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‘It’s that simple’: Sheriff’s office shares tips to avoid being scammed

Even though there is no official “scam season” when criminals come out in the community to steal money from the unsuspecting, through email, phone and other devious ways, local authorities say that scams are becoming more sophisticated by the year and with a few practical steps, you can protect your hard-earned money from being stolen.

Over the last month, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has investigated numerous reports of fraudulent emails, phone calls and social media messages that have wrested staggering sums of money from Forsyth County residents by playing on people’s greed, fear and inexperience.

On Feb. 10, 2019, a local woman reported to the sheriff’s office that over the last year she had been scammed out of more than $170,000 by various individuals through cash, bank transfers and iTunes gift cards.

On Feb. 11, a local man reported that he had been scammed out of nearly $60,000 after being contacted on the social media platform, Instagram, about a “prize” he had won.

On Feb. 15, a local woman reported that she provided $1,500 in Google Play cards for a man who stated over the phone that he was with “the Social Security Office” and threatened to arrest her for drug trafficking and money laundering.

On Feb. 22, a local woman reported that her husband had been scammed out of $2,000 by someone claiming to be the Chief of Police for the City of Cumming.

On Feb. 24, a local department store manager reported that she had mailed scammers $4,500 in Walmart gift cards after they said that her store was being audited. 

According to sheriff’s office spokesman, Detective Billy O’Haire, these incidents only scratch the surface of scams perpetrated in Forsyth County. O’Haire said the public would be shocked at the number of scam reports that the sheriff’s office investigates on a regular basis.

Despite regular public service announcements by the sheriff’s office to the community, O’Haire said that people, like those in the reports above, are still parting with extraordinary amounts of their money on a regular basis.

"A lot of times they'll say, 'If you send us $60,000, we'll send you a million,' and unfortunately that’s not a red flag to some people," O’Haire said. "It happens a lot." 

O’Haire said that the scams they investigate can be broken down into two basic categories: sweepstakes scams and threat scams. Both rely on victims giving out banking information, pre-paid credit cards or cryptocurrency.

Scammers also use different times of the year to their advantage to steal from unsuspecting people of all ages and backgrounds, O’Haire said.

For example, at this time in the year, many people are expecting or are receiving their tax returns from the IRS. Several people have come to sheriff’s office precincts with sophisticated scam letters posing as a letter from the IRS.

"They'll have the spelling of the last name wrong, but only off by one letter ... and people will just see their name and their correct address," he said. "The next thing you know, they've got everyone's bank account information."

O’Haire said that one of the things that the sheriff’s office has had to adjust to is criminals moving from email and phone scams to social media platforms where people are typically less suspicious.

"We've seen Instagram, Facebook, even OfferUp and Letgo," he said. "They'll think they are bidding on some kind of item but what they're doing is giving away their bank information ... and all the scammers have done is make fake profiles."

He said that people should be wary of any correspondences, electronic or otherwise, and should be suspicious of anything that looks fake.

"No company, no sweepstakes, no banking institution is ever going to ask you for your personal information, and they're never going to ask you to go somewhere to go get money,” he said. “It doesn't happen." 

And if they do, this should raise some red flags, he said, because more than likely you're being targeted in a scam, no matter how legitimate the call, email or message sounds.

An easy way of being sure is by calling or visiting the local branch of whoever is contacting you and verify the information in person.

On the other side are scams that employ a "scare tactic,” with criminals pretending to be a law enforcement agency, a court or even hackers — threatening arrests, charges or a release of personal information if demands aren't met.

These types of threats are almost always scams, O’Haire said, and are often the least effective but should always be preserved and reported to authorities.

"The sheriff's office for example, is never going to threaten you in an email ... if you're going to be arrested, we'll come out there in person ... it just doesn't work that way," he said. "Anytime someone is scared or feels threatened, they need to call us, it's that simple."