‘Tis the seasons; scams for the holidays

It happens year around, but it seems like the sheer number of unscrupulous people working to separate people from money to which they have no right escalates before the holidays, and that it’s the nicest and most trusting among us, particularly the elderly, who are most often targeted. Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman reminds everyone to be alert and keep a tight grip on your pocketbook or billfold.

“People are being called and told it’s the IRS and your social security number is expiring,” Zimmerman said. “We had another claim they were from a major company the person had done business with, telling them they were behind and needed to get to the nearest grocery to buy gift cards to catch up on the arrears. That should raise alarm bells, but the next instruction; once you leave the store, call this number before you drive away and give us the numbers, should raise clarions and klieg lights.

For one person in Bonners Ferry, they didn’t, and it was only that there was a second call while walking to the car, telling her they erred and she actually owed more … she needed to go back in and get more cards.

“That raised her suspicions and she called us,” Zimmerman said. He has no idea how many fall for the scams and don’t report it. “They must work … I’ve been hearing of these and other scams for years and people must still be falling victim to still be going on. It’s too bad, as most of these people are too polite to question and want to do the right thing.”

And if you’ve already sent money (and are thus probably being victimized incessantly as they try for ever more), it’s doubtful anyone can help you get it back.

“In most cases, there’s nothing local law enforcement can do,” Zimmerman said, “these things are global and we just don’t have the means to track them down. Not even the FBI has much success.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t both protect yourself and do the right thing. You can even be nice!

No matter who is calling or what they’re asking, don’t agree to anything and don’t give them anything … not even the mundane. If they are legitimate, they will have all the information you provided them and they will genuinely want to resolve whatever legitimate issue has arisen. Make them prove who they are. If they say you owe a bill and you are suspicious, request verification in writing or by email, and don’t provide the address as they should already have it.

If, as is likely, they insist there is no time for that, that for any one of myriad important reasons this has to be tended to right this very moment (an almost sure sign you are dealing with a scam), ask them to itemize, in detail, what they are requesting, with invoice numbers and dates. Get their name, the company name and number and tell them you’ll call back once you’ve verified the information.

Then hang up. If they call back, tell them you haven’t yet verified their information. If they insist or grow abusive, hang up and share the information they gave you with your local law enforcement agency and visit the FBI Scams and Safety webpage to file a report and learn how to protect yourself.

If you do think there’s a possibility the request is legitimate, check. If it was a transaction made online, you should have email verification or be able to look up the company online. Call the company customer service number on their website. If you feel you owe the polite person you spoke to before, ask to be connected.

If it’s one of those “Help, I’m your long lost second nephew twice removed and if you don’t help me I’ll (insert consequence here),” do not give anything; make them give you. Ask them to give you and spell their full name, their date of birth, home address, phone number. A good trick to see if their story might be truthful is to ask their date of birth early, then, after asking the rest of your questions, casually ask how old they are.

Make them tell you where they are and how they got there. Make sure you have the name of the agency, hospital or location, an address is good but at least the city and state. If they give you a phone number, fine, but you won’t need it.

If they insist on passing you off to a jailer, doctor, sheriff, lawyer, bookie, drug dealer or hitman, hang up and call local law enforcement, giving them the information you have and taking their advice.

If they provide you what you request and you think the call might be legitimate, tell them to hold tight. Then hang up, go online or call directory assistance and get contact information for where they said they are. If they’re in jail or the hospital, there will be someone there to take your call, day or night.  Call and explain what your caller told you. If their story is true, you’ll be directed to the appropriate person to render assistance.

If your caller claims to be from the government, especially the federal government, ask for their request in writing, by mail. No legitimate government agent is going to ask you for information needed to scam you … if legitimate, they are there to serve and protect and will do all in their power to keep you safe. If they don’t, hang  up and notify law enforcement.

If there’s a possibility you might legitimately owe an agency or department, call and ask. Like you, a legitimate agent will want to help you resolve the issue.

Remember the basics, too. The IRS will never cancel your social security number so long as you’re in a position to fret about it. No major retailer wants to be paid by gift card or other esoteric form of legal tender. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if second great grandson Jimmy needs money now or he’s going to jail, chances are, he deserves it.

And a few hours in a cell might even do some good.