California resident Ilene Matheny's adrenaline started pumping just seconds into answering the phone call last month — a voice wracked with sobs spoke to her on the other line, panicked and asking for help.
The voice said it was her granddaughter — Matheny was immediately concerned. The phone was quickly handed off to an individual telling Ilene her granddaughter was in prison, and she needed to send money for her bail right away. She was given specific instructions — for one, to send $16,000 in cash in a shoebox. Matheny took notes as she listened, with as much detail as possible.
When she got off the call, she tried calling her daughter, a teacher, and was met with a voicemail message, as she expected during the work day. Both family members live in Texas — as a result, Matheny didn't think she had any other way to check whether things were OK since she thought her granddaughter was detained and unable to answer herself if she called. Luckily, before taking any action to send money, Matheny took her concerns to the California Police Department, who helped her to verify the call was actually a scam by getting in touch with her granddaughter.
Now, Matheny hopes her experience can serve as a cautionary tale for others to avoid falling victim to a phone scam.
CPD Officer Casey Shelton said in Matheny's case, scammers will look at things like accident or arrest reports or other public records and look into the names there for any information on potentially vulnerable family members who live out of state. Matheny's granddaughter had been in a car accident that resulted in an accident report, and Shelton said it was likely these particular scammers were able to connect the dots in her family relations via this information and further research on the internet, perhaps through her family's social media channels.
There are some immediate red flags to look for in calls like the one Matheny experienced — namely, anytime the phone is handed off to another party. Another warning sign of a scam call could be a caller instructing a victim to send money in such a way as Matheny was told to, or via formats like a Green Dot card or Western Union money order.
Another popular scam, Shelton said, involves fraudulent contact from the IRS. Scammers even send official-looking letters in the mail, she said. Shelton recommends looking up a local number for the IRS and calling there first to verify claims received via scam calls and letters.
In the case of the elderly, apparent contact from the IRS should be a red flag by itself, Shelton said.
"A lot of times, elderly people don't have a taxable income, so they wouldn't be filing taxes anyway," Shelton said. "There would be no reason for them to get that notice in the mail, so when they get one, of course they'd get worried."
For retirees or individuals on social security or disability, Shelton said these do not qualify as taxable income and wouldn't result in any contact from the IRS giving them a warning of impending arrest. She said in these cases, that warning serves as a scare tactic to motivate victims to send money.
To avoid falling victim to any of the above tactics, Shelton said there are a number of steps to take. If calling back a number and asking what agency they're with results in a hang up or lack of an answer, that's an immediate indicator of a scam caller.
Shelton also recommends staying calm, keeping a level head and, in the same way Matheny did, listen closely and record as much information as possible.
"If somebody's on the phone crying and screaming, I know that can be a bit frazzling, but try to just keep your head and immediately when you hang up, do your research," Shelton said. "Call your loved one, make sure they're OK. Ilene didn't do that — she went immediately and got scared, but that happens."
While Shelton had plenty of advice to avoid phone scams, she said the best entity for victims to take their concerns to isn't their local police department — while a local PD can't pursue scam complaints over state lines, especially if a victim hasn't actually forfeited any money to a scammer, other entities in the state and nation can. Shelton recommends reporting scam calls to the Attorney General's office at ago.mo.gov/civil-division/consumer/consumer-complaints. Shelton said the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, at ic3.gov, is also a resource victims can use to report contact from scammers.