Presentation illuminates data, tactics in scam industry

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By Steve Van Kooten


The phone has rung off the hook, sometimes with offers for deluxe vacation packages, other times with agents from the FBI making threats and, occasionally, it’ll be a grandparent or a nephew stuck in Kuwait. Don’t worry: you can solve all those problems by giving out your credit card number or your social security identification. It’ll make them stop. For a few days, maybe.

What about the Nigerian prince, who will give up $400,000? Just send $400 to secure the transaction. Or the Nubian widow, who wanted to leave her inheritance to someone with a kind heart and loose pockets? Then it’s just some routing and checking numbers to access a fortune.

On Sept. 14, the UW-Extension office hosted a scam presentation at Hoffman Hall. The goal was to educate the community on new scam techniques and technologies scam artists use to take people’s money. Jeff Kersten, Outreach Specialist for the Bureau of Consumer Protection, led the event with representatives from Royal Bank, People’s State Bank, Community First Bank and the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office on hand to provide additional information and resources to the community.

Kersten presented federal data to illustrate the ubiquitous threat scams pose. In the past year, there were 5.2 million scam reports made to the federal government, which resulted in a loss of more than $8.8 billion, a 30 percent increase from two years ago.

“They’re making too much money,” Kersten said, “so they’re always going to find a way to try and get that message in front of you.” The message could be almost anything: an e-mail from your bank, a warranty letter in the mailbox, a telephone call from a desperate family member or even a charity request. Scammers can impersonate phone numbers through a process called “spoofing” that can direct a phone’s Caller ID to read any phone number. “They do it for the sole purpose of trying to get you to pick up the phone.”

Once someone answers that call, text or e-mail, there’s hundreds of variations to wring money out of their victims. They can be utility departments ready to shut off the power or representatives from the lottery poised to deliver a person’s winnings. For a fee, of course.

“Tomorrow it’ll be a different scam until one hits home,” Kersten said.

While the elderly are a primary target, scammers do not discriminate. Kersten presented data that showed more people reported losses from scams in the 20-29 age bracket than 70-79, but the amount lost was three times higher in older populations ($1,600 on average). The median loss for all reported scams was $650. Kersten said those numbers didn’t represent the high-end of the spectrum, where money lost has amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Nobody likes to admit when they’re wrong,” Kersten said. “It makes it easier to hang on to that little sliver of hope that this will work out, this will be the last payment.”

Kersten noted one of the most profitable scams techniques was the Romance/Relationship Scam where a criminal will spend months or even years building a relationship with someone remotely before they ask for money. Kersten said those scams cause more money loss than all other scams combined.

“They know how to manipulate us, how to overcome all the objections,” Kersten said. “It’s not the first time they’ve made this phone call.”

The Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin highlighted a number of popular scams to watch for, including:

-Healthcare scams where impersonators claim to be employees of healthcare companies to fish for personal data.

-Family member scams where criminals use impersonators or AI to imitate the voices of distressed loved ones to convince family members to send money.

-Crypto currency scams where criminals use website ads or emails to convince people to buy crypto currency and send it to the scammer’s digital wallet.

-Investor scams where criminals use TikTok or social media to advertise fake expertise and investment businesses to take money for non-existent financial services.

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