Wednesday, 14 December 2016 07:26

For phone scammers, tis the season


When local grandmother Marjorie Haffner recently received a call from one of her grandkids, she knew something was up.

She had dealt with this before.

“The voice didn’t sound like one of our grandsons,” Haffner said. “He said, ‘Grandma, write this down,’ and I asked him, ‘Who is this?’ He said, ‘Who else would be calling you grandma?’”

What the caller didn’t know is Haffner has 16 grandchildren.

“I told him I wouldn’t write anything down until he identified himself,” Haffner said.

That’s when he hung up.

Haffner believes the man was a phone scammer: strangers have impersonated her grandchildren before, often asking for money. Usually it’s a little more sophisticated.

“They just must think we are all ignorant,” she said.

It’s one of the busiest times of year for phone scams, even in Alaska. Andrea Jacobson, an investigator with the Alaska State Troopers Financial Crimes Unit, estimates that Alaskans are targeted by around 15 phone scams a month, though “numbers could be way higher than that. Some people are embarrassed to report that they’ve been scammed.”

Jacobson said she’s not sure if it’s seasonal, but there’s definitely been an uptick in phone scams targeting Alaskans in the past two years, especially on landlines owned by the elderly.

“It’s a national, widespread issue right now, it’s huge,” Jacobson said. “They definitely target the elderly.”

Haffner has received several of these calls in the past couple of years, most of them during the holidays. Other schemes have been more convincing.

“One guy said a grandkid was in jail. He was asking for money to help get him out,” Haffner said. “He knew the name of one of our grandkids, but when I asked him his middle name, he gave me the first name of my husband, which was the wrong answer.”

Another caller claimed a grandkid was hurt, and the Haffners needed to send money to help with his recovery. That caller hung up as soon as Haffner said she was recording the call.

“Some of them are pretty sharp,” Haffner said. “But we’ve never been taken in by any of them.”

Recently, the state is dealing with at least two widespread phone scams. One, believed to be a money laundering scheme, has callers impersonating the Publishers Clearing House. According to Jacobson, one Alaskan lost $100,000 to this scheme. Another, an 85-year-old cancer patient, lost $25,000.

“They’re picking on people who are particularly vulnerable to these scams for various reasons, sometimes they have an ill relative or they’re in a situation that they really need the money,” Jacobson said. “People want to believe so badly that they’ve won.”

In this case, fraudsters will use a call masking technology which allows them to appear as a local numbers. Jacobson’s partner did some digging on one of these calls, finding they used a phone service called Twilio to temporarily buy a local 907 number.

In another widespread scam (Jacobson cited reports in seven different Alaska cities, including Juneau) fraudsters impersonate Alaska State Troopers, claiming they need payment to keep victims out of jail.

Callers in these cases will often demand targets buy store bought credit cards from major retailers, and call back with the confirmation number. Jacobson said these scammers will ask that you call them “every step of the way” to ensure you’re following through — and not second-guessing — their demands.

Jacobson said it’s common, like in Haffner’s case, for callers to instill a sense of urgency in their targets by making up a desperate story. The first thing to do is get off the phone and verify some information.

“They usually make it sound pretty realistic. There are some variations: kidnappings, in jail, broken down in a foreign country,” Jacobson said. “In these cases the most important thing to do is get off the phone and call whomever they say is in trouble, often that will sort everything out. If they are claiming they have an arrest warrant, call the local trooper station. If they are claiming to be a grandchild, call that grandchild.”

The important thing is to get off the phone and don’t let a caller’s sense of panic push you to give them money, Jacobson said.

The next step is to report the call to your local police department.

In addition, the Financial Crimes Unit encourages people to report to the Federal Trade Commission at or 877 382-4357.

The AARP also has a fraud network. That can be reached at or toll free at 800 646-2283. Callers don’t have to be AARP members to call.

Jacobson said to look out if you’re on a landline as these numbers are easier for scammers to obtain than cellphone numbers. The elderly are the largest remaining demographic of landline owners, making them particularly vulnerable.

In addition, Jacobson cautioned people to keep track of the information they post on the internet. Scammers can put this to good use in impersonating law enforcement or family members.


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