A Santa Clarita woman who was scammed out of her life savings recently serves as a stern reminder for this holiday season about the dangers in sending any money online, according to law enforcement officials.
The victim, who asked not to be named, hoped the experience could serve as a warning to others.
“As you can imagine, I have a hard time talking about it, but if it helps somebody in the future not get taken advantage of,” the victim said, becoming emotional, “then we can talk about it.”
The victim was contacted by someone claiming to be from Citibank, she said, claiming her credit card was erroneously charged and that she needed to give them access to correct the charge.
“Which in 40 years, I’ve never allowed,” she said, sharing her regret.
By the time she had caught on to what had happened, she was “in the hole” about $300,000, she said.
The second time she was targeted, the person said they were an undercover Federal Trade Commission officer following up on the investigation regarding an issue with her Social Security number.
The “agent” hounded her for days until she called to verify with the FTC and wasn’t completely reassured by the answer. She let her guard down a second time. It cost her almost everything she had left.
One of her banks “made a business decision to close her accounts” after the losses reached six figures, leaving her with little recourse to track it down. The other bank where she had money told her that she had authorized the transactions, so there’s little they could do.
Faced with the prospects of having lost nearly everything she’s saved, she said her hopes now rest on her story defying the odds: A cybercrimes investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department who’s trying to track down the thieves told her that in more than 70 investigations, he’s only been able to recover the money once, she said.
But preventing a similar feeling of loss from happening to anyone else would help, she said.
Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the American Association of Retired Persons, said an extra degree of caution or awareness around the holidays can be challenging, but necessary.
Scammers are looking for victims year-round, she said, but things are a little different come mid-November.
“The difference is we’re a lot busier, things are a lot more hectic and we have a lot more distractions,” she said.
It’s important, especially if you have a question about something, to take a beat.
“Take that pause for a second and put yourself in the present,” she said, referring to potential holiday-time distractions. “‘Why is this person asking me for this information?’”
That kind of foresight can help with one of the most common fraud attempts seen this time of year, she said: the package-notification scam, which she’s been targeted with, too.
The scammer sends an email to tell someone they’ve missed a delivery, and the email appears to be from a delivery service. It then prompts the person for their personal information, including their phone number. But as Nofziger points out, most vendors would be the contact if there’s an issue, not the delivery company.
Any request for cryptocurrency is also a red flag, she said, although now thieves have become aware of that, and are creating QR codes that victims can unwittingly use as cryptocurrency at newer crypto-ATM machines.
LASD Deputy Miguel Meza said another red flag that people can watch out for is if anyone ever requests any form of payment that can be turned into anonymous, untraceable cash, including gift cards.
“There’s no way for us to trace that person who’s collecting the money,” Meza said, reminding people of the age-old adage, if an investment opportunity sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.
Another holiday time scam that tugs on people’s heartstrings is when someone calls pretending to be a law enforcement official, saying a person at the number is in trouble.
“That’s the biggest one we’ve had so far. People have been calling the community saying they are a commander, a captain, or a representative of the Sheriff’s Department or any other law enforcement agency,” Meza said, adding he’s received such calls, too.
The person claims that there’s a balance owed or someone’s in trouble, and if an amount isn’t paid, then someone’s going to jail, he said, sharing the scam.
“We want people to know that we don’t call, and we don’t threaten people,” he said, adding he doesn’t know of any law enforcement agency that does.
Nofziger also said if anyone has a question about whether a solicitation or encounter they’ve had might be a scam, the agency has a website, aarp.org/fraud-watch-network. There’s also a number that anyone can call, regardless of whether they’re an AARP member, where they can ask questions to find out if something is a scam, or to report one.
“That’s the idea of the network, is that we’re all in this together,” she said, adding AARP’s phone line (877-908-3360) gets 400 to 500 calls a day.
Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station Deputy Kabrina Borbon said the station is there to help also.
“With holidays approaching, please be mindful with scams,” she wrote in an email Monday. “If you receive any calls asking for payment by gift cards, please hang up. If you are unsure, you can contact the SCV’s Sheriff’s Station at 661-260-4000 for further guidance. Avoid becoming a victim of fraud.”