After lunch, there was phishing for dessert.
“The IRS, Social Security and the U.S. government do not call you, so if someone’s calling you and saying that you owe $10,000 in taxes and they tell you to go to the store and buy $500 or more in Apple gift cards, scratch off the gray stuff to show the little number on the back and give them that number, they’ve just taken your money,” stated Chatfield Police Chief Shane Fox, standing with Chatfield Police Officer Aaron Miliander at the head of a potluck table in the Thurber Building. The two were addressing Chatfield senior citizens at the Age Well in Fillmore County Seasoned Seniors monthly potluck gathering who had numerous questions about combatting scams by phone, online or by mail as the opportunities for unscrupulous actors to “phish” for ways to get people to part with their money multiply daily.
The officers spoke about a wide range of attempts that fraudsters make to obtain other people’s money, some specifically targeted at senior citizens, such as the “scam-a-gram” phone scam that finds grandparents answering their home or cell phone to hear the voice on the other end claiming to be one of their grandchildren calling from jail in another state or country after running afoul of the law in some manner. They explained to the ladies in attendance that the phone scam uses the names of everyone familiar to Grandpa or Grandma to convince them that they have to bail out that grandson or granddaughter by wiring money to a certain address, most often by untraceable means such as Western Union.
Fox recounted one of the encounters that the local department has had to investigate as he portrayed one of the scammers: “‘Hi Grandma, I’m in Canada, in jail. I put somebody in the hospital after a car accident. I need you to wire money to this address so I can get out of jail. And so Grandma, not knowing that it isn’t her grandson or granddaughter, goes to the bank and Western Union to send the money, sometimes with help from a son or daughter who doesn’t know that their niece or nephew isn’t in Canada. And then when they call to ask about that grandchild, the kid’s mom or dad says, ‘They’re not in Canada. They’re at work or right here.’ And it’s because he had all the names of the people in the family, and everything seems so real.”
One of the attendees inquired, “How do they get that information? I’m not online.”
Fox replied, “It’s all online. Your family’s information is all online. All someone has to do is look up ‘John Smith’ and the names of his family are there.”
Banking scams were on the roster of phone scams that Miliander and Fox discussed, telling the participants that if the phone rings and someone asks for sensitive financial or personal information, do not give it out.
“First and foremost, if it’s over the phone, don’t give it out over the phone,” Miliander said. “Call from your phone number for the bank, not from the number they give you. They’re not going to call you if they’re from the bank. If someone calls you and says they’re from the bank and need your account number or Social Security number, they’re not from the bank.”
Furthermore, Fox noted that other forms of phone scams exist, such as the “Yes” scam that requires only that a person answer the question “Is this John Smith?” The phone rings once at a residence and the person calls the number back, the scammers ask “Is this John Smith?” or whatever the resident’s name is, and if that person says “yes,” they get a credit card in that name.
Phone and online scams have blurred the lines with the advent of smart phones. One attendee remarked, “Smart phones scare me.”
Another said, “With all the modern technology, why can’t you find a way to solve this?”
“There are a lot of new things coming out,” Miliander answered. “We find stuff new all the time. We’ll tell people ‘This is fraud’ when they say ‘Someone’s coming to my house to bring me a check’ after they meet someone on the phone or online. If you give them a check, they’re going to say they need more money, and they’re going to keep on calling.”
The same is true for online schemes, such as when people entangle others in a “romance scam” through which they convince the victims that they’re in love with them and need money to meet the costs of life’s necessities or to make a lifetime milestone. One check sent, and soon after comes a request for more money, oftentimes with a promise that they’ll soon meet or that they just can’t make it this time.
Fox observed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has little time to invest in seeking the identities of people who engage in such activity and that once any amount of money has been wired, mailed or directed toward a recipient by phone, it’s too late to do much about it.
“We’ve heard of someone who sent money to someone who said they were in Panama and needed it, and when we called the FBI to ask if they could check into it, the FBI pretty much just laughed at us,” he said.
Credit card scams involving theft of card numbers by people who write down those numbers while in temporary possession of a card during processing a transaction, phone scams that seek to obtain card numbers by coercion, or the surreptitious lifting of magnetic card information came up as well, and the officers told the group to guard their cards, keep phone numbers of credit card companies handy and to report theft of physical cards or credit card information as soon as it is realized.
They also passed around several checks that had been “either stolen or something was done to wash them,” because one of them was a real check for a real amount, but the “pay to the order” line’s designation had been washed away and replaced with the name of another person wishing to collect the funds. Another was an actual check from an actual insurance company that was reimbursing someone, but the check form that the insurance company used raised concerns and Fox was asked to investigate it, being told that the check was legitimate and that the company often received questions about it.
Attendees asked numerous questions ranging from how safe it is to conduct everyday financial business online and how to deal with someone pressuring them for money over the phone to whether they should trust certain letters arriving in their mailboxes, such as one that came from a company that was conducting a neighborhood watch roundup of residents for another neighbor on that person’s street but asked for an online user name and password to verify the requested information.
Admissions were made by some, including that they’re not as familiar with the people who live in their neighborhoods, as one did, “I don’t even know my neighbors anymore.”
Another felt that with the advent of online payments, things have become more complicated than necessary – that sending a check through the mail ought to be the safer choice.
And Miliander, when asked, advised everyone “to just be skeptical, be vigilant,” to not give out private information to untrustworthy people even if they seem trustworthy, to always to verify who and what, and when in doubt, contact the police with questions instead of taking action to satisfy demands for money.
Age Well in Fillmore County’s coordinator, Tina Kerns, stated that she felt that it was important for her to invite Fox and Miliander to speak about the forms that scams can take as the final Seasoned Seniors potluck was held for 2019 on Friday, Oct. 25.
“Our seniors have been talking about this for quite a while, at all our potlucks, so I wanted to be sure to have someone speak about it before we don’t meet again for a while. This is important to them,” she said.