A range of phone scams have been reported in Palo Alto in recent weeks, including people posing as Internal Revenue Service agents, police officers or utilities department employees, demanding payment in suspicious ways. In one recent case, a woman was bilked out of nearly $28,000, Palo Alto police said.
On June 4, the Palo Alto Police Department issued a warning against two phone scams taking place in the city. Residents received calls twice during the last week of May from an official-sounding man who identified himself as a police officer. In both cases, the scammer claimed the residents had missed a jury duty appearance and now had outstanding $1,000 warrants for their arrest.
The scammer said they needed to go to a 7-Eleven convenience store, obtain two $500 "Green Dot MoneyPaks" -- reloadable debit cards -- and then provide the identifying number on the back of the card. One of the residents did this, purchasing one $500 card that the scammer could then access remotely. The resident then became suspicious and notified police. The other resident recognized the scam right away and called police.
In both cases, the residents were in their 60s or 70s. It is unknown at this point if the scammer was intentionally targeting older individuals, or if that was merely a coincidence between these two cases, police said. Detectives are investigating.
Sgt. Rich Bullerjahn said the arrest-warrant scams have risen in Palo Alto in the last few weeks. The victim is told they must pay bail or a fine, but they don't need to go to the courthouse.
"All you have to do is put a debit card together" and put it in the mail or supply the identification number, the caller says.
"No government agency that I know of in the U.S. asks you to pay over the phone or email by debit card," he said. Police officers never solicit cash from residents over the phone to take care of an outstanding warrant.
This is, unfortunately, a common scam nationwide. Similar cases have recently been reported in Pleasanton and elsewhere in the Bay Area, police noted in an announcement.
Scammers have also targeted local utilities customers and businesses with foreign-sounding last names who may speak limited English, calling to demand payment for overdue utilities bills, city Utilities Department spokeswoman Debra Katz said in a June 5 statement.
In this scam, the caller threatens to shut off power if the resident or business does not pay immediately. In the latest iteration, calls were rigged so that the City of Palo Alto Utilities Customer Service number, 650-329-2161, shows as the caller ID to make the call seem legitimate.
"This number is being used for calls into East Palo Alto as well, so PG&E customers there are calling us as a result. Yesterday, one such resident told us she'd just paid $300 (via MoneyPak) in response to a call. Needless to say, she will never see that money again," Katz wrote in the June 5 statement.
Katz said that "Nobody's power would ever be shut off out of the blue like this," and that when a customer is overdue on a utilities bill, the department sends several warning notices by mail and hand delivery before calling.
"If a person has any doubt about a call being legitimate, they should hang up and then call us, or PG&E if they live outside Palo Alto, directly to verify whether there are outstanding charges," she added.
The utilities department is urging people to warn family, friends and neighbors, especially if they are recent immigrants or have limited English language skills, which makes them easier prey, Katz said.
One Palo Alto woman recently fell prey to a third scam involving a fake Internal Revenue Service agent and lost $3,000, according to Palo Alto police.
The resident, who is in her 50s, received a call on June 6 from a man who said he was from the IRS. The man said she owed $3,000 and needed to pay the full sum that day; she could avoid consequences if she acted quickly. He instructed her to purchase six different MoneyPaks for $500 each, police Agent Marco Estrada said.
After purchasing the cards, the woman returned the scammer's call and provided the card numbers to the man. After she hung up, she realized she might have been scammed and called police, but it was too late. The man had promptly cashed out the cards, Estrada said.
A second Palo Alto woman in her early 60s was scammed out of nearly $28,000, also on June 6, Bullerjahn said.
The scammer calling from a 202 area code claimed that an IRS audit showed tax error for the years 2000 to 2008, and the woman owed the federal government money, When the woman protested, the caller threatened her with arrest. The scammer then emailed the woman a fake arrest warrant, Bullerjahn said.
The frightened woman thought the arrest warrant might be real, since the caller knew her name, two phone numbers and her Google account address. She followed the caller's instructions to send $4,000 on reloaded debit cards. But that was not the end.
"Like any scam, they make up other stuff," Bullerjahn said.
The caller said they found other errors and had miscalculated what she owed. After three more transactions the woman became suspicious and called police. Investigators looked up the phone numbers and found they were unlisted. Further investigation revealed the are numbers widely used for phone scams, he said.
The scammers often target middle-aged or older people, who often have other things on their minds and, in Palo Alto, tend to have enough money that the sums being asked for don't raise a red flag, he said.
The IRS scam has become fairly common this year, he said. Suspects typically call from other countries, and it is very difficult to track the culprits down and recover the money.
"They try a bunch of different numbers all over the place. If one falls for it, they make money just like that. If you make a lot of phone calls and you've got $3,000 from one, that's a great day for you," Estrada said.
The IRS does not contact taxpayers by phone or email, according to the IRS. The agency always sends a written notification of any tax due through U.S. mail. The IRS does not initiate contact by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages or social media channels.
The IRS does not ask for PINs, passwords or similar confidential access information for credit card, bank or other financial accounts. Recipients should not open any email attachments or click on any links contained in a message. Instead, they should forward the email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
IRS officials issued multiple warnings prior to this year's April tax-filing deadline, but the number of reported incidents continues to rise, they said.
The IRS says that scammers often target recent immigrants, who are threatened with deportation, arrest, having their utilities shut off or having their driver's licenses revoked. Callers are frequently hostile or insulting, apparently trying to scare their victims, according to an IRS bulletin.
The scammers use fake names and badge numbers and generally use common names to identify themselves. They are also often able to recite the last four digits of the victim's Social Security number.
Many spoof the IRS toll-free number on caller ID to make it appear as if the IRS is calling and sometimes use bogus emails to support their phone calls.
Victims sometimes hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site.
After hanging up, others call back pretending to be from the police or Department of Motor Vehicles. The caller ID of those agencies is also spoofed, making it seem legitimate, according to the IRS.
Other scams also purport to be from the IRS, such as lottery sweepstakes and debt-relief solicitations, according to the agency.
There are several ways to report these scams:
Anyone who thinks they might owe tax money and receives a call from someone claiming to be the IRS should call the IRS at 800-829-1040. Employees can help taxpayers with a payment issue if they do owe money.
If a taxpayer knows they don't owe anything or have no reason to think they owe money, they should report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484. The taxpayer should also contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their "FTC Complaint Assistant" at FTC.gov. The IRS instructs people to add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments in the complaint.
Residents who receive such calls from scammers pretending to be police or utilities employees should note the number from which the call originated, hang up, and notify the Palo Alto Police Department immediately by calling the 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413. Victims should also call the dispatch number to file a report, police said.