Like many people, Debra Anderson, a 65-year-old Bellingham resident and disabled veteran, said she dreams of buying a house but knows she must pay off some debt before moving forward on that goal.
So when someone she trusted, a “friend for at least six years,” told her of an investment opportunity — the type that could turn $2,000 into $50,000 — she listened. And then she started texting.
“I contacted them first,” Anderson said. “I told them I was interested and what did I have to do? Everything was by text. I have a phone number I sent texts to, but I never talked to anyone — just text messages back and forth.”
Those back-and-forth messages, which Anderson said began in May, ended up costing her more than $4,800 by mid June.
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Unfortunately, Anderson is not alone.
Lt. Danette Beckley said the Bellingham Police have gotten reports of a couple of scam attempts this week.
“Repeats of what’s been out there before,” Beckley said. “‘The IRS / sheriff’s office / insert your own government agency will be arresting you if you don’t call (blank) to make arrangements,’ or ‘Your (blank) was involved in a serious accident and is in the hospital and will be going to jail if (blank) is not paid,’ or ‘Go get (blank) amount of iTunes / Greendot / Visa gift cards and call us back with the number in order to prevent you or your loved one from being (blank)‘.”
According to statistics released by the Federal Trade Commission, there were nearly 350,000 imposter scam reports in the United States in 2017. Nearly one in five people who reported an scam lost money — a total of $328 million given to a person who pretended to be a loved one in trouble, a government official, someone from technical support or anybody else who’s not who they say they are in an attempt to get at your money.
“The target often is elderly people,” Beckley said. “The callers are super high pressure once they get you on the phone, and I think it confuses people.”
‘I told them I didn’t believe them anymore’
In Anderson’s case, she said she wired the people she was texting $1,700 and then sent them three $100 iTunes gift cards to cover the initial $2,000.
“When they got them, they said, ‘OK, now watch for the FedEx truck’,” Anderson said. “I said, ‘Why, is there going to be something different about it?’ Then they said, ‘No, it’s coming with your certificate (for the $50,000)‘.”
But the delivery truck never came, Anderson said — only another text telling her that the truck had been stopped by the IRS and that she would need to pay another $1,350 to get her certificate.
She paid that, as well, but said that only led to another text saying that a second delivery truck had been involved in a fatal accident and that her certificate was at a fire station and it would cost another $1,500 for an agent to go and pick it up from the fire station.
“And I still didn’t get my money,” Anderson said. “Then they said I needed to get a six-digit code from Facebook, and that was going to cost $500. I said, ‘I don’t have $500. I’m a disabled veteran, and I’ve already used up my pension for this month.’ All along, they kept telling me the money was real and that they were people of God, but I told them I didn’t believe them anymore.”
After having enough of the back and forth, Anderson decided to file a report with the Bellingham Police. Beckley said officers are now looking into possible connections.
How to avoid being scammed
“We tell people to hang up and call someone they trust to talk it over with regarding the legitimacy of a phone call,” Beckley said. “No government agency / bank / hospital / whatever will ask you to go to the store to buy gift cards as payment.”
▪ Spot imposters: Scammers pretend to be someone you should trust. Don’t send money or give personal information in response to an unexpected request.
▪ Do online searches: Type the company or product names into a search engine along with words, such as “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
▪ Don’t believe your caller ID: Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information.
▪ Don’t pay upfront for a promise: If someone asks you to pay in advance for debt relief, loan offers, mortgage assistance, a job or to receive a prize, they could be planning to take your money and run.
▪ Consider how you pay: Paying with a credit card offers fraud protection, while money is difficult to get back when you wire or send cash or gift cards.
▪ Talk to someone: As Beckley said, run it by someone you trust to see if it sounds like a scam.
▪ Hang up on robocalls: If you hear a recorded sales pitch, hang up and report it to the FTC. These calls are illegal.
▪ Be skeptical about free offers: Some companies like to hook you with free trials and then bill you every month until you cancel. Always research the company before agreeing to anything.
▪ Don’t deposit a check and wire money back to someone: Uncovering a fake check can take weeks for a bank, and if one does turn out to be fraudulent, you are responsible for repaying the bank.
▪ Sign up for free scam alerts: The FTC offers them at ftc.gov/scams.
Anderson said in her exchange with the people she suspects scammed her, she received an email that had IRS and U.S. Treasury logos, which she now figures must have been copied from legitimate sources.
“I told them, ‘It’s not right that you guys harass and scam a disabled person or a senior citizen’,” Anderson said. “They didn’t care. Now I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people.”