Police warn of scams aided by technology

An employee at an Oak Harbor business was recently the victim of a scam in which “Lt. Shepherd” from the police convinced the employee there was a problem with counterfeit money. The caller talked the clerk into taking money from the till, withdrawing money from the employee’s own account, buying pre-paid debit cards and giving the “officer” the account numbers of the cards.

In another case, an elderly local man was tricked into sending large sums of money to a Russian “girlfriend” he met over Facebook.

And an Oak Harbor woman recently lost nearly six-figures in a Bitcoin scam.

Detective Sgt. Jenn Gravel explained that these cases are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to fraudulent schemes that people fall victim to. Each year, residents of Oak Harbor alone likely lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in scams. The cases are nearly impossible to investigate or prosecute and the money is invariably gone overseas, never to be recouped. Many likely go unreported because victims are simply embarrassed.

Gravel said the scams are nothing new, but new technology has made them trickier and more prevalent than ever. Phone “spoofing,” for example, allows scammers to pretend they are calling from another’s phone number. In recent scams attacking businesses, employees received calls that appeared to be from their managers.

In addition, many of the con artists are just very good at what they do, using subtle clues to convinced people of their authenticity.

“These people who runs these scams are master manipulators,” the detective said. “They have Psychology 101 down right.”

Gravel said she and the patrol officers probably hear about as many as a dozen scams each week. In most of the cases, people recognized the fraud and don’t fall for it, but just let the police know. Too many times, however, people are swindled.

Gravel explained that the scams fall into myriad categories. Many of them prey on the elderly, who may be more trusting, less savvy or simply lonely.

One of the cruelest types of swindle is what Gravel dubs the “romance scam.” She said the target is usually elderly people who are on Facebook. A fraudster “friends” the victim and builds up a relationship over time. The scammer starts asking for money for things like rent or medical bills. Gravel said the victims often hide the relationship and the payments from their families out of a sense of embarrassment.

In the case of an 80-year-old man, a scammer purporting to be a very attractive Russian woman contacted him over Facebook and convinced him to send her money for a variety of reasons, Gravel explained. His family was concerned but he wouldn’t listen. Finally, the Russian convinced him to send money so she could visit, but then she claimed she was kidnapped and needed ransom money. The police finally became involved and had a talk with him after he reported the kidnapping to law enforcement.

Gravel said all fraudulent schemes, but particularly the romance scams, can cause deep emotional injury as well as financial hardship.

“It’s a very painful realization that someone you care about turns out to be a scam,” she said. “It can be a real loss for someone.”

Phone scams are still prevalent. The scammers sometimes pretend to be from a bank, the IRS or law enforcement and ask for personal information or money. The caller might claim, for example, that the resident missed a jury summons and needs to pay a fine.

Gravel warns people against providing bank account information or other personal information to a caller. If in doubt, a resident can hang up and call the bank or officer back at the regular number. The IRS only contacts people by mail. No one legitimate would ask for gift cards or wire transfers.

In addition, scammers sometimes pretend to be family members in need of help. Gravel said the scheme is often targeted at elderly people. A scammer might pretend to be a grandchild, for example, who lost their passport in another country and needs money to get it back. Or the caller might say they need bail money.

Gravel said she’s seen recent Bitcoin and other investment schemes. A scammer usually pretends to be someone familiar, like a friend of a friend, and talks the resident into investing. Sometimes the flimflam man promises guaranteed returns, which should be a giant red flag.

“If it seems too good to be true, it is,” Gravel advised.

Email scams are still omnipresent, as are fraudulent schemes over text and apps. Phishing is a fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be a reputable company in order to induce a person to provide personal information. An easy way to tell if an email is fake, Gravel explained, is to “hover” the cursor over a link in the email and the URL will appear in the lower left. If it isn’t clearly from the company, such as Amazon, than it likely isn’t real.

Gravel also warns people against sending intimate photos of themselves to others. The police have dealt with cases in which people extort money or additional images from people, especially women, by threatening to send the images to family or friends.

The sad reality of the modern world, Gravel said, is the technology that improves our lives in many ways can also be used for ill-gotten gains. She urges people to practice skepticism and check with others before sending money.