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As tax season approaches, police expect increase in fraud cases

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 25, 2015

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Identity theft schemes are so rampant in an increasingly high-tech world, it seems like we’ve all been solicited at one point or another.

No one is safe from the thieves looking to take your personal information, according to Sgt. James Gallagher, of the Bloomfield Township Police Department. Not even the officers in his station.

“We got a fax sent to Chief (Donald) Zimmerman and Alarmline, which before Guardian Alarm and all that was the way we used to get notifications for home alarms — they came directly through us instead of the company,” he explained. “So that was already pretty (strange), since Chief Zimmerman was here in the mid-’90s, and came back on an interim basis in the early 2000s. But it’s been years since he was a full-time employee.”

That fax, sent Nov. 9, stated that “your company,” referencing the department, had been approved for $250,000 in business working capital and a line of credit beyond that. The fax read that “Bloomfield Police could access the money now, and pay back money in the future.”

“The goal with these things is to obtain personal information. They might send us a bonus check that would bounce, but in the meantime they would want our Social Security numbers, addresses, all that,” Gallagher said. “Obviously, we didn’t follow through with it and just disposed of the fax. We checked the phone numbers (listed) and the fax number, and they came back with a history of scams.”

But that’s where the trail ended, because even though the would-be thieves had inadvertently targeted a police station — the very agency they’d likely want to avoid when perpetrating a crime — there’s not much local police can do to pursue phone and Internet fraud cases.

“A lot of times, these are sophisticated organizations out of state or overseas. The manpower, either in expertise or (funding), makes these cases difficult to follow up on. Sometimes, even the legal jurisdiction of just going across state or international lines makes it just impractical to investigate from a local standpoint,” he said.

Once a criminal caller obtains the information they’re looking for from a victim, they can then open lines of credit, take out cash advances or even file fraudulent tax returns in that person’s name.

Lt. Michael Vargas, of the Beverly Hills Public Safety Department, said that’s what happened to a resident in the 1600 block of Bedford a couple of weeks ago when the woman came into the station and reported that she had been the victim of identity theft.

The woman said she’s not sure how her pertinent information was compromised, but luck was in her favor, because the thief’s plan to open a credit card in her name was thwarted when a duplicate card was sent to her Beverly Hills home.

“This suspect took (the victim’s) ID and opened a credit card in her name, then ordered a card in their name. Typically, what they do is then immediately call the bank and say they’ve just moved so a card isn’t sent to the victim’s home. But in this case, the victim received the card at her home. She knew she didn’t open that account, so she contacted the bank to let them know.”

In that case, an investigation is ongoing. But with so many fraud cases being perpetrated — IRS scams alone account for hundreds of reports in Bloomfield Township — many agencies have created new policies not to take any more reports on such incidents. There are just too many to pursue, with no luck of finding the suspect.

That’s what Bloomfield Township resident Dorothy Honhart was told recently when she received a call from an angry IRS agent — or so the caller claimed to be.

“This is the second time they’ve called me. I received my first call about six months ago, and I wasn’t home and there was a message on my answering machine. It kind of cut off at the very beginning like a lot of these automated calls do, so I missed the first part of it. But the part I did get said it was the IRS and I should call them immediately. They said, ‘It’s imperative you call us about your taxes,’” Honhart said.

She explained that at that time, she had just recently read about IRS phone scams in the Eagle and knew she shouldn’t call the number back. Honhart did, however, call the police. They directed her to collect as much information as she could next time, including the suspicious caller’s name and phone number, and call the police to check for a scam before she released any of her personal information.

“Lo and behold, I did get another phone call. I was at home, so I picked it up, but it was still an automated call that said they have been trying to reach me. It said ‘This is the Internal Revenue Service, and we are in the process of filing a lawsuit against you. It is imperative you call the following number immediately,’” she said. “I thought, ‘Gotcha this time.’ But when I called the police, they said they’re not handling those calls anymore and directed me to a toll-free number with the Treasury Inspector General’s Office. I called and pressed 1 for this and 2 for that until finally they asked me to file a complaint online because they had an overabundance of calls from around the country regarding IRS scams.”

Honhart filed the complaint, but she doesn’t expect to get a response back, especially since she was keen enough to recognize what had happened and wasn’t taken for any money during the incident.

But not all victims are so lucky, according to Chief Dan Roberts, of the Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Department. Roberts, formerly of the FBI, said he spends a good deal of time talking with seniors in the area about the increasing risk of fraud attempts directed at that demographic.

“I do speeches with elderly residents because they’re preyed upon the most,” Roberts said, explaining that seniors still list their contact information in the phone book. Plus, sometimes older residents aren’t as tech-savvy as younger people and might be more susceptible to falling for a scam online.

“Every time we find a way to block them off, they move on to a different scam. Pyramid scams, bank note scams, fraud schemes, Internet fraud — it’s really an education process we all have to go through.”

The most important thing to remember, Roberts said, is that no bank or government agency will ever ask for your information over the phone.

But these perpetrators are awfully convincing, Gallagher said. Even sharper victims who have the inclination to do a reverse phone search for these scammers online might be fooled because the overseas number is routed through a spoof line, so it comes up on caller IDs and on databases to look like they’re calling from where they claim to be.

“They’re very good at the way they ask questions. Like if they’re pretending to be someone’s grandson stranded overseas, they’ll call and say, ‘Hey, Grandma, it’s me.’ And the victim will ask, ‘Johnny?’ And they’ll reply, ‘Yeah, Johnny. It’s your grandson.’ They’re really good at this. They’ll even look up your home on Google Street View and convince you they’re looking at your house,” said Detective James Moschel, of the Bloomfield Township Police Department, who investigates fraud cases for the department.

Moschel has a list of resources he usually offers victims of ID theft once they’ve been hit, but he encourages residents to contact their local police to learn more about how they can screen for a scammer whenever possible.