By David Luces
Suffolk County police and elected representatives are saying if you think the person on the other end of a phone call may be a scam, hang up as quickly as possible and call the authorities.
According to Suffolk County officials, 2018 has seen a steady increase of telephone and digital scams, especially those targeting the elderly and non-English speakers. In 2018, there were 68 incidents reported, and the largest amount of money taken was $800,000 between 2017 and 2018. Of the 68 victims, 40 were elderly.
“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery.”
— Steve Bellone
In 2019, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scammers looking to fraudulent gain access to financial information, according to a report from telecommunications firm First Orion.
At a press conference Jan. 4, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the trend is alarming.
“Simply put, this is the 21st century definition of highway robbery,” Bellone said. “These scammers are targeting a vulnerable group of people.”
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the median loss people experienced from a phone-based scam in 2017 was $720.
Bellone said thieves will sometimes call victims using an automated message to demand money or threaten to call the local authorities.
“Our message to the public is to not give personal financial information when someone is calling you over the phone,” Bellone said.
Suffolk County Police Department chief Stuart Cameron said these scammers call threatening to stop certain utilities, claiming bills were unpaid. With tax season close by, Cameron cautioned the public to be on the lookout for scams mentioning the IRS as well.
“They also call claiming a relative is seriously injured or in danger,” the chief said.
It is difficult to hold these scammers accountable because most are either out of state or out of the country and are using technology to mask their identity.
Cameron said payment is usually requested through gift cards.
“No government agencies are going to ask for gift cards,” Cameron said. “If you get a call like this, call law enforcement.”
Bellone mentioned that many of these crimes go unreported because victims feel embarrassed or simply ignore the calls.
“We are trying to do everything we can to protect residents from these scams,” the county executive said.
“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself.”
— Geraldine Hart
At the press conference Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also informed the public on five robberies — one as recent as New Year’s Eve — involving the LetGo app, a digital marketplace that allows users to buy and sells items locally on their phones.
Four out of the five robberies involved meeting up to purchase an iPhone, according to Hart.
“In every case we are going to tell people if they are utilizing an app like LetGo to please do it in a public place, meet in daylight hours and don’t go by yourself,” Hart said. “Make sure you can verify the seller.”
A majority of the robberies occurred in the Mastic Beach area beginning in August 2018. During that month, a victim arranged to sell a cellphone to someone outside a home in Mastic Beach at 10 p.m. The suspect took the phone and told the victim he would return. The suspect fled into the backyard and never returned with the money.
On Nov. 30, a suspect and a victim agreed to meet to sell an iPhone. The suspect showed an iPhone in a box and the victim gave him $400. The suspect told the victim he had to get a SIM card and fled through a backyard and onto an adjacent street.
The most recent incident occurred at the Mastic-Shirley train station. The victim gave the suspect money and was pushed to the ground. When the victim attempted to follow the suspect, a second man threatened to shoot him.
“Thankfully no one was seriously injured,” Hart said.
The suspects involved appear to be connected to all five robberies and got away with several thousand dollars.
Officials said if residents have information on phone scams and the robberies to call 800-220-TIPS (8477).