The calls are convincing, and sometimes personal: your grandson is in jail and needs bail money, you’ve won a foreign lottery or a vacation or there is a warrant for your arrest.
But they all come with a catch, which often should raise red flags that this is a scam.
This week, we called back one of those numbers when a Franklin resident got a message that the Internal Revenue Service had been trying to reach him and that he was being sued, a scam that is being reported frequently to local police within the last month.
But the number we called back wasn’t for the IRS. Instead, we learned we had won a two-night Bahamas vacation from a radio station, and that we needed to go to the station’s website to claim our prize.
The website for the radio station looks legitimate. Power Hits 101 in Los Angeles is even playing that new Maroon 5 song on their webfeed and has music, video clips, a picture of a downtown Los Angeles office building and a phone number to contact the station. When you click on the Carribbean Cruise Power Hour link to claim the prize, you’ll find out they automatically upgraded your cabin to a bigger size, free of charge. If you just pay the $118 in port fees for you and your guest with a credit card, the two-day cruise is all yours.
Like all scams, if the prize sounds too good to be true, that should be the first red flag, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.
Local police are taking reports of scams daily from residents, with all kinds of attempts to get them to send out money or give away their personal information, such as credit card numbers or their Social Security number. It might be a caller posing as a grandchild who’s in trouble with police, a person pretending to be a police officer and threatening arrest if you don’t send bail money or a scammer trying to convince you that you’ve won some great prize.
Scammers are often international but can use apps called spoofers to make the phone number on your caller ID look like somewhere else. It might be from a major city, such as Detroit or Los Angeles, could appear as a local business or police department or may even be your own phone number. Since local police can’t do much about someone in Nigeria or Jamaica, informing people about popular scams is the best way to protect residents, Cox said.
“We’ve actually been told at times because they know they’re overseas, I know of one occasion where they’ve said they’re a scam artist and they’re going to keep doing it. A lot of time they’re from Africa, they’re from Jamaica. They know they’re outside of the reach of any local authorities,” Cox said.
And scammers keep doing it because it’s often successful. Most scams are targeted at senior citizens typically because many have bank accounts with retirement cash, and they’re less likely to be technologically savvy enough to research whether they’re being scammed, Cox said.
Three Johnson County residents who shared stories this week about scam attempts are all over 65 years old.
Walt Vanderbush, who shared the phone number from the caller claiming to be the IRS, had heard about the scam so he knew exactly what it was when his wife played the message on their answering machine. Plus, the scam didn’t make much sense. He knew he wasn’t in any kind of legal trouble, knew the IRS would send mail instead of calling and said the voice on the answering machine sounded computer-generated.
People all across the U.S. were getting calls about the IRS scam in January, so much so that the IRS sent out news releases warning people.
“They must be successfully doing it because they keep doing it. It has been more than just a few days so apparently people are falling for it,” Vanderbush said.
Ever since rural Franklin resident Mary Henderson had her credit card information stolen a few years ago, she’s been on high alert for scammers. She has to be, since Henderson gets at least one scam phone call per month, she said. This week she reported one to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office after a man called telling her she won second prize in the Publisher’s Clearing House drawing and could pick between $35,000 or a car — if she paid the 1 percent taxes on the prize.
The caller was one of the most convincing scammers she’s heard, but there were immediate red flags in his pitch. The Publisher’s Clearing House drawing isn’t until February, he called her “Miss Mary,” which seemed odd, and asked her to go to CVS to get a pre-paid debit card.
“I said ‘You’re a crook and a thief and liar’ and I don’t want my fellow seniors or anyone to fall for that. I try to be on the ball for that and want other people to know what’s going on, and we have to be very careful when we don’t know who it is,” Henderson said.
But the scams are made to be convincing. Police have investigated scams before where seniors kept sending money because they trusted the calls from their supposed grandchildren more than police, Cox said. If people aren’t sure whether a call is a scam or not, take down as much information you can, including a phone number, and then call police, Cox said.
Police likely can’t do much to help you get your money back if you fall for the scam, so they’d rather you call and ask them to check out a suspicious call first, he said.
That’s what Center Grove area resident Carl Berlier did when he was bothered by a phone call. A man left a message that said he was from state police and had a warrant for Berlier’s arrest and left a phone number of an attorney to call. Berlier was pretty sure it was a scam, because his son was an Indiana State Police trooper and he found it suspicious the caller didn’t say what state they were from and also didn’t say Berlier’s name in the message.
“If I got a warrant and there’s a legal action I would probably get a registered letter in the mail. But it bothered me,” Berlier said. “So I didn’t call the number and I was going to blow the whole thing off, but then I was thinking about it again and that’s when I decided to call the sheriff.”
A deputy listened to the message, told Berlier it was a scam and ran his driver’s license information to check for any outstanding warrants. His record was, of course, clean and Berlier got the peace of mind he needed to put the scam to rest.