The Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office and Hubbard County Attorney’s Office collaborated to teach preventive measures at an April 29 scam alert seminar.
“Who here has ever won $50 million?” quipped sheriff’s investigator Bill Schlag, drawing chuckles when no one from the audience of about 30 people raised their hands.
Telemarketing fraud alone is a $40 billion per year business, said Jill Christenson, crime victims services coordinator. More than 60 percent of victims are senior citizens.
“When someone thinks it doesn’t happen here, it does, it will and it has,” she said.
In 2015, Schlag spent eight months investigating a local handyman who swindled a widow out of $106,527. A concerned bank teller alerted the sheriff’s office because the woman had written 27 checks to the man, ranging from $1,000 to $8,000. The handyman charged her for unnecessary repairs.
Typically, a victim loses $1,500 to $2,500, Christenson said. “I’ll tell you that most people don’t report it. They’re embarrassed. They’re ashamed,” she continued, adding it’s important to talk to friends, family or neighbors. “Just be open about it.”
And call the sheriff’s office or local police department.
Variations of “1234567890” are easy to hack. So are “password,” “password1,” “111111” or “qwerty.” These are among the top 10 commonly used passwords, according to Christenson and Schlag.
Don’t use pets’ names, birth dates, anniversary dates, your mother’s maiden name or any other personal information in a password, Christenson advised, all of which are easily found online. Use random letters – both uppercase and lowercase – numbers and symbols, she said.
She said it’s important to have a different password for each program as well.
“Most of the time you’ll be contacted completely out of the blue,” Schlag said.
This is a tell-tale red flag.
“They’re going to pressure you. They’re going to want you to hurry up. They’ll want you to keep it a secret,” he said. “Don’t do that. You have all the time in the world.”
Scam artists can fake invoices, phone numbers and emails. Schlag said they will sound very convincing.
Ask a friend, family member, attorney, neighbor, 911 dispatcher or law enforcement for their opinion.
Christenson said, if you have any doubts, it’s probably a scam.
“Just hang up,” she said. Don’t engage or listen to the scammer because phone numbers are shared in a “sucker list,” each name selling for $5 to $10, so you’ll only receive more fraudulent calls.
In this scam, the con artist impersonates a grandchild in distress.
“People fall for this one all the time,” Schlag said. “Here’s the problem: Once your money hits an ocean, it is gone. We will never, ever be able to get it back. I’d say 95 percent of scams are overseas.”
Most scammers are from Jamaica, Nigeria, Taiwan, India, and lately, Canada, Schlag noted.
To avoid this scam, verify the caller’s identity by asking “Who is this?” and resist the pressure to act.
Schlag described this as a “major, major scam” occurring in Hubbard County.
The scammer creates a fake persona and develops an online relationship with the victim over weeks and months.
Christenson said one lonely, elderly widow in the county lost $30,000 to someone she met on a Christian dating website.
Josh Oswald, a sheriff’s deputy in Nevis, described another case where the con artist built an online relationship with a local woman, gaining her trust. Then he began asking for money and urged her to cut off contact with her family. An alert bank teller noticed the unusual transactions and notified Oswald.
The woman lost $90,000 to this scammer, Oswald said. The money was sent overseas, so “it was nowhere to be found.”
Schlag noted that scammers are rarely caught. They often instruct victims to send money by wire transfer, gift cards or reloadable money packs, which is the same as sending cash and is nearly untraceable.
Akeley Police Chief Jimmy Hansen said a similar tactic was used in Akeley. The victim was asked to purchase a certain type of gift card.
Approximately 30,000 calls are made from Jamaican scam artists every day, Hansen said. It has an 876 area code.
He appealed to citizens to contact legislators and demand a bill that would make phone companies responsibile for telemarketing fraud. The technology is available to stop phone scams, Hansen said.
“The IRS will never call you,” Schlag reminded the audience. They only send certified mail.
Threats of arrest are also bogus.
If there truly was a warrant, “I promise you, I’m not going to tell you I’m coming,” Schlag said, evoking laughter again when he said, “‘You’re under arrest. I’ll be there in, uh, 15 minutes.’”
More information about preventing scams is available at the Minnesota Attorney General’s website: www.ag.state.mn.us.