Woman loses thousands in scam

Officials: Law enforcement warns residents that agencies do not take gift cards

Columbus police are warning local residents not to fall for a phone scam which led a local woman to lose several thousand dollars after she thought she received a call from a U.S. Homeland Security agent.

During the phone call, the victim — who was not identified — was instructed to go to a local grocery store and purchase several thousand dollars in iTunes gift cards, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

The individual, who claimed to be a Homeland Security agent, told the victim that if she didn’t purchase the cards, she would be arrested and held until her immigration papers were examined, Harris said.

The scammer knew some of the victim’s personal information, including her Social Security number, and was using software which made it appear on the victim’s Caller ID that he was calling from a legitimate Homeland Security phone number.

The victim purchased the cards and provided the personal identification numbers to the scammer so the cards could be activated, Harris said.

Afterword, the victim reported the incident to the Columbus Police Department.

Harris said police don’t believe the scammers are targeting people from other countries who live and work in the area. However, increasingly, “those folks seem to be the focus of these types of crimes,” Harris said.

That’s because many newcomers to the United States may not understand how the legal process works, he said.

“Many of them have worked very hard to get here legally, and are here on a green card or a visa and they might be more apt to believe what they are being told,” Harris said. The scammer most likely doesn’t know the person’s immigration background, but can pick up on concerns about remaining in the country and use that, he said.

“These scammers are so believable,” he said. “They lead people to believe that if you do something incorrectly, you will lose years and years of hard work that was done to stay in the United States.”

Police don’t yet know how the scammer got the victim’s Social Security number, but said having any portion of personal information that is correct is used to build a rapport with the victim, Harris said.

The scammer in this particular case even told the victim specifically which store to go to when buying the iTunes gift cards, he said.

Wiring money, or iTunes gift cards, are now something scammers are using because both are difficult to trace once the money is wired or the cards are activated, Harris said.

Police are reminding local residents that legitimate law enforcement agencies do not accept payment in the form of gift cards, Harris said.

Anyone receiving an unsolicited phone call from anyone requesting payment be made in this manner, or having any questions about the legitimacy of a phone call, should hang up, Harris said. Questions about scams can be answered by calling local law enforcement agencies.

Harris said the Homeland Security scam follows along the lines of the IRS scam, in which an IRS agent calls and says the individual owes money to the government, or a bank representative calling about your account.

“If 10 people hang up the phone, but the next one does what the scammer wants, this will continue,” he said. “We’ve seen rational, professional people in this community fall for these scams,” he said.

Where to call

People who have questions about scams circulating in the area or want to report being contacted can call:

Columbus Police Department: 812-376-2600

Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department: 812-379-1650

Indiana State Police, Versailles Post: 812-689-5000

Where to learn more

For information about the common scams circulating in Indiana, visit: in.gov/attorneygeneral/2350.htm

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.