By Pete Zamplas- People should be skeptical and on the lookout for scams whenever contacted by strangers, and should not pay them money nor reveal account numbers or basic personal info, a leading law enforcement official urges area residents.
Support Bureau Major Frank Stout is among top four administrators of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department. Newly-installed Sheriff Lowell Griffin is big into stopping scams. He led criminal investigations as a captain, in recent years.
Stout spoke Friday to the Michigan Club, in Hendersonville Country Club. His tips to stem scams as well as break-ins are helpful to area residents of various ages and backgrounds. He noted many scams target senior citizens, or anyone unsatisfied with a fixed or low income and gullible to pay money up front in a get-rich scheme. Though they peak in the holiday season that ends in a few days, scams are a year-round criminal endeavor.
Many of the scams are familiar yet happening more than ever, while some may be less obvious or newer. A “gypsy” handyman scam is spreading across western N.C. and Eastern Tennessee, Stout said. Most common of this is paving driveways, he said. “They have some pavement left, and will give you a ‘great deal.’ They patch a hole or two, and spray sealer to make it look fresh and new. They charge you $1,200 for $50 worth of sealant.”
The surface coating soon cracks, long after the scammer has left with the victim’s money. The con might pretend he has paved the drive of the victim’s neighbor, counting on the victim to not check to see if it was done or how well.
Another rising scam is with counterfeit drugs sold on the Internet, to take advantage of cash-strapped seniors looking for good deals, Stout said. Beyond getting rooked, “victims may purchase unsafe substances that can inflict even more harm. This scam can be as hard on the body as on the wallet.”
Very importantly, Stout urged to not give money to complete strangers up front — no matter how convincing their story seems in person, by phone, text, email or social media.
The old adage that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is so true, Stout said. “Say ‘no’ to high-pressure sales tactics. If the offer is good for only today or too good to be true, then it probably is not true. So, walk away — or you’ll be hurting. It’s OK to be rude.” He added, “if they want any payment for taxes or any money to be wired or otherwise transferred — run!”
A popular scheme still prevalent in the mountains and beyond is the scammer seeking to collect tax payment on a prize supposedly won by the victim in a lottery or sweepstakes (also claiming a state-to-state transfer fee), or a supposed class-action debt settlement.
The payment up front is supposedly required, before the prize money is sent in a bogus check that will bounce. “Often, seniors will be sent a check that they can deposit in their bank account,” Stout said. The victim feels as if paid. But the scammer knows that “while it shows up in (the victim’s) account immediately, it will take a few days before the fake check is rejected.” By then, the victim has sent payment and the scammer has deposited it.
A sweepstakes scam even referred victims to a fake IRS phone number manned by criminal cohorts who claim tax fees are required to get prizes. Investigators detected scam mail forwarded back overseas, “funneled through New York,” Maj. Stout has said. He said culprits were “banging hard” with this scam.
Various scam scenarios soon get to the scammer acting as if needing much money sent right away, to solve an emergency such as being jailed. The scammer makes it sound as if only the victim can help out. The money is urged to be sent in hard-to-trace (i.e. the recipient need not show ID to collect) ways such as via Western Union, MoneyGram or Green Dot pre-paid debit cards bought in stores.
In one local case, many were sent an email supposedly from a neighbor traveling and without access to funds whose granddaughter needed quick help. The actual neighbor confirmed it was not from her, but someone pirated her email to pose as her. When in doubt, call the supposed person to see if they are sending the communication.
Stout said a local victim was told by the supposed grandson he would get sent to a “darker” cell in Mexico with more dangerous cell mates, if not quickly bailed out. Other fake crises include getting evicted if not paying rent, or not affording medical care for an injury or costly car repairs.
Many scammers pose as loved ones such as a grandchild, and call for help such as if stranded abroad and not affording a flight home. “The ‘grandparent scam’ is so simple and so devious because it uses one of older adults’ most reliable assets — their hearts,” Stout said.
He noted scammers browse obituaries online, ancestry.com and list of relatives on a potential victim’s Facebook “About” page. If one grandparent dies, then the widow or widower listed in an obit might get called or even visited by the scammer.
An extra-repugnant scam is when the scammer reads an obit then calls or even goes to the funeral to console the grieving widow/widower to gain trust then spring a surprise, Stout said. “Claiming the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, scammers will try to extort money from relatives to settle the fake debts.”
Instead, the normal procedure for the survivor is getting a notice to valid debt-holders published in a local paper, and having them follow legal channels to seek claims.
