Education is key in thwarting phone scams

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 7, 2016

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Another day, another phone scam.

That’s what it feels like for police officers across the country, who take reports daily from residents who say they were targeted by a caller claiming to be someone else in an attempt to steal money.

Last week, two more such cases were reported in Bloomfield Township, and while one would-be victim was bailed out in the nick of time, the other resident — a 92-year-old woman — wasn’t so lucky. She was taken for thousands.

“These scammers are calling our residents on a daily basis,” said Lt. Dan Edwards, of the Bloomfield Township Police Department. “The tactic that they generally use is to intimidate you and then isolate you, not allowing you to break communication with them.”

Intimidation and isolation
That’s what happened Aug. 22, when an elderly woman went into the Bank of America at 3700 W. Maple Road and tried to deposit $6,743 of her money into a stranger’s account.

When bank staff asked about the transaction, she said she had received a call from someone who claimed to be with the IRS. The caller told her she needed to deposit the funds into a specific account or face jail time.

The scammer, who called the victim’s cellphone, told her she was not to hang up the phone during the transaction, and also instructed her to leave her landline phone off the hook so no one else could contact her, presumably to intervene.

The bank manager, seeing what was happening, called police to warn the victim, and police arrived before she was able to complete the transaction.

Bank of America declined to comment on the incident.

That same day, another senior did fall victim to a phone scammer. The resident, who lives in the 1000 block of Rock Spring, received a call from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. The caller told the victim that she had caused a car accident, then a fake attorney got on the line and instructed the concerned grandmother to buy $2,000 worth of iTunes gift cards and relay the account numbers over the phone.

It wasn’t until the victim purchased the cards and transferred the account numbers that she realized she had been scammed and contacted the police — at which point it was too late.

Edwards said the calls are so rampant that there are thousands police never hear about because the target simply hangs up, knowing it’s all a ruse. But there’s no shortage of vulnerable residents, often seniors, who fall for the scam.

“If no one was falling for it, the calls would go away. But it’s obviously lucrative enough for them to keep going,” Edwards said.

In Birmingham, Cmdr. Scott Grewe said his department typically sees a flood of reports — not always from victims, but from residents wise to the scam — who describe calls from people claiming to be with the IRS collecting on a delinquent tax bill.

In those instances, they can only hope word spreads about the crime, and residents of all ages know they should never relay information over the phone.

“When we see a couple reports for some scam, we definitely send it out and put it on Crimedar or our Facebook page to make people aware,” he said.

Grewe said he hasn’t seen a jump in recent weeks of IRS phone scam reports.

Sgt. Mike Bastianelli, of the Franklin/Bingham Farms Police Department, said his department hasn’t seen a spike in recent weeks either, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of current schemes — or the new ones on the way.

“You’ll also see a lot of confidence scams, which say things such as, ‘If you give us $10,000, we’ll return you $100,000.’ It’s like the old saying goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Bastianelli. “Two other scams we’ve seen recently are criminals calling someone posing as a security business. They will say they had a breach and will ask their target to confirm their information. The other is commonly known as the grandparent scam. Somebody will call an elderly person and pretend to be a relative; they will then say something like, ‘I’ve been arrested, and I need you to send me some money for bail.’”

Who can step in, and who should?
The criminals in these cases are most times located overseas and use technology to route their number through a United States ZIP code to look legitimate. Since they’re out of jurisdiction, once the funds are taken, there isn’t much police can do.

Because of that, the most powerful weapon law enforcement has in its arsenal to stop scammers is education. Edwards said he has community resource officers who focus on speaking with residents to make them aware of the criminals’ tactics and how to respond — which is to simply hang up and call police.

That’s the primary focus for Bastianelli, too.

“It’s important people never give out any information over the phone or online and never send out any money,” he said. “The IRS never calls you. They only contact you by mail. Similarly, if law enforcement gets in touch with you, they will do so either by mail or in person. If you don’t recognize a number, don’t answer it or let it go to voicemail. Some of the best advice I can give people is if you aren’t sure if someone on the phone is legitimate, hang up and call the company back at their official number and check.”

Edwards said his department also tries to reach out to local businesses whenever possible to make them aware of the scams, so they can be spotted and stopped before a victim loses their lot.

“It’s helpful when retailers keep a lookout,” he said. “Generally, when (there’s) an elderly person who’s frazzled at the time they’re trying to purchase these cards, we’d like it for those retailers to call us so we can go there and get involved.”

The cards that Edwards is referring are prepaid gift cards or money cards, like iTunes gift cards or GreenDot cards. Once a card is drained of its funds, the money can’t be refunded.

“There have been several times where retailers will spot a scam and talk to the person to tell them they shouldn’t buy the cards, but these callers are professional manipulators, so (the victim) will go against the clerk’s advice and buy the cards anyway because they’re scared,” he explained. “That’s why we’d like them to call us.”

The same goes for banks, Edwards added, saying tellers should be on the lookout like the manager at Bank of America was last month for seniors transferring large amounts of money under duress. But a warning doesn’t always go very far, even when it’s warranted.

“Banks have their rules, and they can’t tell a person not to withdraw their own money,” he said. “The tellers can question them a bit, but it’s also their money, so they’re hesitant to step in.”

Prepaid cards: Convenience or curse?
And what about the companies who supply those pre-purchased products? Tom Neumayr, a spokesperson for Apple, said the creator of iTunes gift cards is aware that their cards are used in scams, and like police, they’re focusing on consumer awareness.

“Apple retail store employees can help customers identify potential scam threats and assist them when handling such situations. We’re also providing our reseller partners (with) guidance on how to help prevent customers from being scammed,” he said.

Edwards complimented Apple’s responsiveness when his department served the company with search warrants related to reported phone scams, and Neumayr said Apple is pleased to help however it can with investigations, including refunding not-yet-used funds on the gift cards.

Neumayr added that iTunes gift cards are only good for buying goods and services on the iTunes store and app store, and can never be used to pay for bail or IRS debts. He declined, though, to comment on the idea of a spending cap on iTunes cards sold at resellers.

GreenDot responded to calls from the Eagle about the use of its cards in scams, but did not comment by press time.

Edwards and Bastianelli agreed that officers are always available to talk to residents about current scams, to answer questions about calls when they do come in, and to educate retailers on how to handle suspicious situations with customers.