BERLIN — As if 2020 hasn’t left area residents with enough to worry about, a rash of creative scams often targeting the elderly has arisen recently, but allied local law enforcement agencies are getting out in front of the trend.
The Worcester County Vulnerable Adult Task Force this week announced continued efforts of its multi-disciplinary team to educate and raise awareness about common fraud schemes with a “No-Scam November” initiative. The focus of the initiative is preventing scams before they cause financial damage to the victim, given the inherent difficulties in the investigation and identification of high-tech scammers and attempts to recover victims’ money.
“We are proud to partner with our allied agencies to help educate our residents about the ongoing scams that victimize them,” said Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli. “Education is a key component in the reduction of these crimes, and partnering agencies make our residents much safer.”
In 2020, law enforcement has seen a dramatic increase in the number of reported fraud cases and senior citizens are the most frequent target. In Worcester County, the type of fraud seen most frequently are gift card scams. Scammers typically request the code on the back of the gift cards so they can use them online.
Maryland State Police Detective-Sergeant Mike Mann, Assistant Barrack Commander of the Berlin Barrack, said he has seen cases where the scammer claims to be from a computer company and demands thousands of dollars in gift cards in order to remove a virus from the victim’s computer.
“A legitimate computer or software company is never going to demand payment in gift cards,” he said. “Scammers instead actually send a message to your computer making you think it has a virus and that the only solution is to pay them in gift cards. Don’t fall for it.”
Other common schemes include the scammer claiming to be with the IRS, or claiming a family member of the victim has been arrested or needs bail money. In another frequent scam, the victim is told he or she has won a contest or prize money, but in order to collect the winnings, they must buy gift cards totaling a portion of the total prize they will eventually be sent.
In another scheme described locally, a scammer mimicked the victim’s boss’s email address and sent the victim an email instructing the victim to buy gift cards and then test the codes on the backs of the cards to a different phone number because the boss claimed to have lost his phone. The victim did so, believing he was following his boss’s instructions, only to learn it was a scam after speaking to his employer in person.
In many cases, the scammer stays on the phone with the victim while the victim travels to a store to purchase the gift cards. In that way, the scammer ensures the scheme is successful and the victim cannot pause to consider if he or she should actually go through with the purchase. Again, the scams often target the elderly, or those most vulnerable in the community.
“Residents in our community have unfortunately fallen victim to all of the scams being described,” said Ocean Pines Police Department Chief Leo Ehrisman. “Recovering funds after someone is victimized is very difficult, if not impossible, so being aware of these scams and not being a victim is a priority in our community.”
To combat gift card scams, beginning this month local law enforcement agencies have been conducting community outreach efforts and providing local businesses with free signage warning of the schemes. The signs, which are being provided by the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office, can be attached to any gift card display and are designed to provide in-the-moment warnings to would-be victims.
The signs encourage would-be victims to pause and consider if they are being scammed before making a purchase. Along with outreach by prosecutors and police officers, the signs also help local businesses educate their staff to know the signs of a gift card scheme before ringing up a potential victim’s purchase, and to contact police when they suspect a scam.
“The Office of the State’s Attorney is thankful for the continued partnership that led to this innovative idea for preventing gift card scams,” said Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser. “As was our goal last year when we created the task force, we will continue to provide this type of outreach and education to the benefit of our senior citizens and shine a light on the issues and problems affecting them.”
Businesses wishing to participate in “No-Scam November” can request the free gift card scam signage from the MSP Berlin Barrack, the Ocean Pines Police Department or the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. Anyone suspecting elder abuse including scams is urged to contact their local law enforcement agencies.