Industry Research : Dial 'S' For Scam? Phone Calls Still a Way to Steal Money
Those sudden windfalls probably aren’t actually windfalls, and that injured or arrested family member probably isn’t. Those are ongoing scams, police say. And persistent callers who use vulgar language to try to get credit card or personal information are scammers, too.
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Portage police are constantly taking reports of fraud and scams.
"It’s crazy," said Lauri Lingnofski, apartment director at Our House Senior Living in Portage. The residential care facility relies on phone lines to be notified of alarms in the residential apartments, to communicate with clients and do day-to-day business, and even to open locked doors.
But all that was shut down for hours over a number of days in January by an unknown caller — they believe by his accent and awkward English that he was from outside the U.S. — calling their two phone and one fax lines as many as 40 times per hour, so often that he blocked their phone lines.
"He’s calling and been calling," Lingnofski said. He generates new numbers and calls; he filled up their message center, blocked the faxes for two days. Hang up, and he immediately calls back.
"I must’ve done that for an hour," Lingnofski said. "He usually gives up after about an hour and a half to two hours." Lingnofski said she believes the man is trying to get an employee’s credit card number.
"He wanted payments immediately for some bill," Lingnofski said. "When you try to talk with him he just gets belligerent."
She appealed for help from Frontier Communications, their phone company.
"I finally had to get a block on the phone line," Lingnofski said. "When he calls, we have to physically go in and block the last number called. ... It’s a lot of work."
The man was threatening to send police to arrest the employee if she did not want to give him the information he wanted, trying to scare the victim into providing the information. That part is a lie. Police would not do that, said Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey. Besides, if police need to arrest you, they don’t warn you ahead of time, he said.
Yes, it’s a scam. That is obvious to Lingnofski. "I know it’s a scam because there’s no way someone, if you owed them money, wouldn’t work with you to get the money," Lingnofski said.
"It’s not a legitimate business in this country because there’s no way they could get by with what they are doing," Lingnofski said. "He’s got very foul language when you don’t give him what he wants."
She reported the caller to Portage police; but the officer told her police can’t do very much about it.
"If they trace (the number) back, it’s just going to be an unknown number," Lingnofski said.
They are computer-generated numbers that lead nowhere. "Right now we’re just dealing with it, Hopefully he doesn’t call back," Lingnofski said. "I don’t really know what the answer is there."
Frontier has been assisting them, as they would any customer with a problem, according to Karen Miller, communications manager for Frontier Communications.
They have a bureau set up to assist with nuisance calls, and make customers aware of the Do Not Call Registry. Overseas calls, however, are almost impossible to trace, Miller said.
"It’s a difficult situation," Miller said.
Kelly Shipley, general manager for the southern Wisconsin area for Frontier Communications, said technicians visited Our House to ensure the block ability was working. "So far, it’s been working fine," Shipley said. "We do the best we can for our customers every time we get one of these situations."
With the blocks in place, as of the end of March, they haven’t been bothered by the persistent caller, Lingnofski said. Lingnofski said she wants to let people know about what has happened to them as a learning experience and a warning.
"I just worry about people ... giving their money if they don’t have to," Lingnofski said. "If people actually would put that effort into getting a real job, think how efficient they would be."
Lingnofski and Our House are not the only local victims of the call-barrage scam. The O’Brion Agency, a printing company in Portage, also fell victim recently, according to Mike O’Brion, one of the owners of the company.
"The person keep calling back all the time," he said. They wanted the business fax number, and became very rude when O’Brion wouldn’t give it out. Again, the target was an employee.
O’Brion asked what they wanted the fax number for, but got no answer. Hang up, and 20 seconds later, the person would call back. O’Brion would answer, not wanting it to go to voice mail, where the fax number was provided in a recording. They put the call on hold; seconds later the phone would again ring.
"It constantly went on like that for three hours," O’Brion said. "We couldn’t get them off the phone." The caller threatened to kill one of the owners, used "every swear word you can think of," and provided pornographic descriptions, according to O’Brion.
"It was a constant barrage of vulgar language," O’Brion said.
Like the caller at Our House, the call seemed to originate from a call center outside the U.S., and the caller’s English wasn’t that of a native speaker.
"We definitely figured it wasn’t from around here," O’Brion said.
O’Brion contacted Portage police; the officer spoke with the caller for a length of time, but seemed also to get nowhere, O’Brion said. They also contacted Frontier, who tried to trace and block the number. Caller ID said "private" or "unavailable."
"The only thing we could really do was to try and get the number blocked," O’Brion said.
Frontier technicians did their best, trying to block all the numbers the caller was using. "It took three hours of our day that we never got back," O’Brion said.
It is good to think twice, or more, when unusual requests for money come your way. Check to see if your loved one has indeed been injured or arrested — give them a call.
A teller at Portage National Bank recently saved a couple from falling victim to a scam that could have cost them $1,800 or more. "All bank employees are looking for things that are out of the normal types of activities" for their customers, said Mike Semmann, senior vice president and chief operations officer for the Wisconsin Bankers Association.
According to Portage police, a couple on Jan. 23 received a phone call from a man who, after giving them his name and phone number, said their daughter-in-law was injured in a car accident in the Milwaukee area. The man turned the call over to a woman who said, "Grandma, I was in a car accident and I think my nose is broken." The man then got back on the phone and told them that all charges would be dropped if the couple wired $1,800 in cash.
He told them to wire the cash to an address in the Dominican Republic. When the couple said they would call their son, they were told not to, that the woman would be the one to call him and tell him. The couple then went to Portage National Bank to withdraw the cash; the teller told them it was a scam, police said. At that point, the couple then contacted their son, who told them that their daughter-in-law was fine and had not been in a car accident.
The couple were fortunate, Manthey said, not to have fallen victim to the scam.
Other Portage residents have not been so lucky, including one who had fallen victim twice in one day and another who recently sent $6,200 via Western Union to Mexico, after she was told her grandson was arrested in Mexico and needed the money. He was fine and in school here in the U.S. — as was confirmed only after the money was sent by a simple phone call.
This is known as the "Grandma scam," or the "Help, I need money" scam, and is familiar to bank employees and police. These scams typically target the elderly, who tend to be trusting individuals, according to Assistant Police Chief Kevin O’Neill.
In a written statement submitted to the Daily Register, Maggie Youngquist, senior vice president and security officer of Baraboo National Bank, the head branch of Portage National Bank, said that it is one of the most common types of frauds in this area.
It targets seniors, with calls being made after 9 a.m. and a caller posing as a relative that tells them they are in trouble in another country, and not to tell other family members. They typically ask for $1,500 to $2,900 in cash.
"We train our employees to ask additional questions when a transaction request is made that is not normal for the customer," she said in the statement.
Bank employees are taught to be alert when a customer is wanting a cash or money order transaction, especially when the requests for cash are unsolicited, saying that the victim has won a lottery, or received an unexpected inheritance, or been injured in a foreign country.
"A lot of time it just comes from knowing the customer, and the customer’s connection they have with the financial institution," Semmann said.
A warning sign for consumers is not giving out much information, or encouraging the potential victim to not contact others. "In the new world of social media, it’s very easy for the scammers to go on (Facebook or Twitter) to check them out before making those calls," he said. So be careful what you put "out there," he said.
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Here are a few resources you can use to arm yourself against fraud and scams:
•The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection lists current frauds at ftc.gov/bcp and "Money matters" link.
•The FDIC issues alerts, such as those on check fraud cases at fdic.gov/news.
•The FBI also has information on scams on their website at fbi.gov/scams-safety.
•Talk to law enforcement.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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