An 84-year-old woman has lost at least $50,000 after she was targeted by phone scammers over several years, police said.
Westminster PD Officer Matt Edinger on Tuesday responded to a bank in Huntington Beach after the elderly woman was trying to send money to a man who claimed he was in Mexico.
The bank, suspecting fraud, called the police.
When Edinger investigated, he learned the former Long Beach school teacher was victim of a scam in which a caller pretends to be a government agent to extort money.
In this case, the elderly woman had been trying to sell a timeshare she owns in Mexico. A man posing as an investigator called the woman several times saying she needed to be investigated to ensure she was not committing fraud or laundering money before selling the timeshare.
And, the man on the phone told her, she would need to pay a fee to have the investigation completed.
If she paid the fee, she would get the money from her sold timeshare, the scammer told her before emailing the woman his fake credentials using a Yahoo email account.
On the most recent call, the man asked for $1,500. When the bank banned wire transfers on her account as a protection measure, the woman borrowed against her credit card to make the payment, Edinger said.
The woman told Edinger that she had plans to go visit her son, who is living in China, and needed the money before she could go.
“She honestly believed that if she made this payment, he would send her the money,” Edinger said.
As he investigated, Edinger found this woman had been targeted at least 10 times since 2014.
“(Adult Protective Services) has several open cases on her, and most of them were reported by the bank,” he said.
Three different banks put holds on the woman’s account in an effort to stop her from transferring money, but eventually she started borrowing from her credit cards.
She told Edinger she anticipates she has paid more than $200,000 to the scammers over the years. Police have $50,000 shown on bank records.
“This case is the worst I have ever seen in terms of dollar amount and how long it’s been going on,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Although the banks have tried to intervene, the woman finds ways around any holds on her accounts, such as using credit cards.
“Once these guys find someone who is willing to pay, they will continue to pass their information around” Edinger said. “When they’re done, they move on to someone else.”
The best way to try and stop fraud is to educate residents, police said.
Westminster PD fraud investigator, Det. Brian Perez, said they have launched a community education program to inform residents — especially senior citizens — on what to look out for and how to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.
“Getting victims their money back is very difficult,” Perez said. “I found that if we work on prevention measures, that is going to pay in dividends.”
Here is what Westminster PD suggests for residents:
– Shelf your ATM cards. Consider using only credit cards and paying them off each month to protect your cash. If something happens, including identity theft or fraud, consumers have a better chance of recovering their losses.
– Shred all personal documents. Make sure anything with personal information is properly destroyed before throwing it away. Many scammers sift through garbage in residential areas and outside businesses hoping to score someone’s personal information.
– Ask questions. If someone calls asking for personal information, ask for their name, phone number and address. Then ask to call them back. A quick Google search is a good way to see if their phone number is linked to any scams. Anyone who is legit, Perez said, will not mind hanging up with you and getting a phone call back.
– Keep an eye on your credit. Using online free credit reports is a good way to spot any unusual activity and can help you quickly report and stop fraud.
– Talk to your family members. Share information on the latest scams and protection measures with your family, especially the elderly.
Red flags to watch out for:
– No government agency will ever ask a citizen for payment over the phone, ever. Any resident who receives a phone call saying they owe money for anything and must pay immediately, should hang up.
– Government agencies do not harass, threaten or repeatedly call citizens, even if money is owed for something. Official letters on government letterhead is typically sent out and is well-documented.
– Government agents do not give out their personal emails while on official business. If someone claims to be from the IRS, Department of Justice, or any other government agency, but their email handle is a Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc., they are not legit.
Common phone scams:
IRS Scam: A caller poses as a federal agent and tells the caller they are overdue on their taxes and must pay immediately or be arrested.
Jury Duty Scam: Another scam circulating involves a caller telling their targets that they have missed jury duty and unless they immediately pay a fine, a warrant will be put out for their arrest and officers will be dispatched to their home.
Sweepstakes Scam: Anyone calling saying a resident won a big prize and only needs to pay this fee, or that tax, to collect it, is a scam.
Family Member Trouble Scam: This one has been targeting senior citizens. A scammer will pose as a family member and claim they have been arrested and immediately need someone to wire bail money.