Telephone scams targeting Winters businesses

Telephone scam operations can be sophisticated and convincing. It’s a scam if they ask for an immediate, cash payment.
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It was a particularly hot day in late August when Gwen Pisani hurried into First Northern Bank, withdrew $500 in cash and headed into the Dollar General, where she could purchase a Green Dot MoneyPak card to irreversibly transfer the money to an untraceable account, just as the stranger on the phone had directed.

Earlier that afternoon, Pisani had been contacted on the phone and told Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) would shut off power to the Anytime Fitness she manages in under an hour unless she provided credit card information and sent a cash immediately. Pisani was skeptical, but the callers were convincing, and gym members were unlikely to be happy without air conditioning in the 100-plus degree heat if she let the bill go unpaid.

Fortunately, Pisani didn’t send the money; at the last minute, she realized the voicemail she received was a fraudulent call. There was no PG&E technician coming to shut off her power and the “representatives” on the phone were con artists.

On Oct. 25, con artists attempted to use similar tactics to scam the non-profit Winters Parent Nursery School, also unsuccessfully. Director Karen Benson-Neil said a staff member alerted her to the phone call, and they were immediately suspicious. Crystal Apilado, who volunteers with the Winters Parent Nursery School, eventually took the call.

Apilado was transferred around through a sophisticated call center that mimicked PG&E’s automated system. When she was on hold, a recorded voice told her to expect unusually long wait times due to a high volume of calls, as could be expected of PG&E with Public Safety Power Shut-off scheduled across the state. The callers could not provide Apilado any relevant account information, insisting they operated based on address. Neither were they able to give any information about the supposedly delinquent payments, save how to pay and how much.

According to Apilado, they directed her to go immediately to the “Dollar Tree” in Winters, where $492.12 was to be paid via MoneyPak.

“It had to be an immediate payment,” Apilado said. “You had to go with cash in hand.”

If the sum seems familiar, that’s because $500 is the maximum allowable to be sent by MoneyPak cards. It’s hard to know how many Winters resident have been affected by telephone scams, as scams often go unreported, but a Dollar General employee confirmed victims of telephone scams come in three or four times a month intending to go through with the payment until advised otherwise.

According to Community Services Officer Gail Jimenez, scams like these are commonly reported in Winters. Telephone scam operations can be sophisticated and convincing. They use computer programs to make a high volume of phone calls, and, through a process called “spoofing,” they can make it appear as if they are calling from another number.

The Winters Police Department recommends residents screen phone calls, block spam calls through their phone provider or with third-party smartphone applications, and place cellular and landline phone numbers on do-not-call lists. Most importantly, never send cash electronically, especially via MoneyPak cards, based on a telephone call alone. “Purchasing GreenDot MoneyPak cards or gift cards has replaced wiring money through Western Union as the number one way criminals are requesting payment for their scams. It is important to remember that no utilities or government agencies will request these items as payment and do not request immediate payment over the phone,” Jimenez said. Victims should report fraudulent telephone calls to the Winters Police Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “Even if they cannot resolve your problem, the information you provide may be a break in a case for someone else,” Jimenez said. Descriptions of Telephone Scams (from CSO Gail Jimenez, Winters Police Department):

UTILITIES: These scammers start with a phone call impersonating a utility like PG&E, cell phone provider, or other business. The scammer will say the person or business has an overdue bill and that the power will be shut off or account cancelled. The victim will then be told to prevent this from happening, they have to pay immediately. Mostly the scammers request the person load money on a green-dot card and call in with the account number on the back. The scammer then drains the cards. There are a few twists, some scammers want the person to send the cards to an address, some still prefer the funds be wired through Western Union. Please remember that no business will request immediate payment without sending bills and contact letters regarding an account. If something seems strange, it is. Please verify agency contacts using phone numbers on your bills.

LEGAL ISSUES: These scammers try to trick people into thinking there has either been an judgement or a case against you. To resolve the issue, the scammers want people to send them hundreds of dollars or face “legal action.” The scammers represent themselves as members of a Police or Sheriff Office (sometimes spoofing actual law enforcement phone numbers) then requesting personal and financial information. As a reminder, no law enforcement agency will contact people to request payment for warrants, missed jury duty or request financial information.

LOANS OR PRIZES: These scammers call and tell people they owe money, there is a lien/judgement against them, or they won a prize and have to pay a small fee. If the person tells the scammer they didn’t apply for the loan/never entered a contest the scammer will then ask for financial and personal information to verify that they got the wrong person. The scam ends with a request that the person purchase a pre-paid card or a money order. Often the scammer will stay on the phone with the person or will start suggesting local businesses that the person can go to in order to purchase the item. As a reminder, lotteries will not collect money for fees before releasing prizes.

RANSOM: These scammers call to say they are a friend of a relative in a foreign country or they have the person’s loved one. They then tell the person they needed money. If the person questions the call, the scammer will threaten the relative will be sent to jail or even to kill the person’s family. This scam prays on a person’s love for their family by trying to scare them enough that they don’t remember to ask questions and don’t have time to check with other relatives to verify the story. The best way to deal with these calls is to verify the story with family members, especially if you don’t recall the relative being out of the country. It is also important to report the situation to law enforcement.

IRS: Scammers pose as IRS agents and try to scare people with mentions of fines, tax evasion, jail time, attorneys, freezing bank accounts and passports, or court dates. They then ask for the person’s social security number and other personal information. Victims are often told told not to hang up and instructed to withdraw money from bank accounts. IRS scammers can be reported directly to the IRS using the following web site https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml

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