MACOMB COUNTY — An elaborate phone fraud scheme that occurred in Eastpointe recently has Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham advising all county residents to be on the lookout for similar crimes.
As Wickersham explained, it is believed that the scammers in this particular case used a computer program that changes caller identification information to show that the call is being placed from a different number. This process is known as “spoofing” and is often used to trick unsuspecting residents.
The suspect in the Eastpointe incident was able to get the victim to send him nearly $1,200 after convincing her that he was Wickersham himself. However, the sheriff stressed that law enforcement agencies do not conduct financial transactions over the phone, so residents should be suspicious of any caller who is requesting money, regardless of their caller ID information.
“We will never call and ask someone to pay a fine or pay their bond over the phone,” Wickersham said. “That’s just something that we will never, ever do under any circumstances. The only thing that we’ll do is ask someone to turn themselves in to the police for arrest. And if they don’t, then we’ll go out there and get them.”
According to Detective Lt. Dave Ernatt of the Eastpointe Police Department, on Aug. 12, a resident came to the station to report that she had just become a victim of spoofing. She said that in July, she had applied for a small personal loan online at a website that Ernatt said is most likely “bogus.” Then, about two weeks later, she received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a police officer from the “National Investigation Unit” who told her that she was the subject of a fraud investigation based on the loan that she had tried to obtain.
“The woman told him that she would cooperate fully with their investigation,” Ernatt said. “In reality, though, that call was probably just a setup for the next call, when he asked her to send the money.”
About a week later, the woman received a phone call from a man who identified himself as “Sheriff Anthony Wickersham” and said that he was following up on the fraud investigation. Her caller ID indicated that the call was coming from the Macomb County Sheriff’s Department. The caller gave the woman instructions to go to the nearest CVS pharmacy, purchase a pre-paid money card, and make a payment of $1,190 in order to avoid a criminal charge.
“Later that same day, she started thinking that the whole thing was a scam, so she contacted us,” Ernatt said. “Her instinct was correct, but at that point, it was already too late.”
Ernatt indicated that Eastpointe police were continuing to investigate the case, but they have not yet identified any potential suspects. Wickersham added that the Sheriff’s Department was assisting Eastpointe in the investigation with resources from its computer crimes division.
According to Ernatt, spoofing has become an increasingly common — and increasingly easy — scam for criminals to perpetrate. He noted that there are numerous websites and smart phone applications with built-in spoofing programs that advertise them as a way for customers to “fool or prank” their friends. He added that anyone can easily walk into a cellphone store and buy a phone registered to a fake name and address to use for criminal activity.
“You don’t need any fancy technology to do this, which is why it’s a very tough crime to catch somebody on,” Ernatt explained. “In our city, we don’t have many spoofing cases, but there are probably a lot of them that go unreported because people feel stupid or embarrassed to tell the police about it.”
Like Wickersham, Ernatt underscored that no police officer will ever call a resident and ask them for money over the phone in order to avoid an arrest — an officer will only ask them to come down to their local police station to make the payment in person. But even if the caller is using a different strategy than the one used in the Eastpointe case, there are still ways that residents can protect themselves from fraud.
“Obviously, do not give out any of your personal information over the phone unless you are absolutely sure that you are talking to a legitimate source,” Ernatt said. “And if you need to make any kind of payment over the phone, always make sure that you call them instead of them calling you.”
Wickersham advised any resident who receives phone calls from someone identifying themselves as a police officer and asking for money to politely ask for a return number, then end the phone call and immediately report the matter to their local police department.
“People just need to be aware of this danger and do their homework,” Wickersham said. “There are always going to be criminals out there who are finding creative new ways to take your money.”