In early March, a Ripon resident received a phone call from a person claiming to be from Amazon advising the Riponite that their Amazon account had been hacked.
The resident downloaded an app onto their computer and onto their cell phone, which gave the caller full access to their computer, cell phone and banking information.
More than $3,700 was stolen from the resident, while their computer and cell phone had been frozen, according to the Ripon Police Department.
This is just one example of the potential scams that have been popping up in the Ripon area.
As random as they may appear to be to individuals, Ripon Police Sgt. Travis Borkenhagen says scams seem to come in waves for a variety of reasons.
“We tend to receive complaints in groups,” he said. “Scams happen year round, but their frequency tends to increase at certain times of the year.”
Generally, Fond du Lac County Sheriff Ryan Waldschmidt noted there always are new phone scams circulating at any given time, along with longstanding ones — all with the goal of gaining money or personal information from victims.
WHAT CAUSES PHONE SCAMS?
Borkenhagen noted scams tend to increase in frequency when people are likely to have an influx of extra money available.
“Right now, with the COVID-19 stimulus checks being deposited as well as tax returns, scammers know that if they can get to people, there is money to be taken,” he said.
Likewise, Waldschmidt attributed the frequency of phone scams to several factors, ranging from increased cell phone usage to technological advancements, which “enhance the efficiency” of scammers.
More than ever before, individuals are using cell phones, making them the “most direct and least expensive way for scammers to contact people,” he said.
Due to technological advancements, Waldschmidt said it’s easier for scammers to “spoof” phone numbers — meaning the caller ID displays a different number than the one a scammer is really using.
“Additionally, the use of automated calling systems allow the scammers to make more calls than ever, allowing technology — the computer generating the automated calls — to do the legwork to decipher if a call goes unanswered or to voicemail, versus a call that is answered and then transferred to a live scammer,” he said.
WHAT DO TYPICAL SCAMS LOOK LIKE?
Scammers continue to change their approach, from telling a victim they won a prize to telling a victim they have a warrant out for their arrest and demanding a payment, Borkenhagen noted.
“In many of these cases, the caller will become confrontational when questioned by the victim about the legitimacy of the call,” he said. “They will threaten the victim with physical violence and/or with various forms of blackmail.”
Of the scams reported to the Ripon Police Department, Borkenhagen said most ask victims to go to the store to purchase numerous gift cards, before being asked to give the scammer the numbers on the gift cards.
Because gift cards are untraceable, he noted they are the most sought after form of payment for scammers.
“The scammer will tend to stay on the phone with the victim the entire time, while driving to the store, during the physical purchase all the way until they get the gift card numbers,” Borkenhagen said. “They tell the victim not to talk to anyone while they are making the purchases.”
He added scammers also pose as legitimate businesses by telling a victim there’s a problem with their computer, going into detail about the issue and asking the victim to download software to gain access to the device.
“The scammer will continue to talk with the victim on the phone while accessing data stored on the computer,” he said. “They are again looking for personal and financial information. They will often put malware onto the computer to extort money from the victim to have the computer ‘unlocked.’”
According to Waldschmidt, other common scams include scammers posing as workers for the IRS, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING SCAMMED
To avoid getting scammed, Waldschmidt recommends individuals “be wary of calls from unknown numbers, even if they appear to be local numbers” because of scammers’ ability to “spoof” calls.
To identify scammers, Borkenhagen says one strategy is to avoid answering initial phone calls from an unknown caller and to let it go to voicemail as “scammers rarely leave voicemails.”
“If a voicemail is left from an unknown number and you are unsure about the validity of the call, you can complete an open internet search by typing the phone number into a search engine,” he said. “This could show you if the number is registered as a known scammer. Some cellular phone providers have equipped their services with the ability to identify the phone numbers as ‘Potential Scam Call.’
“Screen your phone calls and do not give out personal identifying information or banking information over the phone or internet unless it is a known organization that you have vetted as being safe and legitimate.”
If the caller is requesting personal information — such as a full name, date of birth and Social Security number — Waldschmidt said the call is “almost 100% certain to be a scam.”
“If the scammer is after your money, they will have very specific instructions on how to pay them, unlike legitimate companies who usually have several different ways to pay,” he said. “If you believe it’s a scam caller, hang up and don’t answer if they call back.”
Waldschmidt noted individuals can register to be on the federal “do not call” list by calling 1-888-382-1222.
While the do not call list won’t prevent scam calls, he says it will reduce the number of calls people receive from unknown numbers.
Because many of the scams originate from outside the United States, Waldschmidt added that local law enforcement doesn’t have jurisdiction and many times won’t get cooperation from foreign law enforcement to investigate or shut scammers down.
“Education is the best prevention to becoming a victim, as it is nearly impossible to prevent these calls from occurring,” Waldschmidt said.
To educate the public, the Ripon Police Department works to notify citizens of reported scam tactics via social media.
“When scams are reported, the city of Ripon Police Department attempts to make the community aware through social media,” Borkenhagen said. “We attempt to let the citizens know about specific aspects of the new scams that have been reported to us through those social media posts.”