Police say pandemic providing ‘perfect breeding ground for scams’

Mar. 31—Groton resident Julia Pacheco received a scam call in December from someone purporting to be a law enforcement official in Texas asking her to make arrangements to pay several thousand dollars to have a federal warrant vacated that he alleged had been issued for her.

“I knew I had not committed any crimes but I was afraid someone (had) stolen my identity and that was a scary thought,” Pacheco said.

She told the person she was busy, got his “name” and call-back number. He told her he would wait an hour for the payment or she would be arrested.

She looked up the sheriff’s office in Texas where the person claimed he was from and called that number directly. It was all a scam. The real deputy picked up the phone and was shocked that scammers were using his name. He also checked, at Pacheco’s request, to ensure her identity wasn’t stolen, which it wasn’t.

Pacheco said the beauty of technology is that she was able to do some checking up and due diligence brought her some peace of mind.

Local police chiefs say scams have become an increasingly common problem over the last few years and have taken on new forms during the pandemic.

With the stress and financial insecurities many people are facing, the pandemic has become a “perfect breeding ground” for scammers trying to take advantage of people, explained New London Police Captain Brian Wright.

Local police departments have been issuing public service announcements on social media to raise awareness of the common scams circulating. New London and Norwich police posted this month about scams related to the COVID-19 vaccine, such as, according to the New London Police’s Facebook page, “scammers who pose as vaccinators and ask for sensitive information such as social security numbers and bank information. Consumers will never be asked for this information to receive the vaccine.”

Wright said a variety of scams are circulating, from banking and debt forgiveness scams, to scams in which people pose as friends and say, for example, they’re having trouble with their Amazon account and ask the person targeted by the scam to buy prepaid gift cards, with the promise of later reimbursement.

Wright said some scammers get people for a good amount of money, because they prey on people’s fears, stress and vulnerabilities.

“I always say if it sounds too good to be true, it’s always too good to be true,” Wright said.

He said people should never give out any person information, such as dates of birth, social security and bank identification numbers, and should contact the local authorities if they are targeted.

Scams always changing

East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said that as people shifted to banking, making payments and shopping online over about the last five years, scammers have taken advantage of that connectivity. The uptick in scams has only continued during the pandemic, as scammers look to find new routes to get people to provide their personal information. They also try to take advantage of a situation in which some people have more time on their hands and when stimulus money is being distributed.

“It’s always changing,” Finkelstein said of the different scams that are circulating. Even the police department phone line recently received a scam phone call attempting to get information by saying their bank account had been fraudulently accessed.

Finkelstein said some of the most common scams attempt to target the elderly, such as callers posing as representatives of Medicare or Social Security.

Paving scams are also becoming more prominent, he said.

Waterford Police Chief Brett Mahoney said the department is seeing new scams related to COVID-19 relief checks. He also hears about scams, such as people posing as Eversource and calling to say a bill is overdue.

The department also posted on March 15 that a person was disguising their phone number to appear as the town’s Recreation and Parks phone number and posing as a representative from the Social Security Administration.

“These phone scams are non-stop,” the post states. “Quite often, the scammers work on a numbers game, meaning if they call 100 people, 1 person may fall for it. Therefore, they keep calling and calling and calling. Do your part and simply hang up.”

Mahoney said people should never give out any personal information and never allow anyone on a phone call to remotely take over the computer. He said if people get a call and feel there is something off, there is nothing wrong with hanging up. People can then independently research the phone number of the institution and call that number directly.

Finkelstein also said people should be aware that scammers have methods such as “spoofing” websites or phone numbers that look legitimate but are not.

Mahoney said if people do fall victim to a scam, they should call local police who can walk them through various ways of potentially recovering the money and potentially dealing with criminal complaints.

Consumer complaints increased in 2020

Connecticut saw an uptick in consumer complaints during 2020, according to the state Department of Consumer Protection.

“Connecticut Consumers reported losing $24.3 million to fraud, identity theft and scams in 2020. More than 18,000 consumer complaints were recorded in Connecticut last year, up from 14,500 in 2019,” according to a news release from the Department of Consumer Protection. “Last year in Connecticut, the most reported scams had to do with identity theft and imposter scams. Complaints related to online shopping, exchanges and returns, also surged in 2020, elevated by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The department also shares on its website a dozen common scams, including “It’s Your Lucky Day! You Won the Foreign Lottery!,” “A free vacation getaway for you!” and “Bad credit or no credit? Not a problem!”

People also can submit a fraud report online or call a helpline through the AARP, and also use the AARP website to look up common scams in their area.

Readers shared their experiences with scams, including calls from people posing as a Medicare agent and fraudulently saying they need confirmation of personal information; being told from someone posing as a Social Security Administration representative that there is a problem with their account; or getting a scam call that they won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes and need to pay taxes on the prize.

Another one, which police say was more common a few years ago, is the “grandparents scam” in which a scammer poses as a grandchild and says they are arrested, for example, and need bail money or they have been in an accident and need money.

Norwich Alderman Stacy Gould said she has received scam phone calls, such as one telling her she owes $60,000 to the Internal Revenue Service that can be settled with a $600 gift card. While she realized they are scams, she said she is worried about the community at large.

She said she thinks some people get frightened when they receive a phone call from scammers that tell the person they owe money, or their social security number is compromised, and are led to believe they can fix the situation by giving a gift card — even though it’s all a scam.

“They prey on their vulnerability,” she said.

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