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Phone Scam

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The money police said a St. James man sent to St. Louis as part of a phone scam. Photo from SCPD

Suffolk County Police worked in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to intercept cash sent by a St. James man as part of a phone scam.

Police said a 79-year-old man received a phone call April 8 from an individual who claimed the man’s grandson had been involved in a motor vehicle crash and subsequently arrested. The caller said the victim needed to send $9,500 in cash to an address in St. Louis to be utilized for his grandson’s bail.

This kind of scam has been used before, where scammers pretend to be a family member needing cash for bail. Scammers often use social media to get facts about the person before calling up family members, usually the grandparents.

The man, who sent the cash via USPS, then spoke with his grandson and determined the call was a scam and called police. Financial Crimes Unit detectives contacted officials at the New York office of the Postal Inspection Service who then contacted officials in the St. Louis office. Postal inspectors intercepted the package prior to delivery and turned over the cash to detectives April 14 to be returned to the victim.

“I would like to commend the efforts of the Financial Crimes Unit detectives who kept an innocent victim’s money from making its way into the hands of a scammer — a result that is not always easy,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said. “We would like to remind people to be alert to scams such as this one, as well as those involving the IRS, Social Security and utility companies. It is also important to be aware of emerging scams relating to COVID-19.”

For more information on scams, visit www.suffolkpd.org.

Police and PSEGLI have been trying to catch scammers pretending to be from the utility company for several years, but the con is still on the rise. Stock photo

Phone scammers have used a number of tactics to get unassuming people to hand over their money, but one con has police and a Long Island utility company especially concerned.

Some scammers have been claiming they are employees of a utility company like PSEG Long Island, and then tell a person their bill is in arrears. They threaten to turn off heat or electricity if they do not receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars, often in the form of a gift card instead of the normal check or direct deposit.

“The elderly might not say anything because they may be embarrassed.”

— Stuart Cameron

Such is what happened to Setauket resident Candy Maeder, who said she was called March 5 by a person claiming to be from the utility company. The man on the phone said Maeder was late on her bills and her service would be shut off in a matter of hours if she didn’t give them hundreds of dollars in cash. She said they would not even take a debit card over the phone.

“I fought with them back and forth,” the Setauket resident said. “At first, I really believed it was them.”

After hanging up the phone, and after talking with her boyfriend and also her electrician, she came to the conclusion it had been a scam. 

That day, she called PSEGLI and the police, but Maeder’s experience is all too common in the modern day — almost textbook with what others have experienced. Suffolk County police has records of the number of reports of phone scams received over the past several years. Records show the frequency of the PSEGLI scam has increased. In 2018, there were 56 reported cases of the scam throughout Suffolk. In 2019, police received 76 reports of scammers claiming they were PSEGLI, where people did not give them money. An additional 55 actually resulted in the scammers stealing money from victims for a total of 131. In January and February of this year, police have received reports of 30 scams so far.

Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron said scammers are always coming up with novel frauds, but the PSEGLI scam has been on the rise. Like many scams, it particularly targets the most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, who particularly can’t afford to be out several thousand dollars as some scammers demand.

“The elderly might not say anything because they may be embarrassed,” he said. “Scammers play on that type of fear and embarrassment to exploit money from those residents who are probably in the worst position to lose money like this.” 

New Jersey-based PSEG has been tracking this scam even before taking over the electric infrastructure portion of LIPA’s business from National Grid in 2014. Robert Vessichelli, the senior security investigator for PSEGLI, said the actual number of people falling for the scam has decreased over the years. In 2019 the utility company received notice of 6,574 scams for the whole of Long Island, where 305 of those fell victim to the scammers. The con artists often ask for as little as a few hundred dollars and up to several thousand. 

“The best way to combat these scams is by educating the public,” Vessichelli said. “When I learn people haven’t heard of the scam, it kind of concerns us.”

Tracking these individuals is difficult, even when scammers are calling locally. While the police chief said they have made some arrests, the suspects often do a process to their phone numbers called “spoofing,” making their caller ID on answering machines appear as a completely separate number, even making it out to look like it was coming from PSEGLI or even police.

