By Jason KUROSU
The Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station recently hosted a community seminar on common scams, fraud and identity theft, crimes regularly committed against residents in suburban neighborhoods such as those in La Crescenta and La Cañada Flintridge
Held Thursday night at the Lanterman Auditorium in La Cañada, the seminar was hosted in conjunction with the Community Advisory Committee, which works with the sheriff’s station on identifying key crime-related issues in the community.
Deputy Eric Matejka and Detective Roger Burt discussed several examples of fraud and identity theft committed against La Crescenta and La Cañada residents, many of whom were senior citizens. These crimes are committed over the phone, the Internet and in person via door-to-door solicitors.
The cardinal rules imparted by Matejka during the seminar were “just hang up” and “your home is your castle,” as gaining access to a person’s property, or even their time over the phone, is the first step towards a potential theft.
Matejka said that illegitimate solicitors who gain access to a person’s home will often case a person’s home in order to return later, after obtaining knowledge of the home’s layout and potential security measures. These crimes have been committed locally by fraudulent salespeople and tree trimmers, Matejka said.
Solicitors must have applied for and received a solicitation permit from the city and may only solicit between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. In the case of intrusive solicitors with the right permits, Matejka recommended contacting the sheriff’s station or city hall to ensure solicitation permits are not reissued to those individuals.
Mail theft is another common issue, particularly with packages dropped off on front porches. Matejka said measures to reduce these crimes have been effective, however. Mail thieves will often simply follow mail carriers on their routes and pick up packages along the way, though as these thefts have become more common, coordination between mail carriers and police have mitigated the prevalence of these types of mail thefts, according to Matejka.
But where scams have grown tremendously in terms of complexity and anonymity on the part of the criminal is the Internet. Fake websites, suspicious emails and requests for personal information typify attempts at identity theft committed online.
Matejka recommended being aware of any website demanding personal information, emails with generic greetings (‘sir’ or ‘madam’ rather than a full name), or messages that threaten fines, closures of bank accounts, etc. in lieu of sending money or disclosing personal information.
Many are susceptible to threats in particular, as thieves will pose as law enforcement or the IRS, with threats of criminal penalties if the victim does not share certain information.
“The IRS does not call you and demand payment for anything,” said Matejka, who also shared stories of faux police officers demanding bail money be sent for family members in jail, or even to prevent the arrest of a victim or victim’s family members.
“We’re not going to call you and tell you we’re coming to arrest you.”
Matejka said that identity thieves are generally difficult to catch as their base of operations often is a state or even country removed from the victim and charging criminals who could be across the ocean is simply not financially feasible.
Another hurdle in tracing money involved in these crimes is the use of prepaid debit cards, such as Green Dot cards or Moneypak cards. Money is sent from victims to temporary accounts set up on prepaid cards where the money can be withdrawn without any ties to the card owner.
Matejka recommended that victims of identity theft contact credit agencies to put fraud alerts in their name so that extra hurdles are put in place to keep thieves from opening bank accounts in victims’ names, making purchases, etc. Fraud alerts can be obtained for a variety of time periods, from 90 days to several years.
No measures against potential theft are foolproof, but Matejka and Burt urged residents do whatever they could to “hedge their bets” and mitigate these crimes.
Burt said that the best thing residents could do was look out for one another, as fraud could be going on unchecked, particularly with people living alone, with little contact with family members or neighbors.
“As a service to this community, I challenge each and every one of you to make it your business to know your neighbors,” Burt said. “These people need some help. You may see them on the street and you know they live by themselves. A lot of these people have fallen victim to these scammers.”
According to Sgt. Cynthia Gonzales of the CV Sheriff’s Station, future seminar topics may include narcotics, Internet crimes, and bullying.