February 7, 2014

Police warn about an increase in phone scams

In the Overland Park calls, the swindler used a computer program that generated a police department phone number on the victim’s caller ID. Advances in technology have made it easier for consumers to fall prey to potential schemes.

It didn’t take long for an Overland Park woman to become suspicious of a recent caller who claimed to be with the local police department and wanted to speak with her husband about paying an outstanding fine.

Rather than pass the caller’s number to her husband, the 51-year-old resident called police to see if the call was legitimate.

It wasn’t, police said. And other Overland Park residents had received similar calls, police told her.

“We would never call and request money from anybody in order to pay outstanding warrants or bonds,” said Overland Park police spokesman Gary Mason.

In recent weeks, law enforcement agencies across the region have seen an uptick in the number of phone scams and spoofing calls. They warn residents to be on the lookout.

In the Overland Park calls, the swindler — probably hoping to steal money or an identity — used a computer program that generated a police department phone number on the victim’s caller ID.

Recent scams that consumers have been warned about:

• Some Independence businesses were told they had to immediately pay their delinquent electric bill or their service would be disconnected. The calls didn’t come from the city’s electric utility.

• Some Missouri residents were told to look out for a one-ring scam, in which the caller rings once from a 473 area code, then hangs up. If you call back, you could rack up charges for an international call plus additional “premium service” charges. And your number could be sold to overseas telemarketers.

• Some area residents have received calls supposedly from a software company claiming their computer has an issue that needs to be fixed — hoping to gain access to personal information on computers.

• Kansas City police took to its Facebook page to alert its followers about calls from someone claiming to be a Kansas City deputy. The calls showed up on caller ID as 911. The “deputy” asked the potential victim to pay off an outstanding arrest warrant. Kansas City doesn’t have deputies.

“The creativity of some of crooks and con artists is truly astounding,” said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. “They will use any communications or method available to try to connect with a consumer whose pocket they want to get into.”

Advances in technology have made it easier for consumers to fall prey to potential scams. Callers can manipulate the caller ID number that appears regardless of whether the call is going to a landline or a cellphone. It does not require significant technical expertise to change the caller ID.

That allows overseas scammers to place hundreds of calls through random dialing or send countless emails at virtually no cost in attempts to acquire personal consumer information.

The attorney general offices in Kansas and Missouri receives hundreds

of complaints of telephone scams every year. State law enforcement is working with the Federal Trade Commission and with other states to try to track down fraudulent calls and go after scammers outside their jurisdictions.

“We will continue to do all we can to track down those who perpetrate these scams,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “Consumers should exercise caution to avoid becoming a victim of a sophisticated scam, and avoid providing personal or financial information over the phone on a call they did not initiate. Requests to wire money, especially to overseas, should send up an immediate red flag.”

Local law enforcement agencies don’t track the number of scam victims and usually only alert the public when they receive a significant number of calls when a new scam surfaces.

Federal authorities have seen an increase in the number of telemarketing scam calls, including to those who are on the national do-not-call registry, said Bikram Bandy, who coordinates the FTC’s Do Not Call program.

The agency receives about 200,000 complaints from consumers each month about schemes that range from offers for health insurance, time shares, free home security systems and medical devices to reductions in credit card interest rates.

Bandy said that in some cases, the callers make misrepresentations to consumers. Recently, a telemarketer told consumers that a medical alert device had already been purchased for them by a friend or relative and that the devices were endorsed by the American Heart Association. Both claims were lies, Bandy said.

Many of those businesses are making consumer cold calls to those who are on the do not call list. Contacting those people is illegal, he said.

Scammers often use inexpensive computer programs that allow them to make countless solicitation phone calls to consumers.

“What we have seen is a large increase in illegal telemarketing calls, those trying to sell you a legitimate product and those just trying to scam consumers out of their money,” he said.

The FTC is working with lawmakers and telephone carriers to change how caller ID works. Authorities want to make it more difficult for businesses and scammers to manipulate how the number appears on the caller ID.

Authorities in Kansas filed about 160 criminal complaints last year for alleged violations to the state’s do-not-call act. But those cases were closed without any enforcement action because the call was placed to the consumer’s cellphone instead of a landline, Schmidt said.

As a result, Schmidt has asked legislators to approve a measure that would broaden the state’s no-call law to cover cellphones. Under current Kansas law, only residential landlines are covered. A con artist or telemarketers are allowed to call cellphones to pitch a product, he said.

Koster and Schmidt said their offices have stepped up enforcement efforts and expanded their public outreach and education efforts. Both maintain consumer protection websites that allow complaints to be filed, provide updates on recent scams and give consumers tips on how to avoid being victimized.

“You are playing catch to someone else’s pitch, whether it is over the telephone or by email,” Schmidt said. “You really don’t know who you are talking with on the other end of the phone.”

Con artists also have become sophisticated in how they target potential victims, said said FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton of the Kansas City office.

Emails and letters sent by scammers no longer are littered with misspellings, grammatical errors or other issues that might raise suspicion.

They have the ability to manipulate a company’s letterhead to make it look legitimate. They also send emails that appear to be sent by friends or from law enforcement authorities that encourages the recipient to click a website link, Patton said.

In some scams, an email recipient’s computer becomes disabled and the person must pay a fee or fine to have it reactivated.

“Where we have all learned to ignore those letters in the mail, we are now getting emails or personal phone calls,” she said. “So much of our personal information is out there or they are using information to validate that we think is true or accurate.”

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