Specifically, the insurance con is calling and telling a person whose spouse has just died that the dearly departed left a hefty sum in an insurance policy or has burial costs paid — but forgot to keep up payments, so the policy pays out. This sets up asking for a large sum — $2,500 in a recent local scam case, Stout said. He said the FBI is warning about such rising scams on widows/widowers.
Scammers look for names of relatives — especially ones that live far off from the victim and are likely less familiar to the victim. The scammer might claim he or she is a specific grandchild who lives out of state. This counts on an elderly victim not hearing very clearly to distinguish the voice if it still is somewhat familiar, and perhaps forgetting the true long-lost relative’s voice over time.
“They try to take advantage that as we get older, our memory and hearing slip,” Maj. Stout said. “Criminals try to take advantage of seniors’ trusting nature. They try to take you to the cleaners,” to get much money. Ironically, elder victims tend to be on fixed and more limited incomes. Many have diminished savings, and are unable to recoup a large some of scammed money.
A scammer who does not research relatives’ names might use a simple ploy, to prompt the victim over the phone. Stout gave examples that victims have reported: “Hi Grandma, do yo know who this is?” The victim guesses the grandchild who sounds most like the calling scammer.
Another is “Hello, this is your favorite grandchild. Can you guess which one?!” The grandparent guesses the name, and the scammer says that is right. An added reason to say “favorite” is reasoning that the grandparent is more apt to impulsively send money to help a more favorite relative. Stout said, “They’ll pluck you like a chicken.”
Further, the scammer asks the supposed grandparent to “please don’t tell my parents — they would kill me” for the mishap, Stout noted. That in itself is a clue the caller is not truly a relative. When in doubt, Stout added, call around to find out if there really is a crisis involving that supposed relative.
These relative scams are spreading beyond the phone, to emails and fund drive pleas on Facebook to “friends” to counter supposed crises or dire financial needs.
The “sweetheart scam” is surging on social media, such as meeting sites and Facebook “friending” requests by scammers, Stout noted. “They troll on these sites. They pray on your loneliness, and work their way in over time.” They pretend to fall romantically for the victim, or to be a good-hearted friend who helps and deserves help.
Once they feel they have the victim’s trust, they plea for money.
Typically, Stout said, the scammer asks for money for airfare to visit the victim. A typical plea is “I love you, and want to (meet) see you. But my kids are sick. I need money for the plane ticket.” The Sweet Scammer pockets the travel money, and never visits.
Scammers are not only strangers who come on as friends. They may be acquaintances, such as in one case someone from elementary school who reached out on Facebook. Or they may pretend to be that person.
Cons “spoof a legitimate phone number,” and have done so such as with local hospitals and then pressure the victim to pay the scammer an outstanding bill.
This is with hope the person called has an unpaid medical bill.
Another local tactic is calling in a menacing tone and demanding reparations for a supposed collision. This is done in hope that one of several people called actually had a fender-bender, did not report it, feared an attack, and would not call authorities.
Commonly, the scammer acts as if from an organization that seems to hold power over the would-be victim. “They might say your telephone, power or gas service will be disconnected” if an overdue payment is not suddenly made, Stout warned. This gets the victim worried about a health “lifeline” — especially in winter chill.
A lady at the luncheon said she got a scam call pretending to be from the local cable company. “It scared the living daylights out of me,” until she suspected a scam and called the sheriff’s general number.
Stout said when suspecting a scam it is best to hang up, then notify law enforcement. He said not to linger and challenge and argue with the scammer, lest he or she talk his or her way into sounding legitimate. The recipient of the call can always call the group (Duke Power, et al) by its official number to check on status of one’s account.
A heavy-duty scam is the caller posing as from the IRS or law enforcement, and threatening the would-be victim with jailing if a debt to the IRS is not promptly sent — to the scammer’s address. In local cases, threats were imminent arrest by “federal marshals” or local officers. Stout notes local officers do not enforce IRS codes, and marshals are not sent to people’s homes.
A variant is calling and saying the victim missed a court hearing or jury duty, and will be arrested immediately. Of course, this is playing odds that some people called are in that situation.
Stout said in such a local scam, the caller posed as him threatening an arrest. But the perp erred by using Stout’s prior and lower rank; the call recipient knew Stout is now a major and realized it was a scam.
Such a “high-pressure threat of arrest” is an immediate sign of a scam, Stout said. “The IRS does not operate this way,” and neither does law enforcement. Further, such agencies send warning notices by mail rather than phone.
Of course, visuals can mislead. There are bogus emails and letters with legit-looking company mastheads and email addresses. They link to a counterfeit website, such as of money-collecting eBay and PalPal.
