September 15, 2019

MSP: Beware of scams


Recently, the Michigan State Police West Branch post has seen an uptick in the number of scams targeting our community.

One of the more common scams is a telephone call advising you a relative such as your grandson or granddaughter has been arrested and is in need of bail money. Unfortunately, while you may indeed receive such a call someday, it will nearly always be your relative calling asking you to bail them out and you will typically be transferred to an official who will explain the procedure. Furthermore, iTunes cards are not accepted at the jail.

This scam has occurred in our area. I can recall a lady recently entering the post in tears because her grandson was arrested in Miami, Fla., for drunk driving and she needed to wire $5,000 in order for him to be released. She was looking for a local Western Union office to wire the money and needed directions so she stopped at the post. Myself, Tpr. Noble and Sgt. Gough were able to nip that one in the bud.

What should you do if you receive such a call? Ask to speak with the person (e.g., your relative) in custody. If that’s not possible, ask the person what facility they are calling from. Get their contact information; if they provide it, call the person supposedly in jail and see if they answer. If they don’t answer, call his or her spouse. Call their parents. Don’t be afraid of rocking the boat because your grandson allegedly had too much to drink, got arrested and you don’t want to be the one to break the news to his parents. Verify it. Do not simply send money. Take a moment and think about the situation. Stop at the post and see if we can make contact to see if he or she is actually in jail. If they are actually in jail, well, they’re there. Jail is not fun. But verify it first; does it make sense that the jail needs Home Depot gift cards for bail purposes?

While bail is not a constitutional guarantee, for the most part it is granted; it’s right there in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. In 18 years in law enforcement, I have yet to see a $15,000 bail placed on someone for first-offense drunk driving. And I have yet to see a judge, a sheriff’s jail or a magistrate accept gift cards in lieu of cash or credit card.

Another scam is very similar — you may receive a call that your relative is in the hospital and they cannot begin treatment until funds are provided. Sometimes the situation is grave, and your relative desperately needs this care to survive. Hospitals in the United States, be they private or public, are absolutely prohibited by law from denying a patient emergency care due to the patient being indigent or having an inability to pay. Doesn’t happen. We have all had hospital visits, some more than others. If you have ever been on the exam table, can you ever recall the doctor or nurse telling you that she would love to stem the bleeding or provide that IV but can’t until she has cash in hand? I have been in a few ERs in my day (hazard of the job) and it doesn’t work that way. Trust me: the hospital is going to get their money, from you or the insurance company, but doctors and nurses couldn’t give a lick if your relative cannot pay when their life is on the line. Doctors and nurses have taken an oath, just as your troopers have, to get the job done in order to preserve life. Again, call and verify with your other loved ones.

Another scam: we all hate paying taxes, but as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.” If you, for whatever reason, are behind on paying Uncle Sam, you will not receive a robocall asking you to pay your balance over the phone using a credit card. You will receive an official letter from our friends at the IRS with veritable contact information, or in some cases, a visit from one of their agents. They don’t accept gift cards, either.

Computer not working or running slowly? Get an email that it needs to be updated or cleansed of viruses? It can be taken care of for the low cost of $500, payable by wire, credit card or gift card. It’s a scam. All day long.

Lastly — and these tug on the heart strings — are the scams targeting the lonely or the elderly.

The internet is a great place to learn, to discover and maybe even to find companionship. But there is a dark aspect to the internet, and it preys on those in our community who may be a bit more vulnerable. Unfortunately, many of these victims are elderly or lonely. Our elderly population grew up in an age without social media or computers; this is not meant to denigrate them, but it’s a simple fact. Our lonely seek comfort in the anonymity the internet provides; again, this is a fact. In both cases, predators seize upon these vulnerable people and strike.

For instance, there are people who actively search out elderly people and target them knowing they are not overly familiar with today’s ultra-connected and highly intertwined electronic frontier. These predators may go on your Facebook profile — or your grandson’s Facebook — and see a picture of you with your grandson, and through some internet sleuthing discover your phone number. Subsequently you receive a call that Johnny is in jail down in Louisiana. It must be true, right? How else did they get your number, and know Johnny was your grandson? The internet.

There are a myriad of sites that will tell you everything you ever want to know about yourself, or someone else. Try typing your name into, or even putting your full name into Google. In the MSP, we have some of the most advanced tools available to find out information needed for our various investigations. What’s one of the easiest methods we use, and doesn’t require entering a login, a 10-digit password, two-factor identification or a search warrant? Fastpeoplesearch.

Find a match online with someone special? You have been talking to him or her for quite some time online; you’ve even seen pictures or maybe video to confirm he or she is real. Now the conversation turns to money. Maybe they need $500 for a plane ticket, or their mother is ill and needs $2,000 for medicine. You’ve “talked” to the person for weeks, maybe even months. You have exchanged pictures and anecdotes; you know this person. No, you don’t. It’s a scam. I spoke with a lady here in West Branch who wired thousands of dollars to a gentleman in Latin America because they were in love and had communicated for months online and on the phone. The photos of her beau were pulled off of Google Images and he was nonexistent.

Speaking of technology and our connected world, the sad fact is it allows a person in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa to “spoof” a phone number to make it appear as if he or she is calling from either our local area or perhaps the location where the supposed hospital or jail is that is treating or jailing your loved one. These numbers are computer-generated. I have a cellphone issued to me by the state police, complete with Wireless Priority provided by the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and I have received scam calls on this phone.

The MSP has no jurisdiction in Europe, Asia or Africa. Very rarely do these scam calls even originate within the United States, meaning there is simply no investigation to be done because we have no stateside agency to reach out to in order to assist us, even if we were able to locate the actual person who absconded with your money. Furthermore, we don’t have the manpower to do so even if we did have jurisdiction. No agency does. The FBI won’t start looking at such cases until the loss is into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is very hard to look a person in the face and tell them they fell for a scam, their money is gone forever, and no one will likely be prosecuted. Life is not like television; there is not always a happy ending within 60 minutes, including commercial breaks. I got into this profession to safeguard my community and protect the innocent. It’s a tough pill for me to swallow when I have an older lady in my post crying because she lost $4,000 to someone who said she won a new Mercedes and all it would take to claim it is the fees courtesy of gift cards or a quick bank transfer. She came in when the car didn’t show up as promised.

In conclusion, I would strongly urge anyone who receives a suspicious call or internet message and is contemplating sending money to call law enforcement first. Call us at the post, call the sheriff’s department or call dispatch and ask for an officer to call you back. Even if it is 3 a.m., call dispatch, ask to speak with a trooper and we will walk you through it. Do not become a victim. Spread the word with your neighbors, friends, customers, parents and fellow parishioners.

Above all else, heed the old adage that “if it is too good to be true, it is.”


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