Modern-Day Bandits Make Billions Through Scams: Avoid Becoming Another Victim
By LYDIA BERGLAR
According to the Federal Trade Commission, nearly $8.8 billion was lost to fraud in 2022, a 30% increase from 2021. These numbers are based on consumer reports, so the true amount is likely higher. Unfortunately, Dade County residents are not immune.
“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Bank of Dade President Shannon Henry, noting that the bank is seeing more cases of fraud than ever before.
The FTC reported that the top five types of fraud were imposters, online shopping, prizes/sweepstakes/lotteries, investments, and business/job opportunities. The commission reported that $1.2 billion was lost to social media scams alone in 2022. The median amount lost to phone call scams was $1,400.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2022 Internet Crime Report, Georgia is not in the top ten states by number of victims, but the state is ranked fifth for the amount of money lost, sitting at $322.6 million.
While senior citizens are the most susceptible to fraud, people of all ages are losing money. Both Bank of Dade and Citizens Bank & Trust in Trenton explained that younger demographics are most susceptible to fake remote work jobs posted on well-known sites such as Indeed.com.
Jeannie Bruce, deposit operations manager at CB&T, said, “They think, ‘This company will make remote deposits to my account as long as I give them my online banking information,’ but those checks are not good. The scammers then ask for part of that money back.”
A common theme among many types of scams is scammers sending checks and asking for a portion of the money back. The checks they send are fraudulent, but victims send good checks back, thus losing money.
Henry and Seth Houts, information security officer at Bank of Dade, noted that seniors tend to answer the phone more than the younger generations that are used to ignoring unknown numbers. Henry said, “People are lonely, and the scammers build a relationship. They engage in conversation, asking about their kids, grandkids, jobs, and life.” This also happens through social media.
Sheriff Ray Cross and Detective Chad Payne noted that southern hospitality and our small-town culture makes for a ripe field of trusting people who are used to knowing the people around them.
Cross added, “The easiest to scam are the elderly. Scammers know that most of them have retirements and money in savings. Older generations are generally more trusting of people.”
Common scams can be categorized as fear-based, excitement-based, impersonations, and fake relationships. These scams play off of human emotions.
For example, fear-based scams use scare tactics to manipulate people into acting before thinking through whether it’s legitimate or a scam. These include calls that say, “Act now or your account will be lost,” or calls claiming to be the IRS. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office and both banks confirmed that the IRS does not call you. If you truly owed them money, they would send you a letter.
Bruce added that if anyone calls saying that you owe money, refuse to pay over the phone. Instead, ask them to send you a bill. All legitimate organizations will oblige.
Another fear-based tactic is impersonators who claim to have a warrant out for your arrest. Payne said, “Scammers call and say, ‘We’re the Dade County Sheriff’s Office, and we have a warrant out for you.’ They’ll even spoof our phone number to call from our number. If we have a warrant on somebody, we will not call them. We’ll show up.”
Excitement-based scams include lottery scams and other fake prizes that use people’s excitement to convince them to act irrationally. Scams in this category can vary from free cars to cash prizes.
Henry explained, “Scammers call and say you won a large lottery. Many people haven’t played the lottery, but the scammers say something like, ‘Do you shop at Food City? Well, they were doing a drawing based on the receipts, and you were automatically entered.’”
Houts added, “It’s the excitement of winning. You’ve got someone on the other line who’s personable and excited for you, saying, ‘How does it feel to win?’”
The scammers typically have some requirement that you send money or gift cards or give them personal information in order to win the prize. If it was truly a prize, you would not have to pay for it. Additionally, never give out personal information over the phone.
Other scams will tout a deal that seems too good to be true. Henry recalled customers who recently fell for an advertising deal. They were told they could earn money by wrapping their car in advertising. He said, “The scammers sent a $4,500 check, asked them to deposit it, then send half of it back as some sort of fee. The money they sent back was good money, but that $4,500 was a bad check.”
Impersonation scams use pre-existing relationships to convince someone to part with their money. Scammers pretend to be a relative or friend, then claim to need bond money or create another urgent situation.
Houts explained, “They’ll do research on social media to know you have a grandson named Tim. They’ll call you, saying something like, ‘Tim’s been in a car wreck. You need to send money. He’s in the hospital.’ The next iteration of that is the use of artificial intelligence to clone your grandson’s voice.”
Henry added, “They might say, ‘Your grandson’s been arrested for a DUI. You need to send money to bail him out.’ Hang up and call a friend or relative who would know about the situation. There are so many ways to verify instead of panicking and sending money.”
