Scammers on phone, online and in person prey on local older people who want to help
COLUMBIA COUNTY—With 19.5% of the county’s population now 65 or older, according to U.S. Census data, it’s not surprising that criminals are trying to run the “Grandparent Scam” and other fraudulent schemes here.
Sometimes they are successful.
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said that in the last couple of weeks two unsuspecting citizens lost thousands of dollars to scammers claiming to be law enforcement officials requesting cash to release the victim’s grandchild from jail.
In other instances callers may identify themselves as the grandchild in trouble and address the victim as “grandma” or they may say they are a different relative. In any case, the caller says he or she has been arrested and requires cash to make bail or the car has broken down and the caller needs money for repairs or they claim the call is from Canada and the caller must pay customs fees to get back into the U.S.
“No matter what the story, they always want [the victim] to send money immediately,” according to a news bulletin from the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) posted on the District Attorney’s website, www.ColumbiaCountyDA.us.
The caller then instructs the victim to send money via a money transfer service such as “Western Union or MoneyGram because they can pick it up quickly, in cash,” the bulletin says.
In a similar phone scam, Mary Ann McGrath of Claverack told The Columbia Paper she received a call within the last week from someone claiming to be with the IRS. The caller told her errors were found on her 2008 tax return and that she owed the government “$1,300 and change,” she said.
Being an experienced bookkeeper (The Columbia Paper is a client) and tax preparer, Mrs. McGrath said she knew the call was not legitimate because the government doesn’t notify people by phone—the IRS sends notices by mail.
When she told the caller she had not received any paperwork on the matter, he insisted she had received it in 2010. He then asked her for her husband’s name and their address. When Mrs. McGrath declined to answer the questions and told the caller he should already have that information, he was able to provide it.
When she asked how she could pay the money she owed, the caller, sensing she was onto him, told her, “You can’t, it’s too late.” She then asked for the caller’s name, badge number and a phone number, all of which he gave her. She later called the number and found it was not in service. Mrs. McGrath said she was surprised that the caller had not hung up much earlier in the conversation. She said she was glad to make the public aware of her experience, so they would not become victims.
City of Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore said he was not aware of any recent uptick in phone scams in his territory except for the “usual spate of Nigerian bank accounts” that turn up periodically.
Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett said with the coming of warmer weather, citizens should be alert to the seasonal influx of home fix-up scams. “Someone will show up at your house offering to pave your driveway, put on a new roof or siding for a price that is too good to be true,” said the sheriff, noting “Reputable contractors do not go door-to-door.”
The scammer will often ask for payment up front and will perform shoddy work or start the job and never come back to finish it.
As for the phone scams, the district attorney cautions that anytime a resident receives a call from anyone who wants money for any reason, “Be skeptical. Get all the information you can, get proof of the caller’s claims. If there’s any issue at all call us, call the sheriff or call the State Police,” said DA Czajka, adding “once it is sent—the money is gone.”
Asked how scammers come up with possible victims, the DA said, “In this day and age so much of the information we’d like to keep private is in the public realm—the Internet.”
“Ask questions and never give out personal information” whether it be Social Security numbers, bank accounts or PIN numbers,” said Sheriff Bartlett, who admits that his own credit card account was hacked.
“It can happen to anyone,” said the sheriff, recounting an instance when he tried to buy a TV for his son and his credit card was rejected.
He subsequently discovered a charge on his credit card statement for five expensive ski jackets in a rainbow of colors, which he did not purchase. “If you do get hacked, notify your bank or your credit card company right away. It’s a lot of work and a big inconvenience, but most of the time you are not responsible for the charges and will be reimbursed,” he said.
To make residents aware of ongoing scams, the sheriff frequently addresses area senior citizens’ groups.
While telling a group about what they could do if they received a call from a scammer asking for cash for a jailed relative, he told them they could hang up and research the call’s validity. A woman in the audience suggested another option would be to say, “Let ‘em rot.”
The CFA advises asking questions that would be hard for an imposter to answer correctly—the name of the person’s pet or their mother’s birthday. “Contact the person who [the caller] claims to be directly. If you can’t reach the person, contact someone else—a friend or relative… Don’t send money unless you’re sure it’s the real person you know. For more information about protecting yourself from fraud, go to www.consumerfed.org/fraud.”
To contact Diane Valden email .