Kidnapping Scam” Hits the Ocean State

Published in the Woonsocket Call on October 6, 2019

Last Monday, local media picked up a warning issued on the Pawtucket Police Department ‘s Face Book page that called on residents to watch out for the “kidnapping scam” that has recently resurfaced.

According to a Pawtucket Police spokesperson, a Pawtucket family was targeted with the “kidnapping hoax” scam, this incident triggering the social media warning on Sept. 30, with the case being referred to the Rhode Island State Police.

The Alexandria, Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Law Enforcement Cyber Center (LECC), say the scammers “use fear and threats over the phone to manipulate people into wiring them money. First noted by the FBI in the Southwest border states, it has now spread throughout the country.

LECC warns that the scammers are using “increasingly sophisticated tactics” — extensive online reconnaissance utilizing social media and other digital information — to convince victims that a loved one is being held hostage.

Here’s how the “kidnapping hoax” works.

This extortion scam typically begins with a phone call, usually coming from an outside area code and sometimes from Puerto Rico with area codes (787), (939) and (856), saying your family member is being held captive. The caller may allege your son or daughter has been kidnapped and you may hear screaming in the background. Callers will typically provide the victim with specific instructions to ensure a safe return of the family member. Callers go to great lengths to keep you on the phone line until money is wired. Ransom money is only accepted via wire transfer services. The caller may claim not to have received the money and may even demand additional payments.

Advice on Keeping Out of Harm’s Way

The Pawtucket Police’s Face Book posting gives a simple tip on how you can protect yourself from this scam. Just hang up.

Or you can attempt to contact the alleged victim, either by phone, text or other social media, and request that they call you back from their cell phone. Do not disclose your family member’s name or identifying information. Also, avoid sharing information on digital profiles about yourself or your family.

The police also suggest that when responding to the scammer, request to speak to your family member, asking “How do I know my loved one is OK?” Always ask questions only the alleged kidnap victim would know the answers to.

The police warn people to not agree to pay ransom, by wire or in person. The kidnappers often have you go to multiple banks and multiple locations and have you wait for further instructions. Delivering money in person can be dangerous.

If you suspect a real kidnapping is taking place or you believe a ransom demand is a scheme, always contact your local or nearest law enforcement agency immediately, urge the police.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha notes that the “kidnapping scam” is just a newer version of the Grandparent or Bail scam. “Most scams continue to evolve as more people start to recognize them,” he says. “All of these scams use fear to quickly manipulate people into sending their money away,” he says.

Neronha also gives advise as to how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam. He says beware of scammers seeming to be legitimate organizations, agencies or companies such as the IRS, a utility company, bank or credit card, among others. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Don’t answer unrecognized calls or e-mails. Keep in mind that scammers can also make their number appear to be one that you may know or recognize. Finally, never give out solicited personal information.

AARP Continues its Fight Against Cybercrime.

“AARP has been fighting fraud and cybercrime for some time with education and resources – most notably the free AARP Fraud Watch Network,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “You can join and get email alerts and updates by registering at http://www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.
“Fraud Watch – free to both members and non-members – keeps people abreast of latest dangers, such as the nasty virtual kidnapping scam we first reported on in 2016. Some of these crimes never go away, they just get re-invented in subtle ways,” she added. “Once you’ve heard about a scam, you become far less vulnerable.

“During October’s National Cyber Security Month, AARP is getting the word out on three keys to staying safe online: Own it, secure it, and Protect it. The ‘it’ is your digital profile – the personal things about yourself that you put online. Living in the digital age means putting a lot of personal information online such as your home address, where you work, family members, and much more.

“Keeping that information safe requires a bit of work. First, you need to own it by understanding what you’re putting out there (such as what you’re posting on social media). Next, you have to secure it with strong passwords or using a password manager and enabling two-step authentication where available. Lastly, you need to protect it by staying current with the latest security updates on your devices and using Public Wi-Fi safely,” Connell said.

Another site Connell recommends is staysafeonline.org.

Senate Aging Panel Releases its 2018 Fraud Book

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 1, 2018

In early March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging again put the spotlight on common fraud schemes directed at America’s seniors at a panel hearing, “Stopping Senior Scams.” At the Senate panel hearing, held in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the Committee officially released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to its Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of frauds targeting seniors around the country, clearly revealing the extent of this epidemic.

Last year, the most prevalent scam reported to the Committee’s Hotline, detailed in the Senate Aging Committee’s 56-page 2018 Fraud Book, was the IRS Impersonation Scam in which con artists call, pretending to be IRS representatives, to collect payment of taxes and threaten arrest if payment is not immediately made by phone (During tax filing season, seniors and others should be on high alert for scam artists claiming to be the IRS).

