Wisconsin police urge vigilance against scams as holidays approach

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Earlier this year, a lucky couple, Cliff and Tammy Webster, from Oneida, claimed a winning Powerball ticket worth $316.3 million.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cliff Webster said in a Wisconsin Lottery YouTube video. “You don’t know what to do, but at 4:30 a.m., we were hugging and yelling.”

While the family was celebrating their life-changing winnings, scammers were brainstorming a way to earn money off of those winnings, as well.

Susan Bach, the Northeast Wisconsin regional director for the Better Business Bureau, said reports from consumers all over the country have flooded in, claiming that they’ve received text messages from scammers pretending to be the Websters and claiming they want to share their winnings.

“Lottery winner impersonation scams were big even before the Websters won, but when a local couple won, this compounded the problem,” Bach said.

With the holiday season approaching quickly, scammers are bound to increase their activity as people do more online shopping and make hasty purchases.

According to the bureau, more than 750 scams have been reported throughout Wisconsin between January and October.

Joe Benoit, an officer with the Neenah Police Department, said there’s been over 200 reports for scam and fraud in Neenah alone from Jan. 1 to Nov. 3.

While it is common for scammers to target older people, the risk of scam and fraud is high for all age groups.

Always verify to whom you are speaking

Phone call scams are among the most popular strategies scammers use on their victims. Since you are not speaking with the perpetrator face-to-face, it can be easy for them to lie their way into your pockets. A scammer might call and pretend to be a representative of as institution or company, in an attempt to trick the person into giving sensitive information or money.

Green Bay Police Department’s commander of operations, Kevin Warych, said there several are different variations of the phone call scams.

“People will say that there’s unpaid utility bills, there’s fines that are associated to Social Security, there’s different scenarios where people are incarcerated and they need to pay a fine,” Warych said.

Other variations of this scam include scammers pretending to be charities and asking for donations, offering deals on Medicare or the Affordable Care Act and, most recently, trying to accrue sensitive information under the ruse of helping with student loan forgiveness.

Warych said that a tale tell sign of a suspicious call is if the caller asks for payment through gift cards.

“If someone asks a person to go purchase gift cards and provide them the data to use that gift card online, most likely, it’s a scam,” Warych said. “I’ve never seen any entity, pay a fine pay an invoice or any sort of transaction with the use of a gift card over the phone. That’s usually a red flag.”

One common scam which calls for gift cards or cash payments is the “grandparent scam,” as Warych calls it. Using this method, the scammer will call an older person and claim they are a county jail employee or police officer. They will say a child or grandchild has been arrested and that the victim must pay the bail money quickly.

“Those are the most common where there’s always some kind of a catch and some kind of a high -pressure immediate situation that’s attached with an emotional reaction,” Benoit said.

Benoit said that scammers can get names and other information off of the internet, like Facebook, to make the call seem more realistic.

On Aug. 10, the Oshkosh Police Department released a statement regarding an elderly woman who was scammed out of “several thousands of dollars.”

Oshkosh police said the woman received a phone call from someone claiming to be her granddaughter’s attorney. The caller said her granddaughter was in custody and needed a large amount of cash to bond out. The caller convinced the woman to meet in person and hand over the cash.

“The best way to avoid a scam is to verify information,” Oshkosh officer Kate Mann said. “Call the relative that is supposedly in jail or in a hospital, call the phone number you have for the company the caller indicates they are from. Never give out personal information over the phone.”

Mann also suggests being cautious if the person claiming to be a relative asks for money right away, asks for you to send it through Western Union, or tells you to go to a bank but “not tell anyone why.”

“Scammers plead with you to keep the situation a secret precisely so you won’t try to confirm it,” Mann said.

Mann also advises that you don’t let a caller rush or pressure you into making a decision. Most importantly, if it starts to feel like a suspicious call, you can always end the conversation.

“There’s nothing wrong with just hanging up,” Benoit said. “If if it sounds fake, it probably is.”

Internet scams are the easiest to fall for

Because the internet is so vast, and can be complicated for those who don’t fully understand how to use it, it can be a playground for scammers

Benoit also urges people to watch out for the “romance scam,” where the scammer and their victim talk with each other, romantically, on an app, sometimes for an extended period of time. Eventually, the scammer, who is likely using a fabricated profile, will ask their victim for money.

Over a year and a half ago, Benoit was working with the victim of a romance scam, an elderly woman who lives in Neenah.