Stout urged to research and find the actual websites, and compare to the referred one. Commonly, the web address is similar but varies slightly, so the unknowing victim goes there to pay instead of to the legit site.
“Browser hackers blast out their own cookie to you. It deflects you to their website,” Stout explained. “They take a legitimate website, and recreate their own changing only a letter or adding a dot to the web address. It looks very similar.” He suggests routinely deleting web browser “cookies” text files of user consumer data for one’s computer.
Many scammers go not for an instant payoff but instead seek pivotal data, to use to hijack the victim’s computer and access and pilfer financial and other accounts, Stout said. “They’ll take your computer over, then get into your bank account.” If they find a victim with substantial savings such as a retiree, they can get far more than in the immediate-payment scams.
“Phishing” is fraudulently gathering personal and financial information for identity theft, typically by false pretense. A phone or email scammer typically poses as a rep from the victim’s bank, credit card firm, Medicare, insurance company or other firm that has much of the victim’s data, Stout noted.
For instance, the scammer may act as from the victim’s bank or credit card company checking on a suspected unauthorized transaction. The victim of course wants to undo a false charge, but instead sets up false charges. The scam caller asks a series of personal questions under the guise of security scrutiny, to gain account access.
The scammer might use the victim’s personal info to sign up for fraudulent credit cards in the victim’s name.
Statements are mailed instead to the scammer, to keep the victim in the dark. The culprit rings up a large debt, that is assessed against the victim.
Or they may charge the victim’s credit card a payment to the scammer. Authorities say that if one sees an unauthorized charge for a small amount to report it and cancel the card, before a larger sum is charged. The initial charge may simply be to see if charges will go unchallenged.
Or it may test if the card is still active. This is particularly so if the victim’s card is part of a slew of credit card numbers that the scammer bought from another criminal — perhaps at a discount because those numbers were gathered a while ago and may have elapsed.
Scammers try to infiltrate a victim’s computer by such ways as sending an email with a link or attachment that actually downloads spyware/malware. One known line in a bogus email is “To ensure that your personal information is not compromised, please click here to verify your identity.” Clicking downloads malware. And in reality, banks do not verify via email.
Spyware once infecting a computer enables the perpetrator to spy and even manipulate the victim’s data, and see browser history such as on payment sites and even past key punches to detect password codes. This is to see the victim’s account pages, and to access accounts and drain money. Or the memo has a link to a bogus website that is a minefield of malware. “Once they infect your computer, they can suck data out of it,” Stout warned.
The scammer puts the phone recipient on the defensive to prove identity by saying key data — as an account holder typically has to do when calling in, but to a far less revealing extent.
For instance, when calling the account holder might have to give the last four Social Security numbers rather than the entire number that the scammer demands. That number unlocks other data that the scammer abuses.
Never give your Social Security, credit card (let alone the security code on the back), bank account or driver’s license numbers or passwords, full legal name or date of birth to anyone you do not know well and trust, Stout said. Also, it is important to keep out of social media any info in one’s account security questions such as maiden name, name of a grandparent, parent’s place of birth, or favorite pet’s name.
A tell-tale sign of a scam is if the caller keeps pressing for various data which — if legit — the company already has or does not need to verify identity such as account password.
Another red flag is the caller violating protocol of a genuine telemarketer and getting angry when denied data, to try to bully the would-be victim into cooperating.
In contrast, a friendly catch to gain data is the scammer offering a lower credit card rate or other deal, or claiming there is suspicious banking activity.
False tech support is an offshoot of the high-tech world. The scammer calls claiming to be from Microsoft (maker of Windows PC operating systems), and “needing to upgrade your computer,” Stout said. “They’ll claim ‘we’ll do it for you, if you aren’t fast with a computer.’ Instead, they take control of your computer, and get right into your bank account.”
Telemarketing is on the upswing — from legit firms, shady outfits and outright scams. Now, scammers also use robo-calls. If a number on Caller ID is unfamiliar and may be an ad or even scam, a good reaction is to not answer and let it go to message.
A legit caller should leave a message, and speak if you pick up but are silent. If the caller awaits you to speak, that is an indication of a shady schemer. Silently answering typically triggers a hangup automatically by a robo-caller. If one answers a robo call, then that triggers an auto message or live person onto the line.
Those suspecting a scam encouraged to call local law enforcement, such as the Henderson County Sheriff’s Dept. at 697-4596/697-4911 or Buncombe County Sheriff at 250-4503/250-6670.