBrie said middle men are often used when collecting payments purported to be for taxes and the like. And even though a resident might write down the phone number used by the scammer, LaBrie said scammers can program their number to show up differently. Some are also able to arrange for their phones to take calls from certain numbers, which doesn’t allow a victim to call back.
Victims can report scams to various agencies. The South Hadley Police Department can be contacted at (413) 538-8231. The Attorney General’s Office can be contacted at (617) 727-8400.
To check if a company or charity is legitimate, visit the Better Business Bureau at http://www.bbb.org.
To learn if a check if fraudulent or not, visit http://www.fakechecks.org.
To report an IRS scam, visit http://www.irs.gov/uac/Report-Phishing.
To report any kind of scam, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov

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