The March 7th hearing was the third hearing this Congress—and the 12th in the past three years—that the Senate Aging Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. These hearings c=examined notoriously widespread scams including the IRS imposter scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, computer tech support scams, grandparent scams, elder financial exploitation, and identity theft.

“This Committee’s dedication to fighting fraud against older Americans is raising awareness and it is making a real difference,” said Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME), of the Senate Aging Committee, in her opening remarks. “Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it has charged more than 250 people with stealing more than half billion dollars from more than a million Americans. This is the largest ever law enforcement action to protect our nation’s seniors from fraud,” noted Collins.

Seniors Lose Billions in Exploitation Schemes and Scams

Collins called the “stakes extremely high” in fighting against the skyrocketing incidence of senior fraud, noting that according to the Government Accountability Office, older American’s lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

Ranking Member, Bob Casey (D-PA), called for more aggressive action to be taken “to ensure that not one more senior loses another penny to a con artist.” The Pennsylvania Senator called for working more closely with businesses to create “another line of defense to help prevent assets from ever leaving the hands of unsuspecting victims.”

Witnesses Stephen and Rita Shiman from Saco, ME, came to share and educate others as to how they fell victim to a grandparent scam. During his testimony, Shiman acknowledged the special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. “The scammers knew this well and took full advantage of it with my wife and myself. They knew that when a grandchild is in trouble, grandparents go all out to help,” he said.

With over 20 years working as a lead volunteer with Pennsylvania, chairing the nonprofits Consumer Issue Task Force, Witness Mary Bach explained how her 15-member task force team from across the commonwealth keep residents of all ages educated about current scams sweeping the state. She stated, “[w]e know that education is power, and when someone hears the specifics of a scam they are much less likely to be victimized. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam!”

Witness Doug Shadel, State Director of AARP Washington State. testified about the current state of fraud targeting seniors and outlined that impostor scams are still the most prevalent.” In the new age of technology, it is easier than ever for scammers to be someone they are not,” he said, noting that “combining this ability with a tactic to incite fear or excitement upon their victim, paints a very convincing picture, one that has enabled scammers to easily take many seniors of their hard-earned savings.”

Finally, Witness Adrienne Omansky of Los Angeles, CA, described how she formed the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program in 2009 after learning from students in her commercial acting class about fraud they had experienced. Over the past few years, this volunteer group has grown significantly and now performs in about 30 venues each year, ranging from small veteran’s halls to a large convention center. As part of her testimony, Omansky played a few clips of the Public Service Announcements her group has recorded and shared several of the lessons the members of her acting program have learned through their own performances, including that seniors are often more comfortable learning about scams from their peers.

AARP Fights Against Senior Fraud

AARP recognized early on that older Americans are extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem and getting worse. That’s why our organization has made a significant investment in public outreach as well as a free alert system available to our members as well as the general public.

“One aspect of prevention that has been our focus is explaining to people how con artists operate. We hired Frank Abagnale, the real-life former con man depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, as a national spokesman. His job is to help people spot a con. He goes way beyond “if it’s too good to be true.” Abagnale explains the psychological triggers that con artists employ to snag even the seemingly brightest and most cautious victims. This is laid out in our free publication The Con Artists Playbook. It is a hand out at events and presentations we’ve been conducting across the state the past three years.

“The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free service,” Connell continued. “Sign up and you will receive email alerts on the latest scams. One of our Fraud Watch presenters is fond of saying that when you hear about a scam on the TV news it is natural to say, ’I’d never fall for that. ’Maybe, he tells audiences, it’s only because you were just warned. That’s the thing. It’s the new scam that you haven’t heard about that is especially dangerous. In addition to the alerts, you can report scans so the word spreads as new cons make the rounds. There’s also a national fraud hotline (877-908-3360) with specialists who take on any questions. And an online map allows you identify scams reported in your area. We urge everyone to check out the Web site (www. fraudwatchnetwork.org) to learn more.”

For a copy of the 2018 Senate Aging Committee Fraud Book, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf.

Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.

AARP Report: Using Public Wireless Network Can Be Costly

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 2, 2015

This week Rhode Islanders learned about a secret NSA map obtained exclusively by NBC News detailing China’s cyber attack on all sectors of the U.S economy, including major firms like Google and Lockheed Martin, as well as the U.S. government and military.

But, they also learned that the stealing of personal and financial information isn’t just taking place nationally at federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies but throughout the state, too.  Internet users who put convenience ahead of protecting financial information stored on their laptops and mobile devices are becoming more susceptible to hackers, too, says a newly released 21 page AARP report.

