By Sabina Mollot
As Town & Village has reported on from time to time, since November of last year, residents of the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village area have been targeted by scammers calling them, pretending to be from the IRS or the Department of the Treasury. However, the scam calls have been an ongoing problem not just in the neighborhood but around the country.
While the perpetrators, believed to work from overseas, have been very hard for police to track, a representative from the Crime Strategist Unit, prosecutor Kaitrin Roberts, said it’s been a top priority for local as well as federal officials.
Roberts spoke at last Tuesday’s meeting of the 13th Precinct Community Council, where a question about whether the 30 or so community members in the audience were familiar with the scam drew quite a few chuckles in response.
Though the calls vary somewhat, they’ve all been similar in that the person on the receiving end is told they owe money to the government and must immediately pay up. Otherwise, they’re threatened with arrest or worse. (One Treasury Department scammer, when confronted, threatened to take this reporter to jail.) A person at the meeting piped in to say he’d been threatened with kidnapping.
“The IRS will never call you to demand payment,” said Roberts. The scammers have been known to demand payment in gift cards, including iTunes and Target ones, asking their victims to scratch off the numbers on the back and either read it to them or take pictures of them and text or email them.
What’s changed, however, is that the criminals have gotten savvier in their ruse, using sophisticated cloning technology to have “IRS” or Washington, DC based numbers or 1-800 numbers appear on a person’s caller ID.
“If you hang up and call back that number it will appear as if you’re calling the IRS,” Roberts said. She recommended that people Google a number for the Internal Revenue Service before attempting to call back.
Meanwhile, another tactic, aimed at frightening the people being called, is to make it appear as if the victim’s own phone number is showing up on a caller ID window.
Roberts said in one case a man was told, “We’re home with your wife.”
When one woman in the room said she’d actually seen her own number on call records and knew she didn’t call home, Roberts guessed it was the work of scammers.
“I don’t know who’s calling you, but more than likely they’re trying to intimidate you. These are ruthless people,” she said.
While there isn’t much police have been able to do so far, Roberts said it’s still helpful to report these calls, since it’s helpful to track patterns such as what kind of gift cards the scammers are requesting.
“The biggest in the IRS scam I personally know is a person who lost $20,000,” Roberts said, “because they thought the IRS was going to arrest them.”
Other big scams she mentioned are related to lotteries — “You don’t have to send money to get money” — and gram scams in which the caller pretends to be someone’s grandchild in need of help.
To trick the target into giving away personal information, the caller will ask, “Grandma, do you know who this is?”
She added that the scammers are skilled at getting people to give them information, and may already have some personal information about who they’re calling, like who their family members are.
“They want to keep you on the phone,” Roberts said.
The precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Brendan Timoney, mentioned recently hearing from one elderly man who had gotten fooled twice by the same scammer.
“This one individual broke my heart,” he said. The scam was a “Win for Life” lottery. “But in order to get the money, you had to pay $30,000. The same guy called three months later.”
Timoney added that even younger victims are getting duped by scams. In a popular one, targets will get offers to pose as a customer at stores, and are told they’ll be given $5,000 to spend, though they have to give back $1,000. “It happens all the time,” Timoney said.
He also mentioned a growth in fraudulent listings online for under-market apartments and vacation home rentals, a trend he’s mentioned before. “I don’t recommend going on Craigslist,” he said.