Police: Season of the scam

Staff Writer

Matawan resident Donna Gould never thought she would become a target of a scam. That is, until two weeks ago, when she answered her phone and heard, “Grandma, it’s me.”

Thinking it was her grandson Austin, she continued the conversation and listened as the panicked voice on the other end said he was in Paraguay for a friend’s wedding and was in trouble. He told her he had too much to drink and totaled a rental car, which he said he leased with a fake ID. He needed $6,500 right away to get out of the jam and catch the next flight back to the United States, which happened to be departing in three hours. Gould was being drawn into a common con. Area police officials caution, “If it doesn’t smell right, it usually isn’t.” Law enforcement agencies receive reports each week of various scams.

“He had me for the first few minutes. I was scared. It shook me a bit,” Gould, who is also a Matawan councilwoman, said. “But as we progressed further in the conversation, I knew that things were not right.”

Gould said her husband continued the conversation with “Austin” while she called her stepson to confirm her grandson’s whereabouts. Her real grandson was in Vermont.

Angry, Gould identified herself on the phone and told the scammer that she would call the FBI.

“You hear about it, you know that other people have had it happen to them, but when it happens to you, you get shocked and startled,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen to me, but it did.”

Gould was almost the victim of what has been dubbed the “Grandparent Scam,” which usually involves a phone call from someone claiming to be a relative who is in trouble in a different country and demands money to get home.

According to Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, these types of scams are popular in Central Jersey due to its large senior citizen population.

Senior scams also involve callers claiming to represent a company or service — health insurance, a funeral home or cemetery, for example — and stating that something is wrong with a bill or an account, and requesting information.

“The overall goal is to obtain financial information as a means to an end,” Gramiccioni said.

Al Della Fave, press officer for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, said the senior population is also a popular target of Internet and email scams.

The prosecutor’s office has warned residents about a computer scam that locks the victim’s computer and tells the user that the FBI is investigating due to illegal computer activities. The message instructs the unsuspecting consumer to purchase a money order or gift card to pay a fine or risk being arrested by the FBI or some other law enforcement entity.

“We put the warning out in January and re-released it [now], because it seemed that these things come around in cycles. They pop up, die down for a while, and then pop up again,” Della Fave said.

“Since we posted the story yesterday, we received six calls from people [who] were victimized,” he said.

Any type of message — whether by phone, email or mail — that asks for money to be wired via money order, gift card or prepaid credit card is a scam, he said.

While the senior population is more vulnerable, anyone can become a victim of fraud — even the Better Business Bureau of New Jersey.

“We are a victim of a phishing scam. Scammers are sending out information to businesses and consumers pretending to be from the Better Business Bureau,” Melissa Copanick, CEO of the nonprofit, said. “When people click the attachment, it installs malware or a virus. People are playing on our good name to send bad stuff.”

A 2011 study by the Federal Trade Commission reported that an estimated 25.6 million U.S. adults had been victims of one or more types of fraud. The study found an estimated 37.8 million incidents of fraud.

Each year, those numbers go up, with local police officials reporting an increase in the frequency and variety of scams affecting citizens.

“Every week, there is a new one coming up. There are dozens of them,” Woodbridge police Capt. Roy Hoppock said. “The scams themselves are really creative.”

So far this year, the Woodbridge Police Department has documented between 65 and 70 reported scam incidents.

Eatontown police reported similar numbers, with 35 cases in which victims gave money. According to Sgt. Theresa Healy, the police department is currently dealing with several phone scams that involve callers posing as debt collectors or representatives of JCP&L, and claiming that the victim has fallen behind on a payment.

Healy warns people that scammers can easily find out personal information from various websites, including social media. She said many secure websites require answers to security questions, and scammers use social media sites such as Facebook to find out the answers.

“You are asked one of those security questions, like, ‘What is your mother’s maiden name?’ But if you look at someone’s profile, you can look who their friends are and you can deduce from there who their mother is and what her maiden name is,” she said. “We tell people that if they are going to use social media, while they may have their private settings on, it doesn’t make it secure all the time.”

Metuchen police Sgt. David Liantonio also reported an increase in the number of scams, including one in which the perpetrators drive around the neighborhood, knock on doors and say that a roof, chimney or driveway needs to be fixed.

“You let them in the house and they say that they fixed the roof or chimney, and all they did was throw water on the roof,” Liantonio said.

The majority of the scams, he said, involve people claiming that a person has won a large amount of money, but in order to receive the award, the recipient must first wire a small amount of money.

Another scam has the perpetrator pretending to represent a bank or company and sending a check greater than the amount that was due, he said. The scammer will ask the person to cash the check and send back the difference, but often the person will not wait for the check to clear and will send the difference with their own money.

“They find out that the check that they cashed is no good. But by the time that they find out, it’s too late,” Liantonio said.

South Brunswick police also report several types of fraud, often involving scammers posing as representatives of a government agency and stating that a person owes money, and that if it isn’t paid, he or she will be arrested.

“There are a handful of reports every week,” South Brunswick police Sgt. Jim Ryan said.

Police in Aberdeen and Jackson said there have not been any recent scams in their towns, but they instruct residents to report suspicious calls or activity.

“They can make us aware of it so that we can see if there is a trend that people should be made aware of,” Jackson police Lt. Steven Laskiewicz said.

According to Aberdeen police Detective Manny Carabel, past scams in the township have included people posing as IRS workers and asking for Social Security numbers. He also noted the lottery scam, which claims a person has won a large amount of money.

Law enforcement agencies at the municipal, county, state and federal levels work together to make sure residents are informed, often sending out reports to the media, posting alerts on their websites and educating the public through various seminars.

“The best way to work is to coordinate information. Just because you live in South Brunswick or Old Bridge, [doesn’t mean] the scammers know your geographic area. They just have your phone number,” Ryan said.

“If we can inform you about the trends and what is going on, you can take steps yourself to make sure you are not a victim.”

One common piece of advice police ask residents to remember: “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.”