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Scams on rise in PF, county

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | December 9, 2020 1:08 AM

Post Falls law enforcement is warning residents: The bad guys are behind money scams that already this year have deprived local citizens of more than $61,000.

In just 2020, Detective Neil Uhrig of the Post Falls Police Department has investigated about 30 fraud cases. Since the pandemic, Uhrig said he's seen a large increase in unsolicited calls or emails to citizens asking fraud victims to fix a problem by sending large dollar amounts through prepaid gift cards.

Some of the successful prompts he's seen are fake calls from arrested grandchildren, Microsoft support, Amazon shipping, and even a U.S. Marshals scam.

"You think it wouldn't work, but it works really well," Uhrig said. "The scammers that do this spend a lot of time social engineering victims to believe that they are your grandchild, they are in trouble, and they need your help to fix it."

The common thread? Asking victims to send prepared Visa, Mastercard, iTunes, eBay, or even Amazon gift cards instead of real dollars.

Scammers use the cards as currency, selling them on the black market for less than they're worth, turning it into a profit. By quickly auctioning them, the scammer, who is often internationally based, is almost completely untraceable.

"Typically, in every case, the person who stole the money is not the one who used the money," Uhrig said. "In my cases, the numbers I've seen used to call victims are overseas. The top two are from Nigeria and India. I can track the person using the money, but not the person in Nigeria, so literally, your money is gone."

On Uhrig's desk right now are six fraud cases totaling almost $40,000.

  • A call from a grandson in jail who needed $18,300 in gift cards for bail.
  • A U.S. Marshal stating a woman's identity had been stolen, and she would be arrested if she didn't pay $10,000 in gift cards to save it.
  • A $7,000 gift card for Microsoft to fix a computer.
  • A Walmart mystery shopper who was hired to test the company's gift card system by purchasing $1,000 worth of gift cards to be sent back to the supervisor for refund (they were not).
  • A charity impersonation where the victim was asked to provide $1,000 worth of gift cards for this year's fundraiser, and
  • A sextortion scam whether the suspect threatened to release inappropriate photos of the victim if they didn't send $1,000 in gift cards.

A lot of cases don't get reported because people are embarrassed, Uhrig said. However, he's seen a rise in incidences as the holidays and pandemic progress. After the stimulus checks went out, Uhrig said scammers knew money was flooding the market, and they wanted their piece.

"They're making so many of these calls that just by the law of numbers, a few people are going to fall for it," Uhrig said. "The majority of these people are elderly or otherwise vulnerable. The elderly are many high dollar losses, which is sad because it's their nest egg, their life savings."

Uhrig said he's starting to see younger people in the 18 to 20 range become susceptible to fear and lack of life experience. He advises the community and retailers to become more vigilant about these scams because once the money is sent, it's gone forever.

"No. 1 is never send anyone gift cards over the phone or email — ever," Uhrig said. "I can absolutely guarantee no U.S. department or service would accept payment through gift cards.

"Always be suspicious whenever you get a phone call. If not one you were expecting, if you don't know those people, don't be afraid to hang up."

For retailers, Uhrig suggests cashiers have conversations with customers about potential scams, especially if they're attempting to buy upward of $500 on a stack of gift cards.

Members of the community should also be cautious about the telephone or online programs, and if they have questions or concerns to contact law enforcement.

"We have victims all over the county who never report because they are embarrassed or realize nothing can be done, but it's a very prevalent crime we need to stop," Uhrig said.

Info: FBI Internet Crimes Complaints www.ic3.gov, Post Falls front desk 208-773-3517.

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Check out CDA Press Consumer Gal Terri Dickerson every Thursday. Dickerson tracks scams and tells readers how to avoid them.