The Long Island utility company has been participating in a national campaign to promote awareness of phone scams. Utilities United Against Scams, a U.S. and Canadian consortium of utility companies, ran the campaign during National Consumer Protection Week March 1-7 to promote scam awareness. Vessichelli said the consortium uses its influence to block the numbers of callers they confirm are from scammers, but of course the perpetrators will simply move on to use a different phone number. Sometimes, these calls come from people outside the U.S. 

The scam comes in multiple forms. While often it’s a person on the phone proclaiming a bill is in arrears, con artists also conduct phishing schemes by telling people they are owed money from overpayment and ask for bank account information. They may also call saying they need a deposit for a new meter, though PSEGLI does not charge a deposit for such a thing.

“At first, I really believed it was them.”

— Candy Maeder

One of the more frightening tactics is when charlatans show up in person at people’s houses claiming they are utility employees. When such people come to the door, Vessichelli said its best to call PSEGLI to confirm those are legitimate employees. The security expert suggested if they show ID, ask to take a picture for you to send to the utility to confirm identities.

Warning signs are often readily apparent. If a resident receives a cold call without any prior email or snail mail notifications, that’s usually a bad sign. Another sure sign is if they ask for any nontraditional form of payment, such as asking you to buy gift cards which the person then asks for those to be scratched off, or a payment of cash by drop off or in person. 

These are points often seen across all sorts of scams, so police’s general advice is to not relay any kind of personal information, such as your name or the name of family members or where you live. Scammers often take private information off social media such as Facebook, so if one starts hearing familiar names, don’t take it as a sign they are who they say they are. 

PSEGLI workers are required to wear photo IDs, so in meeting one of these scammers in person, a surefire sign is if they cannot produce such an identification. 

Cameron said if one suspects a caller might be a scam, then one should hang up, get the number where called from and phone PSEGLI at 800-490-0025 or the police at 631-852-2677. For more information, visit www.psegliny.com/scam and www.utilitiesunited.org.

Stock photo

Long Island utility PSEG said residents across Nassau and Suffolk counties have been receiving suspicious phone calls threatening to cut their service if they don’t immediately pay bills that don’t exist.

An alert from PSEG Long Island said both residential and business customers have been receiving calls from tricksters claiming to be employees of the utility company and warning that their electric service would soon be cut if payments are not made to them the same day. Similar scams have been reported across the country, with PSEG being one of the latest to see customers fall victim to them, the utility said in a statement.

It was described as an “old scam with a new twist,” in which scammers spoof PSEG Long Island’s interactive voice response system prompt menu so that when customers call back, they are presented with an interaction that is similar to one they would receive if they called PSEG Long Island’s real customer service line.

“The scammers tell customers that, in order to avoid being shut off, they must immediately pay their bill with a prepaid card that can be purchased at many pharmacies and retail stores,” the utility said in a statement.

Dan Eichhorn, vice president of customer services for PSEG Long Island, said there were striking similarities in each of the scams.

“Scammers ask the customer to give them the number on the back of the pre-paid card and take the money from the card — usually within a matter of minutes,” he said in a statement. “This scam has affected companies across the country. We urge our customers to always use caution when making payments.”

The utility reassured that it would never force a customer to give them the number of a prepaid card, especially with such urgency. In a statement, PSEG Long Island said that suspicious residents should hang up the phone if they receive such a call and call back directly to test the validity of that call.

“When PSEG Long Island makes an outbound phone call to customers, customer-specific information is shared with the customer,” PSEG Long Island said in a statement. “That information includes the account name, address, number and current balance. If customers do not receive this correct information, they likely are not speaking with a PSEG Long Island representative.”

The number on the back of PSEG Long Island customer bills is 1-800-490-0025.

PSEG Long Island said the utility was working with local and national law enforcement to investigate the matter further and is reaching out to its contacts at local community service agencies, asking them to spread the word to their clients.

