Salt Lake County urges Utahns to be vigilant of scammers during the holidays

(Photo courtesy of the Unified Police Department) This 2017 file photo from the Unified Police Department was issued when police were searching for a couple suspected of stealing packages from doorsteps. Salt Lake County officials warn that porch pirates and scammers of all types become much more active during the holidays.

Fraudsters and thieves work all year, but their activity tends to tick up around the holidays, according to Salt Lake County. Officials are warning all Utah residents that they could be the next target.

In the past year, Utah residents have reported scams involving online dating, fake Facebook prizes and false claims of closed Social Security accounts, according to AARP. Common scams during the festive season include snatched packages from front doors and fake Medicare schemes, since it’s open enrollment time. One scam that’s evergreen and increasingly pervasive is fraudsters posing as cops and duping people into wiring them thousands of dollars.

“What they’re doing is spoofing official phone numbers, so when they call an individual, it looks like it is a police agency,” said Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera. “When someone answers, they identify themselves as a police officer and they sound very convincing.”

Elderly residents are particularly vulnerable. Scammers will often claim someone’s grandson or granddaughter needs bail.

“There’s a big myth around older adults being targeted because maybe they have slipped a little in their ability to identify fraud,” said Alan Ormsby, state director of AARP Utah. “That really isn’t the case.”

Scammers are instead becoming increasingly sophisticated, Ormsby said. They research the internet and social media to find personal information about victims, including family members, addresses and even past vacations. It helps the fraudsters sound legitimate.

It’s common for these thieves to have their victims buy gift cards then share the card number over the phone. By the time the victim becomes suspicious, the money is gone.

“We never, ever call and demand payment by phone,” Rivera said. “That’s something we do not, as law enforcement, accept. It’s a very clear sign of a scam if they tell you to purchase gift cards.”

It’s not just police who will ask for gift cards or wired money. Scammers can pose as stranded family members or people looking for love on dating apps.

If someone suspects they’re being scammed over the phone, county officials advise getting the name of the officer and agent, then hanging up. From there, look up the phone number for the agency or local dispatch, then call and verify.

Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services urges people to never share sensitive details over email or text messages, including:

  • Social Security numbers

  • Credit card numbers

  • Personally identifying information, such as maiden names and birth dates

  • Bank account information

  • Passwords

Utah residents can also report suspicious activity to the state Office of Consumer Protection online or by calling 800-721-7233.

Ormsby said that AARP’s national fraud line receives about 6,000 calls each month. People can research and report suspected scams at aarp.fraudwatchnetwork.org or by calling 877-908-3360.

“What a fraudster is trying to do is get you under the ether,” Ormsby said. “They’re trying to either say you’ve won this great thing … or they’re trying to get you afraid, because they know when you’re afraid or overexcited, your decision making is bad.”

Check in with family members to ensure they understand fraud risks, advises Paul Leggett with the county Aging and Adult Services. Retailers, too, should be suspicious when they notice people buying an unusual amount of gift cards.

“People are often very embarrassed to have fallen victim to one of these scams, so I think these conversations are important so people know these things are happening and that they happen to other people,” Leggett said. “I think these conversations are ones we should have year round.”