Fraud Watch: Anatomy of a scam

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A recent headline in The Berkshire Eagle read "Police: Man took 120-mile Uber ride to rob Lenox woman." Break-ins, robberies, and abductions sadly are crimes we see on the increase throughout the region, but most do not evolve out of telephone scams. This time it did.

The situation, for those unaware, developed over a matter of months from a routine telephone scam. The victim, an elderly woman in Lenox, Mass., received a number of calls from a man living outside New York City. In trying to scam $1,500, his calls began with a promised payment of $3 million but over time turned into a frightening threat. In late February, the alleged criminal hired an Uber driver to take him to Lenox, where he forced his way into her home and had her drive to her Pittsfield bank for money. Alert bank employees notified police and the man was arrested before he could do further harm. The incident raises a number of questions. Does this scenario occur frequently? Aren't scamming telephone calls "one shot" efforts? Do con artists have access to my personal information? What can I do if I think someone is trying to scam me?

There is a generally false impression that telephone scams are "one shot" efforts? That is probably the result of the most frequently reported scamming call - the IRS Scam. Here, the call is usually initiated by a computer program generating random telephone numbers; the calls usually originate from overseas as single blind or shotgun calling. The most serious telephone scamming is a form of what can be called "spear phishing" where the criminal has a specific victim or type of victim in mind. This was most likely the case in Lenox. This scenario is not the most frequently used technique as it requires time to "condition" the victim. Often the con artist will make multiple calls over a period of weeks or months in order to collect bits of information inadvertently given out by the intended victim such as age, marital status, community involvement, personal health and much more. These volunteered facts then become the basis for the con artist to endear himself or herself to the victim.

It is no surprise that the female victim in Lenox could become a target without providing much information. Con artists are able to collect personal details on intended victims from publicly accessible data files on the Internet. All that is really needed is a name and a town of residence to retrieve demographic and financial data from public records free of charge or for a nominal price.

In addition to using the readily available information, successful scammers apply a series of psychological techniques to manipulate their targets:

- Profiling - collection and use of information detailing the intended victim;

- Phantom riches - describing a significant prize or award that will be coming to the targeted person;

- Source credibility - projecting an image of importance or trust to the intended victim.. Finally, if all the "pleasant" approaches fail, the scammer will turn to fear and intimidation, as was true in the Lenox case with a threat to "burn down your house."

There are clear steps to take if you feel you may be the target of a scam. Do not answer phone calls displaying caller ID numbers you do not recognize. Let these callers leave a message on your answering machine. Second, if you answer the phone and the caller begins to make you an offer "you simply cannot refuse," hang up the phone. Ask yourself: In a country of over 325 million people, why would I be approached for a substantial gift from a stranger?

Don't engage in small talk with an unknown person. It can result in providing information that can be used against you. If you or people you know are threatened with personal harm or property damage, report the incident to law enforcement including any identifiable information such as names, telephone numbers, details of the call.

The situation in Lenox was not common but illustrates that incidents need to be taken seriously. As I frequently write, reporting a scam is easy. Contact the attorney general's office at https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/ or at (802) 656-3183

Questions? contact me, egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator serving as the Vermont AARP Fraud Watch Network Coordinator.

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