HAZEL PARK/MADISON HEIGHTS — Scams take many forms — in-person, online, and over the phone — and knowing the signs of one is the best way to protect yourself and your money.
As con artists get increasingly clever, police are warning residents to remain vigilant. Here are some of the most common scams law enforcement have seen reported lately.
Romance and family scams
Some scams target those looking for love. These usually occur through social media platforms, where the scammer has a fake online identity and reaches out to as many individuals as possible. Once someone replies, they try to form a relationship as soon as possible in order to establish trust, pretending to care about the victim, their conversations and their lives. The scammer will soon say that they want to travel to see them, but that they don’t have money. They then ask for funds to fly to meet them, and make excuses when they never book the flights.
Sometimes the conversation leads to fake children, or a sick child with medical bills or who needs money to pay tuition for school. It’s all to create the illusion that the scammer is a caring parent who only wants what’s best for their children.
Another form of the romance scam is when the scammer pretends they are with the U.S. military stationed in another country, claiming to feel lonely and seeking a relationship so that they can share or start a life with someone when they return home. In this scenario, they often pretend they are being discharged and need money for flights, or that they were sick and had medical bills while overseas that must be paid before they can leave. It’s all to entice the victim into sending money.
Some scammers will play with the victim’s emotions in other ways, claiming to be a family member facing a warrant, or who has been arrested and needs to post bond. Alternatively, they may claim they are family who are stranded somewhere or who have a medical emergency.
“In all cases, they are told not to contact authorities, and to purchase gift cards or wire money through (online services like) Western Union,” said Hazel Park Police Det. William Hamel. “Contact is by phone or email.”
Sweepstakes and lottery scams
Sometimes the scammer may email, text or call the victim while pretending to be from a government entity or organization, advising that they won a cash prize, usually in the millions — the catch being that the victim has to pay the taxes on the winnings up front in order to receive the money. Here, the scammer may request bank account information so they can “wire transfer” the winnings, but only after the taxes have been paid.
Computer tech support scams
If you ever saw a pop-up ad while browsing the internet that told you your computer has a virus and that you need to call the customer support number on the screen to have the virus cleared, you were looking at a scam. The pop-up ads are sometimes accompanied by a loud blaring noise to create a sense of urgency. If someone takes the bait and calls the number, the scammer on the other line may ask for permission to take control of the computer remotely in order to clear the virus. Once the scammer has control of the computer, they will attempt to acquire all personal identifying information stored on it, including banking information, email accounts, social media accounts and passwords.
Online listings for rental properties
Police say that websites like Craigslist, VRBO, Airbnb and Zillow have been targeted by scammers who list homes for rent that are not theirs, and then wait for victims to contact them so that the scammer can send over a rental agreement that asks for a deposit up front, without the victim even seeing the property in person. The victim is given a move-in date and advised to meet them at the home on a specific date and time to receive the keys. Sometimes, the victim is told they will be mailed the keys as something comes up and the scammer can no longer meet them.
Online puppy and kitten sales
Another scam begins online with pictures of cute puppies or kittens available for sale on a website that appears legitimate, but that was created by a scammer with pictures stolen from other websites to create the illusion that the breed being sold is top notch and from a best-in-class breeder. The scammer awaits interested requests, answering questions on the nonexistent animals, and once someone moves to buy, the scammer requests that money be sent for the delivery of the animal, followed by more money for the crate, and even more money for a vet clearance. Of course, there is no animal delivered once the money is sent.
A more recent scheme involves cryptocurrency. The scammer will pose as an attractive person on social media platforms, including video chat apps, and they will approach the victim pretending to seek a relationship. The scammer will usually talk to the victim for a month, and then eventually broach the topic of cryptocurrency, and how they are investing in it and seeing returns. The victim may be intrigued, at which point the scammer will show them an app that they use for investments. The victim then tries it, transferring funds to it and watching their daily “gains” and “losses,” but in reality the app is fake, and their money is being stolen.
Sometimes the scammer will pose as a member of law enforcement, usually starting with a phone call where they claim they have a warrant for the victim’s arrest, and that the victim needs to pay funds immediately in order to have the warrant cleared. The victim is instructed to go to a local store that sells gift cards and to then provide the codes on the back of the gift cards to the caller on the phone. Once the codes are provided, those funds are then transferred to the scammer.
Another scam tries to scare the victim into paying by threatening to shut off their utilities if they don’t comply. The scammer usually calls the victim, but sometimes may even appear at their door, claiming to be a representative from a utility. The victim is told they have a delinquency and that the bill must be paid immediately or their utilities will be shut off. Usually, payment is sought the same way as the warrant scam, by asking the victim to go to a store that sells gift cards and providing the codes on the back.
Madison Heights Police Sgt. Gregory Hartunian said that there have been in-person attempts in the area over the years, as well.
“They sometimes pose as a worker for a utility company and ask to come inside to check a meter in the basement. They will have at least two people enter the location and split up. One will pretend to go into the basement while the other keeps them in a room away from the other person. The second person then goes into other rooms and takes things from there,” Hartunian said.
“Anyone who shows up at your door stating that they are from a company and need to check a meter or something else needs to show you their company ID, and then you need to have them wait on the porch until you can contact the company to verify they are supposed to be there,” he added. “Get the name of the company and find the number off a bill or internet website. Do not use any phone number that they give you. Call the company and verify that the person is supposed to be there and that the work is supposed to be done.”
IRS scams work the same, with the scammer pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service and claiming the victim owes the government money. In these scams, the scammer often threatens that the victim will be arrested if they don’t comply, and if the victim has a name that appears foreign, they may also be told that their visa will be revoked or that they will be picked up by immigation officers if the bill is not paid immediately. Once again, the scammer often demands payment via gift card codes.
Alternatively, these scammers may ask for personal identifying information to complete the alleged transactions.
“If anyone asks for sensitive information, always confirm with the company by getting the phone number off a bill or website and calling the phone number to see if you are delinquent in a payment,” Hartunian said. “Anyone requesting payment in the form of a gift card or PayPal should be questioned. Anyone asking for the card number and code off the back of a gift card should be questioned.”
These scams target people who work in accounts payable, beginning with an email that appears to be from a business vendor, claiming that they are owed money from an invoice. However, upon closer examination of the email name, the victim would see it is missing a letter or is different in some subtle way. The email advises the victim to wire transfer funds under the premise that their bank account has been changed. The victim then wires company funds to the scammer account, and the scammer usually spends the money as soon as it’s received.
Business scams can take other forms, too.
“We have had people call businesses later in the evening stating that they are the owner of the business and that they need the worker to pull money out of the drawer and safe so that a bill or other form of emergency payment can be paid,” Hartunian said. “They tell them to go to a Bitcoin ATM or drop it off at certain businesses and give it to a person at that business, who will just be leaving.”
A common thread running through these scams is that they either ask for personal identifying information such as Social Security numbers, and/or they ask for the direct transfer of money. Legitimate entities such as the IRS and utility companies will never ask someone to buy gift cards or wire transfer funds to a specific account.
“The best advice to follow is to not give out any personal information to anyone who calls you, or to an untrusted source,” said Southfield Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Jagielski. “This goes for email as well. In this tech age of direct deposits and online everything, it is important to invest in a good firewall for your devices.
“Major organizations will not be calling you asking for your personal information, or calling you to make a payment,” he said. “If you find yourself deep in a call and they ask you to pay with gift cards, hang up — it’s a scam! Additionally, if you do make a sale online and agree to meet up somewhere to make the transaction, the meeting should be in a well-lit, well-populated area. Many police departments welcome these transactions to take place either in their parking lots or lobbies.”