HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Scam stories can be sad and alarming. There was a woman who lost her entire life savings to scammers and took her own life. A Limestone County couple had their account cleared out by a con artist pretending to be from their bank.
You might think you’re too savvy to fall for such a scheme, but thieves are constantly using new tactics and finding ways to fool even the most skeptical people.
Charles Brock, a Limestone County resident, is retired from the Alabama prison system and after decades on the job seeing inmates trying to run different scams, he thought he could spot one a from a mile away. But he ended up being targeted by an elaborate operation.
“I’m embarrassed as to what happened, but I think it’s more important for people to understand that they’re getting a lot better at what they’re doing,” Brock said.
He got a call from a representative with his bank, Redstone Federal Credit Union, about fraudulent charges on his debit card. When they asked for the last three digits on the security code on the back of the card in order to cancel it, Brock thought something was off so he hung up.
"I called back to the number they had called from, which I knew was the Redstone's fraud department since we'd had an issue several months earlier. It went through the Redstone prompts and when the voice came in, it was the same individual. Foolishly, I gave him the last three numbers because the card was cancelled and I was talking to the bank and I didn't see anything wrong with that," Brock explained.
But the representative wasn’t with the bank. He was a scammer. They had faked the bank telephone prompt system and spoofed the bank’s phone number to fool customers. They also already had a lot of Brock’s personal information so when he provided the security code for the card, they had what they needed to start taking money out of the account he shares with this wife.
"They can take the telephone number they want you to see and with an app, it'll look like that number. So when you call it back, you're calling that number, but it's going to the bad guys," Brock said. "My wife works overtime at the prison. She's been there more than 20 years. She working overtime and getting ready to retire and they cleared all of that out."
The scammers appeared to be working as a team. Brock's debit card numbers were copied onto a fake card and used to buy money orders at a Publix in Montgomery.
“They had made the actual debit card and a drivers license with my name and information on it, but with their picture. So they’re taking it one step further. They can make whatever they want. You can buy all these things to make credit cards on the dark web,” Brock stated.
He reported what happened to the Limestone County Sheriff's Office. From now on, he will not deal with any banking matters over the phone. He will physically go to the bank and discuss it with the staff in person.
“They’ve gotten a lot more efficient at how to hide things from us. You always think these things are going to happen to someone else, but no,” Brock added. “They can get anybody if you’re not aware of what’s going on and you’re not constantly alert to what’s happening around you. If you’re not, they’ll clean you out.”
Kathy Stokes, Director of Fraud Prevention Programs for AARP, says the number one way scammers victimize people is still by the telephone.
"So be very careful when receiving telephone calls and making the decision whether or not to engage," she said.
If you don’t recognize the number, let it go to voicemail. If you do recognize the number, still understand that the call may be spoofed and might not be coming from the number it says it is.
"Constantly be on your guard and engage your inner skeptic. If someone calls you and demands money, especially in the form of a wire transfer or gift card, it's going to be a scam. Hang up the phone and report it," Stokes urged.
She says there are entire cartels built on scams.
The top complaint that the Federal Trade Commission hears from Alabamians are debt collection scams where someone will call you and demand that you have some sort of debt that you didn’t know about. They use fear tactics to try to get you to pay it.
"And it's dangerous because some people give up and they pay when they don't owe anything," Stokes said.
The other scam prevalent in Alabama is the impostor scam, which happens around the country. The scammers take any number of routes to try to get you to part with your money.
"It's always going to be the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service and you owe back taxes or it's the local sheriff's office and you missed jury duty and you have to pay right away or you're going to jail," Stokes explained. "If you think you might owe back taxes to the IRS, contact the IRS. Look up the number and make sure you trust where you're getting that number from. Call and find out. Call Social Security yourself and check to see if there's a problem with your account."
Frank Abagnale is a former thief who has worked with the FBI for more than 40 years. The movie “Catch Me If You Can” with Leonardo DiCaprio is based on his real-life exploits. He’s one of the world’s most respected authorities on forgery, embezzlement and secure documents.
He's an expert on the subject of identity theft, has written three books on the subject and served as a consultant to some of the largest companies in the world on the subject of cybercrime.
He's teamed up with the AARP's Fraud Watch Network and travels across the country with an educational program to educate people about scams.
Abagnale says technology is making the crimes easier.
"You can manipulate caller ID to say whatever you want it to say. It can say Huntsville Police Department, FBI, US Treasury, Social Security Administration," Abagnale said. " A lot of times they say a little bit of information they know about you from social media, so you think that only your bank would know that but you forget that you told them all of that on social media- your wife's name, the names of your children, your address, your date of birth."
He does a podcast out of Washington, D.C. for AARP every week called The Perfect Scam and he's heard both horror stories and heartbreaking cases.
“In one incident last week, this woman had given over $200,000 of her live savings to a Jamaican sweepstakes scam. And then because she was so concerned her family was going to find out about it, she committed suicide. She killed herself,” he revealed.
Abagnale says all scams boil down to one of two red flags- at some point, someone will ask you for money OR they're going to ask you for information.
“These criminals are in Jamaica, India, Russia, Hong Kong but they’re going to social media like Facebook. So they have all of this information because we live in a way too much information world... You have to stop and verify who you’re sending the money to and is this a legitimate reason that you should be giving people information or sending them money,” Abagnale stressed.
He was recently notified by a number of people that scammers are using the Words with Friends game to target people.
“People have conversations on the internet and meet people who say they’re in the military or they’re working on an oil rig. And before you know it, they’re asking you to send them $200 with an Amazon card or Green Dot card and they’re sending people money they never met. They just met them through this game,” Abagnale stated.
"And anytime someone says you have to pay money up front to get the money, that's again a red flag that it's a scam. So you just really need to use a little common sense," Abagnale added.
If you suspect a scam or if you believe you’re a victim of a scam, you can call the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network helpline at 1-877-908-3360.
The AARP recommends checking your annual credit report, creating strong passwords for accounts and putting a freeze on your credit if you’re not opening any new accounts.
Cybersecurity experts recommend a credit freeze because it keeps potential creditors from accessing your credit report. You can sign up for fraud alerts and credit monitoring so you’re notified if anyone applies for credit in your name. There’s also identity theft protection to monitor your credit at one or all of the three credit reporting agencies and it will detect suspicious activity.