Scam artists dial up trouble

It seemed like a legitimate message-pay your electric bill immediately or face being disconnected.

That was the message left at the Silver Moon Diner in Vincent in early September, said business owner Stacy Howell.

“When I called back I got a message saying I had reached the American Electric Power Disconnect Office. I thought it was legitimate,” she recalled.

Howell had not received a disconnect notice. In fact she had already sent a check for the current bill and was certain it was not due until the next day.

“They said, ‘If this is the case, you’d be refunded your money.’ They had an answer and a response for everything,” said Howell.

With the looming fear of her power being shut off she went out and bought the MoneyPak cards the callers requested-$960 worth.

It is happening more and more. Scam callers are using scare tactics to pressure individuals into quickly giving up money and information before having time to take note of all the red flags.

A similar tactic was tried on a Marietta couple Monday when they received a message from a woman purporting to be an agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

The woman, who identified herself as Lt. Lynn Taylor, told the callers that they were in trouble for a package they “requested in the past in an illegal way,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Warden.

The couple contacted the sheriff’s office, which then worked with the victims to find out more about the scam. The thieves appear to be targeting people who have traveled out of the country or purchased packages on the Internet, convincing them they accidentally bought or transported something illegal, explained Warden.

“This woman was not shy about telling these people they were going to be arrested unless they paid a fine,” he said.

At one point, said Warden, the scammers could be heard talking in the background in a foreign language. Then they asked for the money to be sent to the Dominican Republic, said Warden.

“The problem is that to me and you, that does seem blatantly suspicious. But people in the moment don’t see that. They just react. They just do what they are told out of fear,” he said.

Scam callers have also been targeting senior citizens, playing on their emotional connections to get a quick payout, said Capt. Jeff Waite, of the Marietta Police Department.

One scam the department has seen from time to time involves telling the victim that his or her grandchild has been arrested and will only be released after a hefty payment has been sent, he said.

“People don’t see their grandchildren as often, especially if they’re off at college. So they assume it could be true,” said Waite.

According to the Better Business Bureau of Central Ohio, changes in the Affordable Care Act are providing another way for criminals to trick people into forking over identifying information.

The scam includes a caller claiming to be from the federal government who promises the victim insurance cards as soon as they provide their bank account and Social Security information, according to the Associated Press.

Scammers have long used phone messages and direct mailings to reel in victims, but now they also appear to be widening the net, said Warden.

“I just think they are becoming more creative with the way technology is. They are reaching out over different media formats,” he said.

One group joining the phone scam trend is computing hackers.

According to the Associated Press, a new scam involves callers claiming to represent Microsoft who will tell callers their computer is infected with viruses and installing a certain application will fix all their problems.

In actuality, the program allows the caller to gain remote access to the person’s computer and all their personal information.

Authorities say callers should always be wary of unsolicited phone calls, especially those involving money.

“Do not give out any personal information, bank accounts, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers,” said Waite.

Instead, hang up and contact the authorities as soon as possible, said Warden.

Howell was able to recover $500 of the money by returning one of the two MoneyPak cards after she became suspicious and contacted the phone company, she said.

Howell suggested hanging up and calling the company directly using a listed number instead of the number you were given.

“Even though they gave me a number, it wasn’t until my husband found a number and called the billing department that we found out it’s a scam,” she said.