LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A gray-haired shopper looking through prepaid gift cards at the grocery store might seem like nothing out of the ordinary to most people. But to Metro Sgt. Beth Schmidt, it could be a nightmare in progress.
And if the shopper is talking on a cell phone, it might be time for an intervention.
Schmidt described the scene as she conducted a First Tuesday session at the Metro police Downtown Area Command. There’s a pretty good chance it’s a financial crime in progress, she said. People continue to fall for scams, and older people are often duped by scammers who tell them to buy gift cards and then give them the numbers over the phone. And younger people fall victim, too.
“These guys are really good. They’re master manipulators,” Schmidt said. “Gift cards are cash. We cannot trace that.”
Schmidt says it’s important to notify police of a scam. “Don’t be embarrassed. These are professionals. The sooner police know about a scam, the faster we can address it,” she said.
You’ve probably heard it before: No government agency will ever demand payment over the phone or tell you to pay with cryptocurrency on a Bitcoin ATM. They’ll never ask for prepaid cards.
If you’ve had personal information stolen, you are not alone. Nevada is No. 6 in the nation for identity theft, Schmidt said. The state saw a 200% increase during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are 50,000 reports of identity fraud every month in the U.S. as scammers cast a wide net hoping to find the people who haven’t been tricked yet.
Schmidt said the Metro Financial Crimes Section handles 400 to 500 cases a month. Metro has 20 detectives and five civilian investigative specialists dedicated to solving the crimes.
Police offer some basic tips to avoid scams, but there are others you might not know about. First, the basics:
- If you receive an unsolicited phone call or email requesting any personal information or online account information, hang up the phone and don’t reply. If it seems like the person who is asking should already have that information, you might be talking to a scammer.
- If you get a call asking you for a security code that was sent to your phone, don’t share the code — it’s a scam
- Keep smartphones updated
- Keep computer antivirus software updated
- Use a strong password on all devices — at least 10 characters long
- Review financial statements carefully for discrepancies
- Review your credit report at least once a year
Identity theft is a problem that has changed the way we do things. Opportunistic thieves are out there, and if they haven’t already victimized you, they might be trying. “It’s created an odd culture,” Schmidt said. “People don’t want to answer their phones.”
Beyond that, don’t forget that your mailbox is just as much a target as your cell phone and your computer. Here are more tips related to mail:
- Pick up your mail promptly each day
- Set up online banking and online bill pay whenever it’s available
- Buy a crosscut shredder and shred everything related to your finances when you are done with it.
- Mail your letters from the post office, not your mailbox
- Check with the U.S. Postal service about “Informed Delivery” — a service that sends you a digital preview of your mail each day. That way, you’ll know when something is missing.
Guarding your information
And then there are the horror stories.
Identity thieves use technology to collect information, and you need to be on guard when you’re out there doing everyday transactions. If you haven’t already upgraded to a debit card with a chip instead of a magnetic stripe, try to do it soon. Much of the tech wizardry used by thieves relies on stealing information on older cards.
Sometimes thieves place false faceplates over pay stations. The plates are designed to be very hard to detect, and they steal information as your card is swiped. Some have cameras that record as you put in your PIN. Once thieves have that, they’ve got you.
Metro police suggest tugging on the card reader before using it. If it doesn’t feel solid, it might be a false faceplate.
One way to prevent some of these skimmers from getting you is to simply cover your hand as you type in your PIN.
Another trick: Thieves can insert a device into an ATM to do the same thing. These “skimmers” have been found inside ATMS when techs come out to maintain the machines. If the thieves get it out of the machine before it is discovered, they have stolen information off your card.
These are highly sophisticated devices, usually placed by crews that work for scams that are based offshore, Schmidt said.
Where to report it
If you have been a victim — someone has actually succeeded in stealing from you — contact Metro police by calling the police station near your residence.
If you are the victim of a phone scam, identity theft or deceptive business practice, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov.
Online crimes should be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at IC3.gov.