Fighting fraud: A Steamboat detective’s top tips to avoid scams this holiday season
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With holiday shopping season underway, a detective with the Steamboat Springs Police Department is trying to help the public avoid credit card fraud and other scams.
Such crimes, often perpetrated by criminals from outside the state or country, can rob people of thousands of dollars, which is almost impossible to recover.
During the last few weeks, Detective Sam Silva has given three presentations in Steamboat to teach people how to recognize and avoid such scams. His first tip: “If it sounds too good (or bad) to be true, it probably is.”
As he explained, many scams are easier to spot in hindsight or from an outside perspective. For example, the IRS does not take iTunes cards as payment for missed taxes, but getting a surprise call from someone claiming to be with the government and threatening legal consequences causes people to make rash decisions.
Scammers take advantage of victims’ fears or desires in a way that makes them act in irrational ways, Silva said. Another common scam involves telling victims they have won a lottery or contest, but they have to pay a fee or tax before receiving the prize.
“The idea of having a million dollars is so tempting, it forces out the logical side of the brain,” Silva said. “Victims feel almost embarrassed to report anything.”
His presentation educates people on these and other common scams, as well as more nuanced and sophisticated ones. A case he is investigating involves criminals hacking into a local business’ email and gaining access to its list of customers.
The scammers then emailed invoices to those customers, requesting money for services the business had performed. According to Silva, the email the scammers used appeared to be a replica of the business owner’s email — only one letter was different.
- If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
- Don’t hesitate to hang up on suspicious calls.
- Don’t be rushed. Take time to verify and research. Don’t be pressured or bullied into sending money. Scare tactics are a sign of fraud.
- If you have information or suspicions about a fraud, report it to law enforcement.
- Never be afraid to ask others, such as law enforcement, bank staff, friends and family, for advice prior to sending money.
- Never send money orders to anyone you don’t know, especially to a foreign country.
- You cannot win a prize to a contest you did not enter.
- Never give your credit card number or Social Security number over the phone unless you make the call.
- No legitimate business accepts gift cards or nonmonetary payments.
- Review a copy of your credit report at least once a year.
Source: Detective Sam Silva, Steamboat Springs Police Department
“There was hardly any reason you would suspect it (as being fraudulent),” Silva said.
In the end, the business lost thousands of dollars in the scam. Silva is still investigating the case, but he said the chances are slim he can recover the stolen funds.
“Once the money leaves the country, it’s nearly impossible to track,” Silva said.
During his career, Silva said he has solved about two cases of fraud out of dozens that came across his desk.
A notable success occurred about two years ago, when Silva was able to convict four people staying in Steamboat of transferring stolen money from scams to India. None of the victims of those scams were locals, according to Silva, or even Colorado residents. The perpetrators were students from India staying in Steamboat on a visa, Silva said.
During the holiday shopping season, when people purchase gifts as well as make charitable donations, certain scams become more prevalent, according to Silva. He advises people to take some simple steps to avoid falling victim to online crime, such as using a credit card, which offers more protections for purchases. If an online store demands strange forms of payment, such as gift cards, that is a red flag, according to Silva.
“No legitimate business or government entity accepts iTunes cards or Google gift cards,” he said.
Silva also recommends people research the charities to which they want to donate ahead of time to make sure they send money to a legitimate organization.
Lawmakers have taken some recent steps to protect people’s information online.
On Tuesday, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet joined 14 other senators in proposing the Data Care Act, which would require online companies and apps to safeguard people’s data and prevent misuse or hacks. Sites that do not take steps to secure people’s data would be subject to fines under the proposed legislation.
If people do fall victim to a scam, they should contact local law enforcement, Silva said. He discourages people from trying to contact the scammers on their own.
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