Expensive tastes
On Sept. 11, Suffolk County police arrested a 25-year-old woman from Bellport and charged her with petit larceny. Cops said on May 19 she stole six Prada and seven Versace sunglasses from Macy’s in Smith Haven Mall in Smithtown. On April 10 they said she stole various items from Victoria’s Secret in the mall. She was arrested at the 3rd Precinct at 3 p.m.

Charging through
Cops arrested a 34-year-old man from Commack on Sept. 9 for intentionally driving a 2013 Toyota Corolla into a framed metal outdoor canopy at 60 Veterans Highway in Commack on Aug. 26 at 4:45 a.m. He was arrested at the 4th precinct at 9:10 a.m. and charged with third-degree criminal mischief for property damage valuing less than $250.

Sunglasses saboteur sacked
Police arrested a 30-year-old woman from East Patchogue on Sept. 9 at the 4th Precinct at around 8 p.m. and charged her with third-degree grand larceny for previous incidents. On June 11 at 5:45 p.m. cops said she stole six pairs of Prada, three pairs of Bulgari and one pair of Tiffany sunglasses from Macy’s in Smith Haven Mall. On May 19 at 8:11 p.m., she stole six Prada and seven Versace pairs of sunglasses at Macy’s.

Unlicensed driving
A 55-year-old man from East Farmingdale was arrested on Sept. 9 and charged with grand larceny in the third degree. Cops said he was driving a Ford F-150 on Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset at 6:30 p.m. with a revoked or suspended license. He also stole a 2003 Keystone trailer at 6:30 p.m. on July 26.

I’m just a teenage dirtbag, baby
On Sept. 12 a pair of Commack teens were arrested and charged with petit larceny. Cops said a 17-year-old man and a 16-year-old woman were arrested at 4:05 p.m. for stealing assorted merchandise from a Walmart in Commack.

Card thief caught
Cops arrested a 50-year-old Central Islip woman on Sept. 13 and charged her with petit larceny for using someone else’s debit card to withdraw money on multiple occasions. Police said the first incident was on July 15 at 1:50 p.m. and the second was on July 20 at 1:48 p.m. She was arrested at 11:05 p.m. at the 4th Precinct.

Bling begone
Two residents from Terri Drive in Smithtown reported a stolen engagement ring and band from their home between 1:30 and 2 p.m. on Sept. 11.

Home ransacked
An unknown person entered a home on Maplelawn Drive in Smithtown and stole assorted items including computers, necklaces, rings, perfumes and colognes between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Sept. 11.

Uphill battle
Police pulled over a 59-year-old Setauket man who was speeding down Route 25A near The Hills Drive in a 2006 Ford on Sept. 13 to find he was intoxicated. He was arrested for driving while ability impaired. It was the man’s first offense.

No toking for you
A 19-year-old man from Miller Place was arrested on Sept. 10 for selling tobacco to a minor. Police said the incident happened on Route 25A in Port Jefferson Station.

Diamond in the rough
On Sept. 13 police arrested a 29-year-old man from Port Jefferson Station for criminal contempt. Police said the man went into the Kohl’s in East Setauket and stole jewelry.

Welcome home
Around 5:45 a.m. on Sept. 12, a 27-year-old man from Brookhaven in a 2002 Ford drove into a house on Michael Court in Centereach. The man was driving while ability impaired and police arrested him at the scene of the crash.

Hit-and-run times two
Police said a 19-year-old female from Farmingdale was arrested for leaving the scene of a Sept. 12 car crash, after the woman was driving along Portion Road in Ronkonkoma and hit two vehicles before fleeing the scene. Police arrested her soon afterward on Route 25A in Selden.

No paz here
A 36-year-old Pennsylvania man was arrested on Main Street in Port Jefferson on Sept. 11 around 4:54 a.m. for criminal mischief, after police said the man broke a window at La Paz restaurant. Police said the defendant is the same man who was found in possession of cocaine and threatened a group of people with a razor blade the day before, but a police spokesperson was unsure if he was arrested that day for criminal possession of a controlled substance and menacing, as it was not documented.

