Law enforcement address elder scams in Aleppo Township

Friday, November 8, 2019 | 10:23 AM

Phone scams have become a nationwide phenomenon, and elderly residents are often the victims.

Regionally, elderly victims of phone scams have seen losses ranging from $500, to a few million dollars.

“Western Pennsylvania is particularly susceptible, just because we have a large elderly population,” said Shawn Brokos, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) supervisor who works out of Pittsburgh.

The Ohio Township Police Department, which also covers Aleppo Township, has recently made an effort to educate residents about scam calls. Chief Joseph Hanny addressed the issue at an Oct. 21 Aleppo Township legislative meeting.

“The typical scam that we see, the most major one, is what is referred to as the ‘grandmother scam,’” Hanny told the Sewickley Herald in an interview.

In this scam, he explained, an elderly person will get a call from someone posing as a grandchild. The imposter then hands the phone to a law enforcement imposter, who demands some form of compensation to avoid consequences like jail time for the grandchild. This compensation can take the form of cash or gift cards.

“They manipulate the people, they scare the people, they’re very firm, they will get these people to go out and buy Target gift cards, Google Play gift cards, Home Depot gift cards, then read them the numbers off the back of the card. And once that is done, it’s virtually impossible to trace,” Hanny said.

Ohio Township police also frequently see scams where a caller poses as an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employee or federal government agent and claims they have an arrest warrant. Just like the grandparent scam, callers often demand compensation in gift cards as a means of avoiding arrest.

If the IRS wanted to get someone’s attention, Hanny said, it would reach out via mail by certified letter and can even freeze assets in serious situations. He said the agency does not typically contact anyone by phone.

Brokos said the domestic and international criminals that run phone schemes are relatively organized and target individuals after purchasing their contact information on the dark web. Some international criminal groups that target the elderly employ domestic “money mules” to receive funds, then transfer them abroad.

In most cases, she added, the money obtained in elderly scams eventually goes overseas.

“Once it’s overseas, it’s very hard for us to get that money back unless it’s done very timely for us. There are certain countries that will work with us and help us in this investigation,” Brokos said. “If we are able to catch this as it happens and there is a wire that has been sent, we are able to contact that bank and freeze that wire pending further investigation. Oftentimes, we don’t catch it in time.”

Brokos said the FBI is conducting more outreach in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia in order to educate elderly residents on fraud. She said the FBI is planning several presentations on the topic next year but did not have exact dates.

To avoid falling victim to scams, “if you don’t make that initiating phone call, do not do business with that person,” Hanny suggested.