PORT ORCHARD — These con artists fit the definition of “criminal” as neatly as do violent offenders who do bodily harm on the streets. And while their crafty work isn’t physically harmful to victims, these purveyors of crime apply their damage in other ways, ultimately separating innocent people from their hard-earned money.
Their weapons of choice? The telephone and computer. These criminals, known widely as scam artists, zero in on their victims through persuasion, intimidation and by tapping into human emotions. Never taking a break from finding creative ways to cheat their victims, the criminals are always on the lookout for relevant opportunities, particularly those that involve financial considerations.
One annual obligation that’s ripe for exploitation is tax season. According to the Port Orchard police department, the most vulnerable segment of the population to this scam, and other traps, are the elderly.
“These scams are picking up this time of year because of tax refunds,” said Jana Deck, a Port Orchard police officer and community crime prevention official. “The perpetrators are all from out of this area who are using the internet to their advantage.”
Deck said the scam artists typically use tactics that employ intimidation and false identification to persuade victims that they are: a) in violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations, b) past filing deadlines and c) behind in their tax payment obligations.
For many elderly people who are in the middle of organizing their tax documentation — and don’t have loved ones nearby to help out — these tactics are unfortunately effective. With an implied threat of conviction and prison time, these filers are offered a last chance “opportunity” to “right their wrongs” by paying upfront, over the phone, to bring their alleged tax obligations current.
“The IRS will never call you out of the blue demanding an immediate tax payment,” IRS spokesman Rafael Tulino said. “We also do not send uninitiated emails asking you to click on a link for a survey or a probe for a refund,” he said.
Tulino said the scammers often use tactics that take advantage of the victim’s embarrassment over being in violation of tax laws — even though it’s a figment of a criminal’s imagination.
Figuring prominently this year from the criminals’ toolbelt of tactics are email phishing schemes and urgent call-back requests through phone “robo-calls.”
While tax season is profitable for these criminals, a recent wave of other phone scams have hit the Port Orchard area, Deck said, preying on grandparents. The scenario used on victims usually follows this story line: A “law enforcement official” contacts grandparents on the phone and explains that their grandchild is in legal trouble. Using believable locations and the name of the grandchild, the scammer tells the victim they need to send money to the official to secure the grandchild’s release from jail.
And, once again, they employ the aspect of embarrassment by telling the victim that the situation needs to remain secret to save the grandchild from humiliation. And, of course, the need to send the money is always urgent.
While the scam sounds like it would be easy to recognize and avoid, Deck said, it’s not always so simple.
“Scammers research the person they are targeting by using online data sources,” she said. “These sources provide the scammer with a lot of seemingly personal information on the victim, including the date of birth, addresses, workplaces and personal relationship connections.”
Deck said victims who are not internet-savvy, particularly the elderly, may see the information provided by the scammer as too personal to be fake. “We’re asking all citizens to have conversations and to educate friends and family about this type of scam.”
Port Orchard resident and Red Top Taxi Services of Kitsap employee David Rosser was recognized by the police department for his role in stopping this scam from being perpetrated on a client. Deck said that Rosser recognized that “something wasn’t right” and took the extra steps to protect the victim from a large financial loss by stopping the scammer in their tracks.
Another scam being employed now is taking advantage of the competitive real-estate market in which urgency is often critical to landing a home.
“These scammers will use a legitimate home for sale listing and post it on craigslist and other sites,” Deck said. “The scammer asks the site visitor to transfer a large sum of money as a requirement for a purchase. It’s an effective scam, but very sad to see people lose their savings.”
The officer said potential house buyers can take extra precautions by doing a Google search of the address of a home for sale. “If you find the home is listed as not being on the market, that should be a red flag. Another warning sign is if someone posing as a real-estate agent says the potential buyers can’t go inside the home to preview it.”
The same applies to those residents looking for rental properties, she said. “Be wary of enticing rental prices. If the rent seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Don’t fill out a rental application until you have been shown the property.
Deck said potential buyers or renters should never send money, sight unseen, for any reason.