Investigator offers advice on scams, identity theft

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Brent Ostrander, investigator with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, spoke about identity theft and scams at the Dec. 4 coffee house at Murphy Helwig Library, Monona. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Scams and identity theft—these fraudulent schemes claim over 11.5 million victims in the U.S. each year, with an average loss just shy of $5,000.

“It’s a big business,” reported Brent Ostrander, investigator with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office, who spoke about the practice at the Dec. 4 coffee house at Monona’s Murphy Helwig Library. “If I dealt with every time a credit card was compromised, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I should screenshot all the fraud calls Clayton County gets. It’s amazing to know how many times in a week somebody is trying to steal your money.”

The problem, he said, is that scammers, with the help of technology, are getting smarter and finding more and more ways to obtain individuals’ personal information: full names, birth dates, addresses, social security numbers, bank account and credit card details.

“Anything that identifies you personally can be stolen and used against you,” Ostrander noted.

And scammers and identity thieves don’t discriminate. Race, gender, age, household income—they’re not picky, he stated. “Anybody who’s got money, they will take it.”

Ostrander said he has tracked fraud cases all over the country, from Las Vegas to New York. In the Midwest, authorities have found most domestic scams originate from Chicago, but have increasingly popped up in northern Michigan, near the Canadian border. 

“I was very happy I arrested three guys out of Galena, Ill., who were targeting young girls on dating sites and getting them to send their bank account information,” he shared.

Unfortunately, most fraudulent activity occurs outside the country, making it harder for authorities to locate the perpetrators and obtain restitution, Ostrander confided. The FBI has a minimum threshold before it will offer assistance. 

“We had a compromise to a business account that was under a million dollars, but over half a million,” he said. “That money went to the Bank of China. I did all the tracking I could do, and the FBI said, ‘Love to help you, but we can’t.’”

Criminals have launched a variety of schemes to obtain personal data. Some, like dumpster diving (going through people’s trash) or intercepting mail, are non-tech. 

“Once they intercept the mail on bill payments, they turn that into some kind of payroll check,” Ostrander explained. “They’re issuing checks to themselves and cashing them all over the place.”

“Check forgery is huge right now,” he added. “They’re printing them right in their house. It’s pretty easy; all they have to do is get the account and routing information, and they’re making checks.” 

Other schemes—debit/credit card theft, ATM or gas pump skimming, and phishing (posing online as a reputable company in order to obtain information)—rely on technology. Ostrander said fraudulent phone callers are now using apps to make it appear as if they’re calling from a legitimate, local number. They can continually change the number, allowing them to call you again, even after you’ve blocked them.

“Every few months we get a notification there’s a different scheme they’re using online,” he said. “What we see most often on the internet is the dating service. What ends up happening is somebody gets on a dating service, finds someone they like, and that person gets them to do something compromising—some sort of image or statement. Then they extort them with that image.”

Ostrander said he’s seen victims into their 70s. Sometimes, the information isn’t even compromised. It’s freely given out because the victim trusts the person they’ve met online.

In Clayton County, Ostrander said the lottery scheme is still popular, with residents being contacted that they won a contest they never entered. The catch is, they must pay money to receive their winnings.

Locals also report receiving calls from people claiming to be the IRS, a law enforcement agency or utility company.

The most rampant scam, though, targets the older population.

“It’s a shot to the heart,” Ostrander said, “and it is ‘Your son, grandson, or someone has been arrested and we need money for bond.’ If anybody calls and says that, it is most likely a scam.”

Sometimes, he continued, it’s a single person on the phone; other times, a second person will pose as the grandchild, hoping the victim won’t recognize their voice. 

The scammer likely determined the family connection by looking at the younger individual’s social media accounts. They then call the older person, who’s probably still listed in the phone book, on their land line. For payment, scammers largely request Green Dot or iTunes cards, which they can cash online. But Ostrander said, in one Clayton County case, the scammer told the victim her grandson was in jail in northern Michigan and she needed to send cash via UPS to release him.

“You can’t ship cash through UPS, so she disguises it and says ‘it’s a book I’m sending to my grandson,’” he detailed. “She does this repeatedly until, finally, the light bulb goes off.”

By then, however, she’d lost $43,000.

If you’ve been a victim of a scam or identity theft, Ostrander said the most important thing is not to panic.

“Contact whichever bank or credit card company that has your account immediately,” he said. “They’re going to tell you to report it to the police because you need a report to support your claim. With your help, we can stop what’s going on and help you get on the track.”

“I’m going to do everything I can,” he assured,
“but there’s no guarantees you’re going to get any money back or that we’re going to identify who did this.”

The best way to prevent fraud is to protect yourself in the first place, but Ostrander admits that’s not always possible.

“Half of the victims of identity theft have no idea how their information was obtained. You don’t know it’s going to happen,” he said. “But the vulnerability comes down to our trust and our reckless online usage.”

The first thing, said Ostrander, is to protect your identification and credit/debit cards. The same goes for cellphones, which increasingly contain vital information about people’s lives.

“It’s not so much the cash they’re going to take out of your bag—it’s your information and identity,” he said.

Shred old driver’s licenses, sensitive mail and other personal documents.

Be creative when developing passwords and PIN numbers. Lock down social media sites so scammers can’t discover details about your life that could unlock account security questions.

Monitor your bank accounts and credit usage for unusual purchases.

“Usually, when a card has been compromised, what we see are the first transactions are $1 to $5,” Ostrander explained. “They’re testing the waters. If that clears, now they’re going to step up their game and take more money.”

Don’t engage with questionable emails or phone calls. Do your own research on companies, and contact them directly if you have questions; don’t take a phone number from the scammer. If it’s something legitimate, said Ostrander, you will be contacted in a calm, professional manner.

“If you’re not actively looking for it, just hang up,” he said. “If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. Nobody’s going to give you free money. “

Use good common sense and remain vigilant, stressed Ostrander.

“It makes us vulnerable because we trust too many people,” he said, and people think fraud will never happen to them. “Trust, but verify. Do your own homework and protect what’s yours.”

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