By Mary O’KEEFE
Technology is all around and, for the most part, is of great advantage. Bills can be scheduled to be paid online or paid using a Touch ID on a smartphone. This can save consumers a lot of time but this accessibility also provides an opening for those who use technology to tamper with bank accounts – many times without consumers knowing for a long time what transpired.
But it’s not always new technology that has compromised an account. Surprisingly one of the most active forms of identity theft in the Crescenta Valley area recently has been old fashioned mail theft and check washing.
“It’s ongoing. [Criminals] are doing more paper. They are stealing [items] out of mailboxes and washing checks,” said Dep. Eric Matejka of Los Angeles County Sheriffs Dept.-Crescenta Valley Station.
Matejka said the area is not experiencing the phony IRS calls that it had in the past. This is when criminals, pretending to be IRS agents, would call a home and tell residents they owed back taxes. Oftentimes the caller would state that law enforcement would get involved if funds weren’t immediately sent. IRS representatives have stated they do not handle debt in this manner and warned consumers of the scam. These types of scams appear to come in waves.
But there are still high dollar scams out there, Matejka said, including contacting a resident either via email, post mail or phone and weaving a story that they have won the lottery. The problem, scammers will say, is they do not have the ability to receive the multi millions into their account or cannot cash the check because they do not have funds to secure the check. They promise the “target” that they will share with them if only they would help to secure the cash.
“So you borrow against your house to cash this check,” Matejka said.
The check is cashed with victims securing it with their good credit. They then find out later it was all a scam resulting in the victim’s credit being damaged and adding to the home mortgage.
“The key thing is don’t cash checks for lottery tickets,” Matejka said. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is not [real].”
There are several scams that have run through the area, from those posing to be from the IRS to people who sound like they represent a legitimate organization, oftentimes in support of police or fire departments that are actually fake. There have also been criminals who call and tell their victims they owe money on a variety of bills including utilities like gas and electric or credit cards. Many times these criminal callers can be aggressive, threatening legal action or credit damage.
“Identity and financial theft is still a big issue locally and globally. Criminals prey on people who want to trust and believe in the positive side of human nature. These identity criminals count on people wanting to pay any outstanding bills for medical [services] or utilities [or] to support local organizations, even if they have never heard of them before,” Matejka said.
Those who receive these types of calls can contact the alleged agencies to verify its existence. For example, potential victims can tell the person on the phone they were going to check their records and get back to the agency. Then the potential victim can make certain to find the legitimate number for those agencies/organizations and contact them directly. A legitimate worker from the agency will understand the precaution.
Another scam that creates an emotional response is when a so-called relative calls. Many times this involves a grandchild in college or living out of state. Matejka said this type of scam is another example of when criminals depend on the person they are targeting wanting to help a relative who is allegedly in trouble with the law or stuck on a trip without money and just needs a little help.
This type of scam usually begins with an “emergency call” from a relative who allegedly is in trouble. There are often casts of criminal characters posing as a police officer that has either arrested or is helping the relative. The person playing the child/grandchild/friend is usually crying, which helps disguise their voices, and is in desperate need of funds. In one example Matejka uses in his talks to seniors on scams, the elderly woman answers the phone hearing a weeping young woman and immediately calls out her granddaughter’s name. From that point on, it is improvisational theatre for the criminals as they keep their victim worried about their relative’s safety and build on their natural reaction to help. In the case used by Matejka, the grandmother was ready to send money to help until the fake police officer told her that her granddaughter had been driving drunk and needed to be bailed out of jail. At that the grandma said, “My granddaughter would not drive drunk” and hung up the phone. She then called her granddaughter and found she was safe.
Recently many in the area have received a call from their bank or credit card company notifying them that there has been an identity theft issue. This is oftentimes the first they have learned of the issue. This is done many times through mail theft and check washing; that is, taking a check made out to someone and, through the use of specific chemicals, clearing the proper “pay to the order” person and replacing it with another name.
In January a La Cañada resident noticed that her mailbox as well as others along her street were opened. She checked her mailbox and found she had no mail although she was awaiting an escrow check. About 16 days later she received a call from her escrow company telling her that someone had cashed the escrow check even though she had never received the check.
In another local incident in January a forged check was discovered when a resident received a text from his bank asking if he had cashed or had authorized a check to be cashed against his account. He had not. He was able to get a copy of the check that was drawn against his account and he did not recognize the name of the payee on the check but did not authorize any check.
So what can consumers do to protect themselves from identity theft? Below are suggestions from the FBI:
• Never throw away ATM receipts, credit statements, credit cards or bank statements in a usable form.
• Never give your credit card number over the telephone unless you make the call.
• Reconcile your bank account monthly and notify your bank of discrepancies immediately.
• Keep a list of telephone numbers to call to report the loss or theft of your wallet, credit cards, etc.
• Report unauthorized financial transactions to your bank, credit card company and the police as soon as you detect them.
• Review a copy of your credit report at least once each year. Notify the credit bureau in writing of any questionable entries and follow through until they are explained or removed.
• If your identity has been assumed, ask the credit bureau to print a statement to that effect in your credit report.
• If you know of anyone who receives mail from credit card companies or banks in the names of others, report it to local or federal law enforcement authorities.
Other suggestions include having a locked mailbox. If you know you are receiving a large check ask for it to be held at the U.S. Post Office. And if you see something, say something. To contact the LASD CV Sheriff’s Station, call (818) 248-3464 or the Glendale Police Dept. (818) 548-4911.