Giving Hackers Easy Access to Your Personal Info

A new survey of internet users, ages 18 and over, released on July 29, 2015, shows that the freedom and convenience of public wireless networks may come at a cost. Nearly half failed a quiz about online and wireless safety, while tens-of-thousands admit to engaging in activity that could put them squarely in the sights of hackers looking to steal their personal information.

An AARP Fraud Watch Network report, “Convenience versus Security,” shows that among adults who access the Internet, a quarter (25%) use free public Wi-Fi once per week or more. “A free Wi-Fi network at an airport, hotel or coffee shop is convenient,” said Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island. “But without a secure network, Americans risk over sharing, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks by con artists and hackers.”

In response to these cyber threats recognizing the need for greater awareness of the risks of internet scams, the Washington, DC-based AARP is launching the “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign to educate Americans about the risks of free public Wi-Fi and how they can protect themselves.

Researchers identified a high incidence of risky online behaviors that might lead to financial theft and fraud.  According to the findings, among those who say they use free public Wi-Fi, more than a quarter of respondents (27%) say they have banked online via public Wi-Fi in the last three months.  Similarly, 27% of those who use free public Wi-Fi have purchased a product or service over public Wi-Fi using a credit card.

Additionally, the findings noted that 26% of the respondents who use smartphones do not use a pass code on their phones.  Sixty one percent do not have online access to all of their bank accounts.  Finally, among those who have set up access to all or some of their online banking accounts, almost half (45%) say they have not changed their online banking passwords in the past 90 days. Experts say that online bank account passwords should be changed every 90 days.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The researchers found that nearly half of survey respondents (45%) failed a quiz about online and wireless safety.  The findings also indicated that approximately 40% of respondents were not aware that it is not okay to use the same password on more than one site even if it contains a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols.  Even if you are not using the Internet, if you’re in a location with a public Wi-Fi network, you should disable your wireless connection, say the researchers, adding that it is NOT safe to access websites with sensitive information, such as banking or credit cards, while using a public Wi-Fi network, even if the website is secured by https.

More than 8 in 10 (84%) people surveyed did not know that the most up-to-date security for a home Wi-Fi network is NOT WEP — Wired Equivalent Privacy.  Experts advise using at least WPA2 wireless encryption for better protection.

“The Fraud Watch Network’s “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign is giving Rhode Islanders the information they need to stay connected without sacrificing their personal security,” Connell added.

Protecting Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

A newly launched FWN cyber scam website features “Four Things Never to Do on Public Wi-Fi”   You can protect your financial data by following these website pointers.  First, “Don’t fall for a fake.”  Scam artists often set up unsecure networks with names similar to a legitimate business, coffee shop, hotel or other free Wi-Fi network.  Always “Mind your business.”  To reduce indentity theft and fraud, do not access your email, online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.  Always “Watch your settings” too.  Keep your mobile device from automatically connecting to nearby Wi-Fi.  Finally, “Stick to your cell:” Don’t surf the internet by using an unknown public network if the website requires sensitive information – like online shopping.  Your cell phone network is safer to use. .

“The survey by AARP on Americans’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online is alarming.  With more people online than ever before, the public needs to be more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace and take the necessary measures to protect to protect themselves from being a victim of cyber crimes and scams,” said Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, whose Consumer Protection Unit is often the first place consumers call when they have been victimized online.

Attorney General Kilmartin offers these pointers on how to protect yourself while cruising cyberspace:  When creating a password for an online account, the key to remember is to make it “long and strong,” with a minimum of eight characters and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.  Always use dual verification and ask for protection beyond passwords based on information only you would know, like your first elementary school or the name of your first pet. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.  Finally, use different passwords for different devices and different accounts.

According to Kilmartin, it may be easier to remember one simple password for all your accounts, but you make it easier for hackers to figure out your password and gain access to all your online accounts.  “I write down my passwords in a notebook which is kept in a safe place, separate from my electronic devices. This may seem like a cumbersome step, but trust me, it’s much easier than trying to reclaim your identity and clean up your credit if someone steals your identity,” he says.

Pawtucket Police Chief Paul King sees increase in identity theft and fraud in the City of Pawtucket.  It’s a national trend, he notes.

“In many incidences these crimes are perpetrated far beyond the borders of the United States,” says King, noting that Detective Hans Cute is assigned to the cyber and financial crimes beat.  Detective Cute has received specialized training and works very closely with the US Secret Service, US Postal Service, and other state and federal agencies when this type of crime occurs, he says.

Pawtucket residents can report a cyber and identity theft crime to Detective Cute at (401) 727-9100, Ext. 758.  For Woonsocket residents, call the Woonsocket Police Department at (401) 766-1212.

If you would like to schedule the Attorney General’s Office to visit your organization for a consumer protection presentation, please visit www.riag.ri.gov or call 401-274-4400 and ask for the Consumer Protection Unit.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.