“Altogether, she’s out a little over $40,000 and she cashed out part of her retirement for that, and actually overnighted cash, too,” Benoit said.

The woman had been speaking with someone who presented themselves as a general in the U.S. Army who lived in Texas. What first started out as sending small amounts of cash through gift cards quickly escalated into her sending large amounts of cash in the mail to an address she was given.

Upon further investigation, it was found that the address belonged to a home that was foreclosed and abandoned.

“It’s very sad, but it’s a whole grooming process,” Benoit said. “The adults out there need to be very watchful of their parents for this elder abuse and financial abuse.”

Other internet scams include: phishing, which is the practice of sending emails claiming to be from reputable companies in order to get personal information from individuals; fake websites advertising the sale of products that they don’t have; and online sellers using sites like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist to trick buyers into sending money before they get their product.

In January of this year, the Federal Trade Commission reported more than 95,000 people reported about $770 million in losses to fraud initiated on social media platforms in 2021. This accounted for 25% of all fraud reports that year.

According to the Better Business Bureau, the place most people reported being targeted by a scam was while browsing social media, followed by while online shopping, using email, using a search engine, and searching for jobs.

It was also reported that people age 18 to 39 were more than twice as likely as older adults to report losing money to these scams in 2021.

Bureau reported that in 2022, scams perpetrated online are 55% more prevalent than other delivery methods, with a higher percentage — 75% — of people losing money when targeted. Overall, online scams have rose 87% since 2015.

The bureau urges people to take these following steps to avoid internet scams:

  • Avoid clicking on links or opening attachments in unsolicited emails
  • Don’t believe everything you see
  • Double check your online purchase is secure before checking out
  • Use extreme caution when dealing with anyone you’ve met online
  • Be cautious about what you share on social media

Besides trying to contact you directly, some scammers may hack into social media accounts to get personal information.

Double check your cash

On Oct. 13, Green Bay police released a statement alerting the community of the frequent use of counterfeit cash in the area.

“Within the last six weeks, fraudulent U.S. currency has surfaced in seven cases with denominations ranging from $1 to $100 in the City of Green Bay,” a news release stated.

The department had confiscated $1,022 of counterfeit cash that some suspects had attempted be used at places like convenience stores. This counterfeit cash may appear very similar to the real thing, but usually will have “for motion picture use only” written on it.

“We see this frequently throughout the year, where people and businesses have been victims of fake money,” Warych said. “What we’ve seen is, people just take the money and they don’t verify it.

These bills can be easily mistaken for actual currency, and employees may take these counterfeit bills by mistake and give the suspect real cash back.

“Taking a couple extra minutes looking at the currency to see if it’s authentic or not, using one of those pens that determines real currency versus fake currency, will most likely prevent you from being a victim of a (counterfeit cash) crime,” Warych said.

Benoit said Neenah saw some cases of fake money as well, although not as frequently as Green Bay, with only five cases reported in the area since the start of the year.

Benoit said the trouble with counterfeit cash is that it is not illegal to posses the fake money, it’s only illegal to try to pass it as legitimate currency, which can make it difficult to get the bills out of the system.

Victims of scams should always report to the police

Although internet scams can be difficult to solve because technology may allow scammers to spoof their IP addresses, local police still encourage victims to report their experiences.

“It’s very easy if it’s local, and in person,” Benoit said. “For example, if somebody steals your physical credit card out of your purse, and goes to Kwik Trip and goes to Walmart, anything like that is relatively easy for us. Where it becomes very difficult is when you’re dealing with these internet crimes.”

Benoit said that often times, scams perpetuated over the internet come from people located overseas, where U.S. police have no jurisdiction. However, there’s always a chance that police can track the suspect down once the crime has been reported.

“We want them to report all scams to the police anytime a person is a victim of a crime,” Warych said. “We encourage them to contact the police department in their jurisdiction so that we can investigate and determine if we can locate the suspect and hold these people accountable.”

Always contact your financial institution if money is taken from your account without authorization. Local police can work with the bank to get more information on the fraudulent transactions.

The best way to avoid being scammed, however, is to be vigilant.

More:‘Why did I fall for that?’: Oconto scam victim recounts her experience as cautionary tale

More:Where can Wisconsinites pay the least for their Thanksgiving turkey amid nationwide struggles?

Reach Jelissa Burns at 920-226-4241 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @burns_jelissa or on Instagram at burns_jelissa.





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