Phone scams targeting seniors on the rise

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A number of phone scams have been reported throughout northwest Iowa communities, marking an increase in a trend in which senior citizens are at a higher risk of falling victim.

“Usually the caller tries to pose some type of urgency or something that gets them panicked,” Spencer Police Chief Mark Warburton said. “That could be making anything up, from ‘somebody needs money because they’ve been thrown in jail,’ to a threat of violence, it’s a large number of things.”

He continued, “Elderly people are probably the most at risk because usually they are wealthier and the least informed in the changing technologies, they (also) prey on some of the hard of hearing.”

Nancy Ketcham, elder rights specialist at Elderbridge, described a scenario she witnessed firsthand a month ago, where a Spencer senior citizen was intimidated over the phone with threats of incarceration by a federal law enforcement agency. Afraid of legal action, the individual purchased more than $2,000 in gift cards and they were led to redeem them over the phone over the course of three days. Ketcham and the Spencer Police Department were then able to intervene after a local business thought the purchases were suspicious.

“They put so much fear in them that they even go against people who say ‘don’t do it,’” Ketcham said. “Somehow these (criminals), I don’t know what they say to put so much fear in these people, but they do. ... Some people are just so embarrassed and scared to even call their own family (about it), (one senior) was afraid to call their family because they were afraid they’d put them in a nursing home.”

Both Warburton and Ketcham noted another common phone scam tries to convince the victim to send them money for a family member in trouble.

“They can call on their phone (imitating your) grandson’s cellphone number, and then they call and pretend they’re the grandson, and comes up on caller ID as the grandson so they think it really is,” Ketcham said. “These things are very real to people, especially our seniors, who don’t have a lot of family support, nobody is watching over them everyday to see what’s going on, even every week. Then when it happens they’re so embarrassed by it they don’t even want to tell anybody because they’re embarrassed, they know they’ve done something wrong.”

Linda Kunzmann, vice president at State Bank, has noticed a trend utilizing local area codes.

“What we have noticed lately is the use of local numbers people call in on, and usually somehow they are accessing local numbers so it looks like you should answer it,” Kunzmann said. “Maybe it’s a 712, 260 number, I think some people aren’t aware of that.”

Warburton shared that the scams have been a method of crime on the rise in the area, sharing that the tactic only needs a low rate of success for criminals to find financial gain from their efforts.

“There is definitely an increase,” Warburton said. “The scams are becoming more diverse, they’re using gift cards for example, ... it always changes a little bit. ... In certain situations, people have been pestered over and over, ... ‘We’re going to lock up your computer,’ and certain things like that where people get intimidated.”

He continued, “These (scammers) often times don’t have jobs, just imagine if one phone call works out of 500 and they receive $1,000. That’s a good paycheck for one day.”

Another element of the scamming tactic that benefits perpetrators is that the crimes can occur in different jurisdictions, making it more difficult to track the scammers down.

“The Police Department tries to curtail and catch before anyone delivers any money or gift cards or anything like that in those situations,” Warburton said. “The Police Department receives numerous, numerous calls regarding scams. The problem is usually those scams originate from across the state lines, so we do not have the authority to prosecute those, so that usually falls on the other jurisdictions or the FBI. So, we usually have them report to the IC3 website, which is internet crimes, or the FTC, then they can file a complaint there and route those complaints to the jurisdictions.”

Ketcham and Warburton both offered advice to prevent individuals from becoming victims of phone scams.

“You can prevent a lot of this by hanging up the phone, or contacting your local phone companies so you don’t get them to begin with,” Warburton said.

“Just hang up on them,” Ketcham agreed. “So many of our seniors come from that generation that they’re polite and don’t realize that they’re scammers. (This allows scammers to) continue to badger and work with them. They come from a different generation where they think it’s not appropriate to hang up on people.”

She continued, “We always say, ‘The FBI will never come and pick you up and arrest you, the police will never come and arrest you,’ and if you question that always call our local police station or sheriff if you’re questioning that. Call and just double check. If your ‘grandson’ called and needs help getting bailed out, call your grandson and see if he really does need help. Always do a double check and backtrack a little bit. ... Don’t ever give out your social security number, don’t give out your birth date, don’t give your driver’s license out, don’t give them your information.”

Ketcham also advised community members to be socially inclusive with senior citizens who seem lonely and encouraged area businesses to be on the lookout for suspicious purchases.

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