By Mary O’KEEFE
“Nothing is free,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Matejka from Crescenta Valley Station. He was speaking last week at the Kiwanis Club of La Cañada A.M. about scams and identity theft.
Matejka warned those in attendance to be cautious of offers that provide services or items for free; all they have to do is give up their credit card and social security number.
He went step-by-step down a list of ways people can be victims of fraud.
“It is the up and coming thing [for criminals] to do,” he said.
He relayed a story about speaking with an officer from another area.
“He said that a lot of people seem to be doing [identity theft] instead of residential burglaries. They will [steal money from you] over the phone because it is easier. They don’t have to go into your house and [it] is really hard to trace,” he said.
The deputy has heard many stories about identity theft and fraud.
“I had someone stop me when I first walked in the door [before he started his presentation] and somebody told me she was getting [fraudulent] phone calls,” he said.
He told the audience that there are many ways criminals can try to get money from their victims.
“There are no get rich quick [programs],” he said.
He shared a story of an elderly person who received a letter mail stating he had a relative in Hawaii who had passed away and left him a lot of money. All he needed to do was to send his social security and bank account number and, the letter stated, the inheritance would be sent to him. The man had not grown up in this country and knew he had no relatives in Hawaii, but he still asked his son to check it out.
“I hear [these types of stories] a lot,” he said. “The phone scams [often target] the elderly. The calls come in a little later in the evening when people are tired and not paying attention as much,” he said. “They are really hitting everyone of all ages, though.”
Those who use phone calls to scam will state they are from a variety of agencies including utility companies, police departments and the IRS.
“Have you heard about the phone calls that supposedly come from the IRS and they say they will arrest you?” asked a man in the audience.
Matejka said he has heard of those calls and that the IRS would not call and threaten someone like that.
“And we don’t do that,” he said of deputies coming to someone’s door for debts owed to the IRS.
He also shared a story of another type of scam when a person called an elderly woman claiming she was her granddaughter and had been in an accident and needed money.
“Grandma picked up the phone and heard a young girl crying so she immediately asked, ‘Suzy is that you?’ and now the [scammers] have her granddaughter’s name,” he said.
From that point on the scammers were able to get information because there was a crying girl on the end of the phone. At one point a so-called policeman took the phone to explain the accident. It became very emotional.
Fortunately when the grandma asked what her granddaughter was being arrested for and the fake police officer said drunken driving, the grandma knew immediately it was a scam. Her granddaughter would never drive drunk. So she hung up.
Matejka advised the audience to hang up when in doubt and to call the utility company, IRS or police department to check on the validity of the call.
“Never call the number the [person on the other end of the phone call] gives you,” he said.
Mail theft was another subject the deputy covered. He told the audience the best protection is to get a locking mailbox.
“And if you are going to mail a payment go to the post office or mail it in the big blue U.S. Postal Service boxes,” he said.
Soliciting door-to-door is another concern that Matejka covered. La Cañada requires a permit for anyone soliciting. He advised people to ask to look at a permit and, if still in doubt, call the city or the sheriff’s station.
“I would be very suspicious of letting someone into your house,” he said of solicitors. “What [the criminals] do [is they often travel in pairs] and go into your house, sit down on the couch and one of the guys will ask if they can use the bathroom. We are all nice people so we allow them. So now not only do they get a look at your house as they [walk] to the bathroom but they could take something from a room as they walk by or they can just scope out to see if there is something in your house they should come back for later.”
He added that once in the bathroom the person could go through the medicine cabinet and steal prescription medication.
“And if you hear a knock on the door, we advise you to answer,” he said. “Don’t open the door but tell them to go away and that you are calling the sheriffs.”
He added that several burglaries in the area started with a knock on the door. Suspects would knock on the door to see if the residents were at home. When they do not get an answer they then go to the back, break a window and enter the home. That is why Matejka advised to answer, but not open the door, and to call the sheriff’s.
The main take away from the talk was if there is any doubt when people come to the door or if a call comes in threatening to send law enforcement to place the resident under arrest: do not give anyone personal information, and call local law enforcement.