Electrical enthusiast
On Sept. 10, police arrested a 35-year-old man and a 26-year-old man from East Patchogue. They were each charged with petit larceny — the older man after stealing electrical switches and wall plates from the Lowe’s Home Improvement store on Nesconset Highway in Stony Brook, and the younger man when he tried to return the stolen merchandise to the store.

Petrus pants
Police said an unidentified man took a bottle of Petrus Bordeaux wine from Hamlet Wines & Liquors store in East Setauket on Sept. 12, putting the bottle down his pants and fleeing the store on foot.

Unique break
Police said an unknown person broke the front window of Unique Cleaners in Miller Place on Sept. 10 at 4:31 a.m. Nothing was stolen from the store.

Denny’s disappearance
Around 1 a.m. on Sept. 12 a woman reported that she had lost her handbag at the Denny’s in Centereach Mall. The handbag contained jewelry and money.

Disturber of the peace
On Sept. 10 around 4:45 a.m., a man reported that an unknown person had stolen money from his 2013 Toyota, located on Peace Court in Selden.

Giving and taking
Between Sept. 10 at 5 p.m. and Sept. 11 at 8:30 a.m., an unknown person broke into a clothing donation bin and stole clothes. Police said the door of the bin, in a parking lot near Nesconset Highway in Port Jefferson Station, was broken.

Vehicle violation
A woman reported that a rear window on a 2003 Chevrolet Suburban was vandalized on Sept. 13 around 2 a.m. on Maple Road in Rocky Point.

Making a dry clean getaway
Police said an unknown person broke into a dry cleaner on North Country Road in Mount Sinai. The person threw a rock on Sept. 12 at 5 p.m. and broke the front window of the business and stole cash.

Phony caller
An unidentified person on Hearthside Drive in Mount Sinai received a phone call from a scammer on Sept. 8. The person who called the victim wanted money but it was unclear what for.

Roll credits
On Sept. 12 a man and a woman reported that a pocketbook, which contained a Social Security card, was taken from a 2009 Dodge Charger. Clothes were also stolen from the car. Police said the car was parked in the AMC Loews movie theater parking lot on Nesconset Highway in Stony Brook.

One man plus one man equals oh man
Two 22-year-old men were arrested in front of the Paramount in Huntington on Sept.11 for engaging in a fistfight on a public sidewalk, within ten minutes of each other. One man, from Huntington Station, resisted arrest when he was commanded by officers to stop fighting and then refused to place his hands behind his back. He was also found to have marijuana in his possession. He was charged with disorderly conduct, fighting and violent behavior at 11:20 p.m. The other man, from Mastic Beach, punched and wrestled with officers and fled the scene on foot for a short time until police caught up to him. He was arrested at 11:29 p.m. and charged with disorderly conduct, fighting, engaging in violent behavior, and intent to cause physical injury to a police officer.

Slice, slice baby
Police arrested a homeless man on Sept. 12 at 156 Depot Road in Huntington Station for attacking a man with a knife. The man suffered lacerations on his neck and required medical attention at 5:05 p.m., and the attacker was arrested a short time later. The man was charged for assault with intent to cause physical injury with a weapon.

Don’t take me out to the ball game
A 21-year-old man from Huntington Station was arrested on Sept. 11 for an incident police said occurred earlier. On Sept. 6 at 4:10 a.m. on Broadway and Biltmore Circle in Huntington Station cops said he struck a man multiple times with a baseball bat and the victim was taken to Huntington Hospital. He also slashed a second man with a knife. The assailant was charged with assault with intent to cause physical injury with a weapon.

Drive-through
At 7:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, a 26-year-old woman from Huntington Station was arrested for causing damage with her vehicle. She was driving a 2006 Nissan Altima on New York Avenue in Huntington when she struck a parked 2002 Lexus that was unattended. She failed to stop afterwards and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and property damage.

Someone’s not on Nationwide’s side
At Nationwide Insurance on High Street in Huntington on Sept. 10, an unknown person entered the location at 4:00 p.m. and stole two payroll checks.