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Uptick in fraudulent phone calls demanding quick cash

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Victims Phyllis, left, and Bonnie Owens talk with Tigard Police Officer Gabe Stone about their experiences. Neither woman sent money to callers, but police have recorded more than $10,000 in fraudulent transfers since January.It starts with a phone call, a text message or an email.

Someone reaches out to you with a problem. They claim to be with Portland General Electric, or the IRS. Sometimes they pretend to be a loved one in a jam.

In any situation, the statement they make is the same: “I need money. Now.”

It’s a tale told all across the country as scammers swindle thousands of dollars from unsuspecting victims. But after years of seeing local residents lose their money, Tigard Police Officer Kary Bowman is doing something about it.

Since January, Bowman has made it her mission to decrease the number of scams going on every day.

“Until you have this done to you, you don’t realize how hard it is to stop,” Bowman said. “They will continue to call — they have all the information.”

Bowman is working on a plan to keep people from falling for scams.

“We are trying to come up with ideas to prevent and get the word out about not becoming victims,” she said.

Fraudsters are nothing new, said Tigard Police spokesman Jim Wolf. It’s a problem that has lasted for decades: Scammers use a mix of sophisticated technology with age-old tricks to get people to send money or provide people with sensitive information.

“We have to change our game,” said Bowman. “That’s why we are trying to educate and partner with people. It sounds cheesy, but it is what community policing is about.”

Have you been targeted? Call police

If you are called by a scammer — or suspect you may have been called —Tigard Police say the No. 1 thing to do is alert local authorities.

“Even if you weren’t victimized, someone made a genuine attempt to defraud you, and that’s a crime,” said Tigard Police Officer Kary Bowman.

Most often, scammers demand the use of a pre-paid credit card in order to get the situation resolved quickly.

No legitimate business would ever ask for customers to rush out and immediately get a card, Bowman said.

The callers will often pretend to be with utility companies or other agencies and say victims have a limited amount of time to send money before they take action.

“No company is on their way to do anything in that short of a time. Nobody is going to shut off your power or disconnect your phone,” Bowman said. “If someone claiming to be with the IRS is calling and saying you need to pay this before you file your taxes, that’s never going to happen.”

When in doubt, Bowman said, file a police report.

“Nothing needs to happen so quickly that you can’t call us and see if it is legitimate,” Bowman said.

If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, call Tigard Police at 503-629-0111.

‘I was so naive’

When a scam artist called 74-year-old Bonnie Owens in early March, he claimed he was a sheriff’s deputy in Multnomah County and that a warrant had been issued for her arrest after she failed to appear in court.

The “deputy” stayed on the line as Owens went to her bank, withdrew nearly $500 in cash, then went to the Rite Aid on Southwest Scholls Ferry Road to wire the money to him via a pre-paid credit card.

It was only after an employee warned her that the man on the other end of the line was scamming her that she realized her mistake.

“I was so naive,” she said. “Things just weren’t computing for me. I never realized there was something wrong with all of this.”

And she isn’t alone.

So far in 2014, Tigard Police have received 46 calls from local residents who say they were targeted for identity theft and fraud and who wired more than $10,000 to scammers all around the world.

“And those are just the ones we know about,” Bowman said. “That’s nothing compared to what is really going on out there.”

Preliminary data shows scammers target people from all walks of life, said criminal analyst Gayla Shillitto.

“What the data has shown us is that there are several different parts of our city and people that have been effected,” she said. “It is not just the elderly.”

Scammers also target Asian or Latino business owners, or their customers, Shillitto said and Tigard police have seen an uptick in threats of violence.

“They are very violent sounding, and I can see why people would be afraid,” Bowman said. “They have your name, your address, and they threaten to kill your family or have you arrested. People don’t know those people are calling from Jamaica or Costa Rica.”

The schemes scammers use change all the time. Sometimes it’s bogus offers of employment such as secret shoppers or work-from-home. With tax season, scammers pose as IRS agents and attempt to get people to wire them money in order to pay non-existent fines.

“They are very good at convincing you,” Bowman said. “I have had victims lose not just thousands of dollars. I have a man several years ago lose more than $100,000.”

Sometimes the callers claim to be police officers and demand payment for outstanding fees. Other times they pretended to be loved ones in trouble, who need money to post bail or get out of the hospital.

It’s a crime

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard Police Officer Kary Bowman is leading a project to raise awareness of phone and email scams. Tigard Police have heard from dozens of residents about recent frauds, but say there are hundreds more that go undocumented.In the past, Tigard Police haven’t made stopping these types of crimes a priority, Bowman said.

“I am guilty of this, myself,” Bowman said. If someone called to report a fraud, but they didn’t lose any money, she likely wouldn’t have taken a police report at all.

“But they are still a victim,” she said. “Attempted theft is a crime, but we aren’t getting the joy of telling that victim that ‘We’ve got this guy.’”

It’s a change in mindset that Shillitto welcomes with open arms.

“I have been pushing for officers to take reports for five years,” she said.

Tigard Police is working with the Summerfield retirement community to host meetings later this year to educate people about what to do if they receive a fraudulent phone call.

But Bowman wants to do more work with the community at large, and other groups scammers target, such as people with limited English proficiency.

Bowman said working alone, she likely won’t be able to get people’s money back if they do become victims of fraud, but she can help to stop people from being swindled in the first place.

“We are very realistic here, our focus cannot be catching these people,” Bowman said. “It would be impossible. Most of these people don’t live in this country, so the only way is public awareness, keeping people from being victims and educating our officers and the public.”

Bowman and Shillitto are still in the early stage of data collection, but Bowman hopes to have something in place by summer in order to help teach people about scams going on in the community.

“We can’t do everything,” Bowman said. “But worst case scenario is proactive policing, and we are out talking to people in the community. If I have nothing, I have a voice that talks a lot.”

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