By Chris Edwards
It could happen to anyone, and to some, that “it” in question is a terrifying proposition.
Picture this: you receive a call at your workplace, and the voice on the other end is spouting off legal jargon a mile-a-minute; threatening your imminent arrest if you don’t pay X amount of money to settle some debt from 12 years before.
Such a call, whether it is from someone claiming to be law enforcement, a lawyer or a bounty hunter, can certainly be jarring to the recipient, but ultimately is the work of a thief. Phone scams are an unfortunately common occurrence in this day and age, and many individuals fall prey to them. According to Jathan Borel, Captain with the Woodville Police Department, many area residents have made reports of having been scammed. The elderly are especially susceptible to such scams, Borel said.
Two of the types of phone scams that seem to peak in this time of year, according to Borel, are scams threatening arrest over unpaid taxes and calls that regard some sort of service account, which is geared to trick the receiver into providing bank account and/or credit card information.
“The IRS is not going to send someone to arrest you,” Borel said. “They’ll send you a letter and freeze your assets. That’s how you’ll figure out the IRS has a problem with you.”
Intimidation tactics are one of the key strategies the scammers employ, Borel said.
He added that many older victims are widows and widowers, and it appears as though the scammers either search obituaries or death records, looking for survivors. He said that right after his father died, his mother began getting calls, and sometimes gets as many as 10 scam calls a day.
Borel said that another disturbing trend in phone scams is a type that law enforcement has labelled emergency scams, a type of scam that the older demographic is more likely to fall for, he said.
Emergency scams, according to the Attorney General’s office, is a scam where the perpetrator typically targets parents, grandparents or other family members, with messages claiming a child or grandchild is in legal trouble.
Typically the scammer urges the victim to wire money immediately to help resolve the emergency. Borel said that any time someone asks for a person to send money via Western Union, it is likely a scam. Scammers also attempt to bilk individuals out of their hard-earned money by means of getting funds onto pre-paid gift cards, which allow the scammers to avoid detection.
Some sources indicate that last year, Americans lost close to $40 billion to phone scammers, a fact that Borel finds disturbing. Much of the ill-gotten money has gone to overseas scam artists, which Borel said should be considered a terroristic act.
One rule of thumb, Borel said, is to not answer unrecognizable numbers. “If you have some form of caller ID and you don’t recognize the number, then don’t pick it up,” Borel said. “The moment you answer, the moment you engage, they will still call back.”
In 2021, the Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworecel announced the establishment of a Robocall Response Team to help combat phone scammers, however, while the FCC and Federal Trade Commission have regulatory power, they cannot enforce laws that would take down scammers.
Ultimately, the power to eliminate scammers’ hold on unsuspecting folks is in the hands of those very folks. Borel urged citizens to be smart about suspicious callers. “If there’s something telling you it doesn’t sound right, hang up the phone, don’t respond.”
You can report phone scams online to the Federal Trade Commission. You can also call 1-877-382-4357 (TTY: 1-866-653-4261). The FTC is the primary governmental agency that collects scam complaints.