By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – An 88-year-old Laurens woman got a call, purportedly from Cooperstown Police: Her granddaughter had been in an accident, she was fine, but her car had been impounded and she needed $4,000 in cash to get it out.
The woman was instructed to wrap the money in a sweater and mail it to Staten Island. She did so, shipping the package overnight from The Shipping Room in Oneonta. But when the same person called back and asked for four Home Depot cards, she asked, “Is this a scam?”
“The person on the other end of the line said ‘Thanks for playing’ and hung up,” said Trooper Aga Dembinska, Troop C public information officer.
Such scams have cost Otsego County residents nearly $70,000 this year alone. “We’ve been inundated with these cases,” said Dembinska. “Otsego has the highest number of these in Troop C’s jurisdiction.”
“There has definitely been an uptick,” said District Attorney John Muehl. “The scammers have the ability to make it look like they’re using a local number. They’ve gotten more sophisticated.”
The phone scams vary – some scammers say they’re from the IRS or a utility company, others say they’re a grandchild in trouble or that the person has won a lottery. But they will all ask for cash or gift cards, mailed to an address or texted to phone number.
“They tell the victim to get gift cards from different stores so they can’t be flagged, or mail cash wrapped up so the post office can’t see it in the scan,” said Dembinska.
In Worcester, a 35-year-old male reported getting a call from someone claiming to be from the FBI. “He told the victim that he was a suspect in an investigation because a vehicle registered to him was found in Texas with drugs and money,” she said.
“They told him his identity was stolen and that he needed to purchase gift cards to prove it was him, but that he would be refunded. If he refused, they told him Treasury would seize his assets.”
According to Dembinska, the victim spent $4,000 on gift cards at Walgreens, Walmart, Hannaford, GameStop and for Google Play and Steam. “He texted the number on the back of the gift cards,” she said. “But when he talked to family members, they told him he had been scammed.”
Lately, police have seen a rise in computer scams, where someone calls pretending to be from Microsoft, Apple or another computer company, or in over-depositing a check and asking someone to send money back.
“A 71-year-old woman in Middlefield got a call from someone claiming to be from a company called I Fix PC, saying that she paid $349.90 for services a few years ago and they wanted to give her a refund,” said Dembinska. “She let them remotely access her computer and they got her IP address, but claimed they accidentally refunded her $4,000 and she needed to pay it back or this person would get fired.”
Like others, the victim was told to purchase gift cards and to send pictures of the redemption codes. “The person called back and said they would give her $220 for her troubles, remotely accessed her computer and, again, ‘accidentally’ deposited $2,200.”
In all, the victim sent $8,500 in gift cards, and $6,200 was withdrawn from her bank accounts.
When a person sends a package of cash or cards, the box is usually sent to to a vacant address, where a mule will pick the package up and send it overseas.
“We had one 83-year-old woman who got a call that her son was in jail and needed $9,500 for bail,” she said. “She sent the box, but then she talked to her son, who was not in jail.”
The police we able to re-route the package, and her money was returned. However, the $2,000 in Home Depot gift cards that she had sent had already been cashed.
Muehl believes that, for as many as state police have documented, there may be many more out there. “A lot of people are embarrassed,” he said. “They don’t report them,”
But because these scams are conducted overseas, they’re nearly impossible to prosecute. “We have never made an arrest, never prosecuted a single one,” said Muehl. “We just can’t.”
Only vigilance, Muehl said, can stop someone from becoming the victim of a scam. “If someone promises you something for nothing, it’s a lie,” he said. “Don’t take the bait.”