Cross explained a common one that affects the DCSO. “People call pretending to be fundraisers for local law enforcement. A year or two ago, a citizen came up to me and said, ‘I bought one of your calendars.’ I said, ‘We’re not selling a calendar.’ He said, ‘You’re kidding me. I just donated $250 for a calendar.’ It was a scam.”
While these scams use real relationships as an inroad, other scams create fake relationships via social media. These typically target senior citizens and can take the form of romance scams or military scams. Scammers pretend to be someone in the United States military who is stranded abroad or they pretend to be a romantic partner from another country.
Henry said, “Customers think they’re paying for someone to come to the United States to be their spouse.”
Bruce said, “These are long-time scams. They reach out through Facebook and social media, they become friends, and then they ask for money. People feel like they know the scammer.”
Bank tellers are trained to ask questions when customers attempt to send large or unusual amounts of money, especially to other countries. Bruce said, “We ask how long they’ve known them, how they met them, and if they’ve met in person, but scammers will coach people on how to answer.”
Both local banks and the sheriff’s office discussed other methods of direct robbery, including mail theft and card skimmers. While mail theft has been happening for years, CB&T has seen an uptick in cases recently.
Bruce said, “Mail checks from the post office because checks are being stolen out of mailboxes and being altered. The signature is perfect because you wrote the check, but the amounts and who it’s payable to are being altered.”
David Oliver, executive vice president and COO of Georgia Bankers Association, said, “They’ve even found ways to fish checks out of blue USPS collection boxes. Check your account to make sure checks clear.”
The use of card skimmers at gas stations has lessened, but it was a major issue several years ago. Thieves look for low-hanging fruit, and card skimmers require more leg work than scams.
Houts said, “The scammers sit behind computers and phones all day. They don’t have to worry about getting caught at a gas station messing with the card reader. No defense will ever be 100% secure. It just depends on what the low-hanging fruit is at the time.”
Cross also noted that gas stations now check their pumps often for skimmers.
When it comes to scams, local law enforcement is on the defensive rather than the offensive. Payne said, “The only thing we can do as a local sheriff’s office is try to get the word out. We can’t prosecute this stuff.” In some situations, the DCSO can file a police report to help citizens prove unverified purchases, but this is only relevant in certain cases.
Payne continued, “The scammers may be breaking Georgia law, but if they’re out of state or out of the country, there’s nothing we can do about it. Sometimes we’ll get on the phone with them and say, ‘This is the sheriff’s office. It’s over, you’re done,’ but it doesn’t do any good. They just go to the next person.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation only gets involved with major cases, and when it comes to finding overseas scam rings, it’s up to federal law enforcement. It’s no easy task.
So, what can you do to protect yourself from fraud? First, familiarize yourself with common red flags, some of which have been mentioned in this article. Both banks have a plethora of information available. There are also plenty of online resources.
Remember that much of your information (such as your address, last four digits of your Social Security number, and names of your family members) is readily available on the internet and through public documents. Just because the voice on the other end of the line lists this information does not mean they are a legitimate business.
Second, call the local banks or DCSO anytime you are unsure about a situation. If you answer a call from someone pretending to be your bank or local law enforcement, hang up, look up the true phone number, and call that number to confirm whether or not they were trying to reach you.
Henry said, “Our employees have experience with a variety of situations, and we’d be glad to talk to anybody who has any questions or an odd situation they’re not sure about.”
Cross said, “Anytime you’re suspicious, call the sheriff’s office and ask to speak to a detective specifically.”
Bruce said, “All of our staff is trained to spot red flags. Being a small-town bank and knowing our customers makes it easier to spot fraud.”
Third, listen to these experts. Henry, Houts, Bruce, Cross, and Payne all recounted instances of fraud where citizens did not believe that they were being scammed. These five and their coworkers work hard to protect citizens and have the knowledge and experience to appropriately assess situations.
According to Payne, “The Bank of Dade called me one day and said, ‘There’s a citizen down here trying to draw $20,000 out of her account. It’s a scam. You’ve gotta stop her, she won’t listen to us.’ It took everything we had to get her to not send that $20,000 to those scammers.”
He added, “When we talk to these scammers, they’ll tell us, ‘That’s okay, I’ll get another one.’ They have no remorse.”
Unlike other clear forms of theft, scammers justify their actions by saying that the victims are giving them the information and money. In reality, scammers are thieves who manipulate human emotions and prey on ignorance instead of using brute force. However, victims play a role in their own downfall.