BOISE, Idaho — The next time your phone goes off, pay attention to who is calling – it could be a scammer.
Nampa Police Sgt. Clint Wilber said scammers “prey on your humanity.” They have stolen thousands of dollars from people in southern Idaho communities.
“It can be in the tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands,” Wilber said. “We’ve had people lose their houses, lose their entire retirements, lose their marriages.”
Many of those scammers are from overseas, where scamming is a common job.
“There’s a lot of people here that do scams. People survive on that,” Chris Maxwell said.
People like Maxwell, who has since changed his ways, but admits to scamming people over a period of five years. He became a scammer while in college in Nigeria.
“Things were very difficult my first year, because my dad was retired and my mom is just a school teacher,” Maxwell said. “We had no money.”
Maxwell told KTVB he took tens of thousands of dollars, specifically, “over $50,000.”
Posing as a US military member, Maxwell said he would build relationships and get people to fall in love with his persona in order to send him money – something called a romance scam.
Property Crimes Corporal Shea Phillips with Nampa Police said they often deal with romance scams, a trick that “doesn’t discriminate” the age of the victim.
“They prey on lonely hearts,” Wilber said. “You know, they think that ‘this is my kindred spirit somewhere,’ and a lot of times these folks are overseas – but a lot of times they play it off like they’re local.”
The Property Crimes Unit at the Nampa Police Department, which is supervised by Phillips, investigates scams. She told KTVB the unit’s priority when dealing with a scammer is “to try getting as much money back as possible.”
In July, Nampa Police recovered $360,000 in a fraud investigation by tracing a scammer to New Jersey.
“Most of the time, it’s tracking the money and where it goes,” Phillips said. “Once it hits out of state, we’ll track that – and most of the time, unfortunately, it is out of the country.”
Wilber added scammers target all kinds of people with high-pressure tactics.
“These people are just – they’re charismatic talkers – and they know and they build these relationships until the point where now you feel comfortable giving them money, and they will continue giving money until there’s no more money left to give,” Wilber said.
According to Phillips, scammers find success by playing off emotions, or threats.
Scammers also rely on a sense of urgency, like with authority scams, where a scammer pretends to be a police officer.
“A professional nurse out of Twin Falls, we handled a scam where she was told she was on telephonic arrest,” Wilber said. “She was going to have a warrant and you can’t hang up. If she hangs up, then they’re going to file for this warrant. So she stayed on the phone all the way to a Walgreens where she was told to put money on a Green Dot card, and then turn over and give the code on the back to the person, who then withdrew that money and was never heard from again. It’s situations like those that you wonder how even a professional can fall for that, but it’s that sense of authority that people succumb to.”
While scammers will go after anyone, Wilber said they often target older and retired people.
“Those are the ones that really get taken for a lot of money because they generally have more money than somebody who’s still actively working,” Wilber said.
The profile fits Maxwell’s last victim, a 61-year-old woman from Kentucky, who he scammed out of about $20,000.
“She later became sick, she became depressed, she was seeing her doctor,” Maxwell said. “Her kids stopped talking to her just because of me.”
During KTVB’s interview with Maxwell, we asked the former scammer what made him decide to stop, and why he reformed himself. Maxwell said some reflection, and internal feelings, changed everything.
“She noticed I am scam, so she wanted to know who I really am, she wanted to see my face,” Maxwell said. “I know it was very risky for me to show her my face – but at the same time, I had this guilty conscience. I had this guilty conscience affecting me. And I was wondering if my mom had been in that same situation, would I be happy? So that was how I decided to show her my face. I called her on a video call, I showed her my face – and I said I’m sorry. But she still talks to me up to now.”
Maxwell now works full-time as a consultant for Social Catfish, a company dedicated to preventing online scams through reverse search technology.
“I don’t have to stay up at night to keep talking to people,” Maxwell said. “I don’t have to lie anymore, and I’m just myself. I’m living my good life. It’s really a good feeling.”
While Maxwell has changed his ways, there are still many scammers doing what he used to.
“This is a profession for these people, and it’s billions and billions of dollars doing this stuff,” Wilber said.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and new technology that can be used to replicate voices, scammers have more ways than ever to take advantage of victims. From what she’s experienced, Phillips said “These guys are getting good.”
Nampa Police say you can protect yourself – and your money – from scammers by verifying who you’re talking to. If you ever question whether or not you’re talking to an actual officer, find out what agency they say they belong to, and then search for and call the dispatch of that agency.
If you’re talking to someone online, including through websites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, make sure you’re talking with a real person before clicking on any links or sending money. One way to verify someone’s identity is through a video call.
“Be suspicious, be vigilant – and for families with older folks, check in with them often,” Wilber said.
Bottom line, Phillips said, “If it doesn’t seem right, it’s probably not right.”
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