More phone scammers impersonating local cops, deputies, court officials, DA’s office says

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AURORA | If you feel like your phone has been receiving more calls from strange numbers recently, you’re not alone.

The number of scammers trying to bilk Coloradans by impersonating officials from either the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office or local courts has risen in recent months, officials from the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office said Thursday.

Barbara Martin-Worley, director of consumer fraud protection for the local prosecutor’s office, said in the past 18 months she’s received more than a dozen official complaints from people saying they’ve gotten calls from supposed Arapahoe County officials demanding money. That uptick spurred Martin-Worley to mention the calls in a monthly consumer advisory email.

Often, the callers identify themselves as either captains or deputies from the sheriff’s office and present an ultimatum: pay money or face a warrant for arrest. Some callers also claim respondents have missed jury duty and must pay immediate penalties. 

“These are typically scare tactic scams where they ‘spoof’ the caller ID,” Martin-Worley said. “They typically say, ‘this is the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and this is Captain So-And-So or Deputy So-And-So.”

Deborah Sherman, spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency’s dispatch unit receives five or six calls a day from people claiming they’ve just received a call from the sheriff’s office asking for money. Sherman said the scammers sometimes use the names of real deputies or captains from the department in the ruse.

“We have to tell people: we would never do this, this is scam, do not respond to these people,” she said. “Hang up, don’t fall for it, don’t engage.”

Sherman said the sheriff’s office would never threaten to immediately execute an arrest warrant in lieu of receiving a fine payment.

“That doesn’t happen,” she said. “We don’t do that.”

Martin-Worley said she urges people to let the calls go to voicemail as most scammers won’t leave a message. If there is a message with a specific phone number or county department mentioned, she said she encourages residents to verify the department phone number online at co.arapahoe.co.us or by calling County Customer Services Representative Leslie Cannon at 303-795-4400.

Martin-Worley said the worst case she’s received in recent months was from a man in Brighton who stayed on the line with phony Arapahoe County Court officials for more than an hour. In that time, he purchased pre-paid debit cards, read the caller the card numbers over the phone, and drove to the courthouse after being told he owed money for missing jury duty. 

Stories like that can be a common occurrence in Colorado and across the country, particularly for older people who are less-educated on scam trends, Martin-Worley said. She said she gives regular presentations and issues monthly consumer advisories to organizations targeted at older people in an effort to educate that more vulnerable population.

“This whole thing is predicated on keeping older people safe,” she said. “I think that’s the audience we’re trying to emphasize.”

The most common scam call is still from people claiming to be debt collectors, Martin-Worley said. She said callers often claim people owe student loan payments, IRS penalties and credit card debt.

Martin-Worley said she receives about 15 reports a month from people who say they’ve received a flimflam call from someone claiming they owe a debt.

She said the proliferation of scam and robocalls can in part be attributed to the disappearance of landlines and better technology for scammers. In the past, scammers would simultaneously call five people at once, speak to the first person who picked up, then ditch the other four calls. Now, with the emergence of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, scammers can call thousands of people at once. 

“When we went from analogue to digital, it really kind of changed the landscape regarding the number of calls that could be made,” Martin-Worley said. 

The total number of consumer fraud complaints in the U.S. dropped between 2016 and 2017, but consumers still lost more money in the second of those two years, according to the most recent national statistics compiled by the Federal Trade Commission. People lost more than $900 million through scam calls in 2017, with the median loss clocking in at $429, according to the FTC.

Tracking and prosecuting those scammers has proven to be an arduous task, according to Martin-Worley, who said local district attorneys typically can’t go after large-scale phone scam organizations.

“Primarily, (I issue) fraud alerts on cases we can’t prosecute because they either don’t meet the criminal standard or another agency would do that,” she said. “Phone call scams we can’t touch because the FTC is the reporting party.”

The FTC encourages people who believe they’ve been scammed to report the incidents by either visiting FTC.gov or calling 1-877-382-4357. Still, Martin-Worley said a large number of people have to report a scam for the federal government to be able to successfully investigate it. 

Those tactics are part of what helped the FTC bust the massive IRS call scam based in Mumbai, India in 2016. But call centers based in countries with less-friendly diplomatic relations with the U.S. than India can be much harder to track, Martin-Worley said.

“We have no jurisdiction in another country, and it depends on the relationship we have with these governments,” she said. 

That morass only adds to the ever-growing cat-and-mouse game, according to Martin-Worley.

“We’re a long way from seeing a fix,” she said.

In the meantime, Martin-Worley said, there are several tips to keep in mind when receiving a call from a suspicious number or a person suspected to be a scammer. 

  • Be wary of early morning or late-night calls as legitimate debt collectors cannot call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
  • Ask callers for identifying information as legitimate debtors are required to provide their name, address, company, phone number and professional license number upon request.
  • Call out profanity — collectors are prohibited from using “vulgar or harassing language,” according to the DA’s office.

And if you actually do owe a debt and believe you are receiving a call from a legitimate debt collector, don’t provide any personal or financial information. Ask for a “validation note” in writing that includes the creditor’s name and debt owed, Martin-Worley said.