WEST BLOOMFIELD — An increase in frauds perpetrated against township residents has gotten the attention of the West Bloomfield Police Department.
“There’s been a significant increase in both the volume and the variety of frauds that we’ve seen over the last, probably, year and a half,” Deputy Chief Curt Lawson said. “This has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars to our residents.”
Lawson said there were 475 fraud reports in 2020, and there have been 75 so far by the middle of March this year.
Given where the numbers are in 2021, Lawson said, “we’re on a pace to surpass last year.”
Scammers have a variety of ways of scamming victims, but there is one that has stood out to Lawson.
“Some of the common scams that we see, on almost a daily basis, are individuals that call our victim (and) claim to be law enforcement officers,” he said. “One of the things that they say is that your grandson or your granddaughter has been arrested, and they need bond posted. So they’re kind of playing on the heartstrings of the victims, who are usually our more senior residents.”
One of the tactics fraudsters have used is directing victims to purchase gift cards and having the cards sent to a particular address in order for their supposed relative to be released on bond, or reading the card codes over the phone.
Gift cards have also been the big prize for scammers in other types of fraud.
“Usually, they will stay on the line and direct you to a local CVS or Walgreens, and they’ll tell you exactly what kind of Visa gift cards to buy, and then they’ll ask for the numbers on the Visa card,” Lawson said. “So they’re very specific.”
West Bloomfield Police Department Detective Tim Lillard shared a consequence of a recent gift card scam.
“We had one recently where the person ended up purchasing $12,000 in gift cards — multiple trips in doing this,” Lillard said. “Anytime anyone (asks for) gift cards, it’s always a scam, 100% of the time.”
In recent years, scammers have used modern technology to their advantage when it comes to defrauding victims.
One of their techniques is called spoofing, which is when a caller intentionally sends false information to change their caller ID.
Using that strategy, fraudsters can make it appear as though a call is coming from a trusted source.
“The victim will look at their phone, their caller ID, and they’ll see that it’s a local police department, an FBI office or even sometimes the Department of Justice,” Lawson said. “They have technology that puts that fraudulent number on the ID of the victim, so that gives a sense of legitimacy to the fraud and throws the victim off. The victim might initially be kind of wary that this is actually happening, but when they see that phone number, there’s legitimacy to it.”
It isn’t just phone calls that scammers rely on to attempt to defraud people, as emails and door-to-door visits are also methods that have been employed.
“If you get an email and you don’t recognize who the email’s from, don’t open it,” Lawson said. “If you get an email from one of these fraudsters and you open an attachment, that potentially could have unleashed a virus into your computer or they’ll have full access to your computer.”
Having that access can lead to major issues, including data mining of personal information.
“You’re (going to) have problems for years to come with people that are taking out accounts in your name, trying to get into your bank account, getting into your email and things like that,” Lawson said.
Individuals who come to the door should have proper identification to prove that they are affiliated with the company they are claiming to represent, which can be on a jacket or shirt, as well as a vehicle.
But even if all that information is in place, there is also another step residents can take.
“If you have any doubt whatsoever that they’re not legitimate, then you should feel free to call your local police department,” Lawson said. “We’ll be more than happy to come out and check them out for you. DTE very rarely has to come into your house, or Consumers (Energy). They should be able to do what they need to do outside of your house. So if you are a little bit suspicious in the least, give us a call, and we’ll come out and check it out.”
Other types of scams include unemployment fraud, which occurs when someone tries to collect benefits using another person’s name, and fake “computer support,” which happens when someone pretends to be helping with a fake computer problem but is really just looking to get password and login information from victims.
Fraudsters can sometimes lock a computer down and then ask for money to unlock it.
A variety of people can be victimized by fraud, but Lawson said senior citizens are targeted the most.
“We’re educating businesses that if you see one of our seniors come in and they’re purchasing gift cards, ask questions,” Lawson said. “They can be a helpful tool for us to stop this fraud. … We’re doing the same thing with the banks.”
“Everyone’s information, pretty much, is out there, as far as our identities,” said Lillard, who suggests people only use one credit card to make purchases and pay bills.
Lawson offered his opinion as to why there has been an uptick in cases of fraud.
“I don’t have any scientific data, but my guess is because they’re successful with it,” he said. “They’re making money at this. They’re doing it almost like a shotgun approach; there’s so many phone calls, so many people doing these frauds, and they’re seeing success.”
There are multiple reasons for why fraud is challenging for authorities to investigate, and Lawson shared one of them.
“We see quite often that these scams are coming from South Africa, they’re coming from the UK, and obviously, that’s out of our jurisdiction (and) there’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” he said. “More times than not, we’re not able to recover the funds that have been lost by our victims.”
Lillard said somebody “asking for any type of money” is a warning signal that something could be fraudulent.
Citizens should be wary of anybody claiming to represent a government agency requesting bank information or asking them to purchase anything over the phone. As Lillard said, “They’ll always mail you what you need.”
Lillard detailed some of the steps to take if you become a victim of fraud.
“Make the report as quick as possible — don’t be embarrassed about it. Contact one of the credit bureaus, let (them) know you were a victim of identity theft, if that’s the case,” he said. “Once you notify one of the credit bureaus, they’ll put a fraud alert (and) notify the other two. Unless somebody (needs) instant credit right away, what we tell people is freeze your credit. … People are allowed in Michigan now to freeze their credit free of charge.”
Lawson shared his take as to what people can do to help protect themselves against fraud.
“I think the biggest thing is, if anyone’s asking for personal information over the phone,” he said. “That should be the biggest clue that something’s amiss. There’s no legitimate business or law enforcement entity that’s (going to) ask you for personal information over the phone.”
Lawson also has an opinion about the most effective way to help stop fraudsters.
“I think the task forces on a federal level, like the Secret Service task force we’re a part of, is the best way to combat these scammers,” he said. “These are groups of individuals that, really, only they can be consistently successful at locating and arresting, because many times they go over jurisdictional lines or out of state, out of the country. So I think funding for additional task forces like we’ve seen with the Secret Service task force here in southeast Michigan is the best, most effective way to combat this.”