Scams a constant struggle for police

About once a week, someone reports a scam to Tyrone police.

Most recently, a Tyrone convenience store received a call from someone claiming to be from Western Union, telling the clerk she was calling to test the store’s money wiring system, Tyrone Police Chief John Romeo said.

The clerk was told to wire $1,500 to “test” the system, and the clerk did. But as Romeo pointed out, when it was all said and done, it turned out to be a scam.

“It’s unbelievable,” Romeo said, of the ways people come up with to scam money from people.

Conning people isn’t new, and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon – not as long as there’s money to be made from unwitting victims.

Most scams, Romeo said, are done over the phone or through email, with very few these days done with a knock at the door. Even if most people don’t fall for the pitch, enough do to make it worth the trouble.

“The more people they call, they’re going to suck people into the scam,” Romeo said. “They pick on everyone, not just the elderly.”

The elderly are, however, often the targets of scams. In Hollidaysburg, state police are investigating the theft of $500,000 from an elderly woman who fell victim to a lottery scam.

A scammer with a Caribbean accent called the woman to tell her she had won $1 million, noted Trooper Dave McGarvey. The catch – and there’s always a catch – was she had to pay a fee before they could send her the money. Over the span of four years, starting in 2010, the woman wired a half million dollars to the scammers.

“Family members became suspicious,” McGarvey said. “She wouldn’t even tell them.”

McGarvey said it took the family pressing the woman to get her to finally divulge what had happened.

“A lot of people who are victims don’t even report it,” McGarvey said. McGarvey said police often get reports from people who have been contacted by scammers but don’t fall for it. While not victims of a crime, they report it to police, who then try to make the public aware of the latest ploys.

As for recovering money lost to a scam or even making an arrest, police said it’s a longshot.

“The clearance rate for those types of crimes is really small,” McGarvey said, especially when the perpetrators are in foreign countries.

Some of the more popular scams involve calls to people, usually the elderly, with the caller posing as a grandson needing money for bail in a foreign country or someone posing as an official in an overseas country explaining that they need money or a loved one is going to go to jail.

Police said other scams revolve around a prize, with the caller telling the target that he or she has won something, often cash, but before they can collect it, they need to wire money to cover a processing fee or taxes.

Police say this kind of tactic is a major red flag.

“If it’s a free prize, then it’s free,” McGarvey said, adding that people should always be wary when contacted about winning a prize from a contest they’ve not entered.

Some scams involve the sale of something, such as a car, through an online listing. Scammers try to get a buyer to overpay and the scammer promises to make good on the overpayment by sending a check.

McGarvey noted that as summer rolls around, police do see more in-person scams as would-be con artists target people with home improvement schemes.

Driveway repair scams are very common, McGarvey said, with con artists approaching people with “leftover” asphalt they’re offering at a discount. Instead of quality work, these scammers deliver substandard materials and overcharge their original quotes.

Other in-person scams involve “utility workers,” working in pairs, who go to homes with the intent of burglarizing a victim. While one of the scammers distracts a victim, the partner goes though the house, taking valuables.

Sometimes, a scammer pretends to be a legitimate business or government organization – even law enforcement.

Romeo recalled one recent scam where the victim was contacted by someone claiming to be with the FBI. While the stories vary as to why the target is being contacted, the scams all have the same goal – getting money out of people.

Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse, said that while people tend to think they’re too smart to fall for a scam, the people who do aren’t necessarily stupid.

“They just know what buttons to push,” noted Hitchcock, an internationally recognized expert on online scams, cyberstalking and related crimes. “The people who fall for it, they’re not stupid. People who are otherwise intelligent fall for it. They want to believe the pot at the end of the rainbow.”

For Gary Hammel, 62, it was fear that a scammer preyed upon when he was called last year.

Hammel, the owner of Our Garage in Duncansville, said the woman on the other end of the phone claimed to be from Microsoft and even had his registration numbers and other information, including passwords. She even gave him a name, Rose Wilson, a call-back number and a confirmation code.

The reason for the call, she told Hammel, was to warn him that a virus/worm was infecting computers, his included, and it would wipe out his data unless it was fixed.

For only $9.99, the caller explained, Microsoft would have a technician remotely access Hammel’s work computer and fix the problem. She walked him through what buttons he needed to press to allow his computer to be accessed and told him to leave the computer on all night, assuring him the problem would be fixed within a few hours.

When Hammel returned to work the next day, he checked his bank balance – as he does every day.

“My checking accounts were empty,” Hammel said, “in the negative.”

Fortunately, because Hammel used a Visa debit card to pay the scammer, all but about $20 of the $5,800 taken from his checking accounts was replaced by the bank within four days.

Hammel said he reported it immediately to Allegheny Township police, who he said were great about contacting the state police and federal law enforcement.

The scammers, Hammel explained, used Western Union to pull the money from his accounts, so authorities had to contact that company to halt any future withdrawals.

“It all sounded really legitimate,” Hammel said, adding that he talked it over with his wife, who made him get more information from the caller before he paid the fee and gave access to his computer.

Hammel said he had been contacted by Microsoft by phone in the past, about upgrades, and has since learned from Microsoft that if he’s contacted by the company in the future, it will be through email. Microsoft also doesn’t contact people to request remote access to computers, Hammel said.

Since then, he’s had some follow-up calls from the FBI but no more supposed calls from Microsoft, except for a few weeks ago when someone tried the scam on him again.

“I had a few choice words for them and hung up,” Hammel said, laughing. “It’s just ridiculous that people can get away with something like this – conning hardworking people out of their money with the click of a mouse.”

“Scammers are really good at what they do,” Hitchcock said. They scour the white pages online and randomly call numbers with the hope someone will bite, she said. Other victims are found on online dating sites or through online classifieds, she said.

“A lot of people don’t think it will happen to them,” Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock said people can do a lot to guard themselves from online crime, including scams. Most of all, changing passwords is important, she said, as is picking passwords that would be difficult to guess.

Romeo advises people to use common sense and not fall for the rush tactics often employed by scammers.

“Pause for a moment,” Romeo said. “Ask someone for advice, whether it’s a family member or the police.”

Romeo said if someone from Texas wants to do business with you but asks you to use a bank in Nebraska to deposit money while using a mailing address in yet another state, that person is likely not on the level. He said people tend to use banks close to where they live, and legitimate transactions never involve overpayment for a product with a promise of a check to make up the difference.

McGarvey warns people not to give out personal information to companies unless people know they are a reputable firm. The damage done by scammers is not easily undone, police say, and usually money lost is gone forever.

“People lose a substantial amount of money,” McGarvey said. “Many times it’s their life savings. It’s really sad.”