Area police are urging consumers to be aware of recent scams that have proven costly to some unsuspecting residents, including a Fallowfield Township woman who is out $4,500.
The 65-year-old woman began receiving text messages from a phone number she believed belonged to friends in late August telling her she had won $1,500. To claim her prize, her “friends” instructed her to send them Amazon and Google Play gift cards via text.
She complied, sending $4,500 worth of gift cards over the course of a week.
When she didn’t receive any money in return, she contacted her friends, only to learn she had been ripped off by scammers who had used phony phone numbers to pose as people she knew.
And at this month’s council meeting, Belle Vernon council member Rick Saxberg, who serves as fire and public safety committee chairman, warned residents not to be duped by fraudsters who fake calls from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the IRS.
“Several residents were shaken up by these calls and one woman was defrauded of a large amount of money,” he said. “Typically, the IRS will first mail a bill to anyone who owes taxes, so don’t fall for this IRS impersonation phone scam.”
Connellsville Police Department Cpl. Bryan Kendi said scam callers can often be aggressive when asking a person for their information.
“Don’t get intimidated. They’re very high pressure phone calls. They try to paint someone into a corner and try to force them to give their information,” he said.
Instead of giving personal information, he said, a person who believes a call may be legitimate should hang up, look up the information for the company who claims to be calling and call them directly. If there is a legitimate reason for the company to call, the issue can be dealt with directly after verifying the information.
“Just don’t give out your personal information, and verify who you’re talking to,” he said.
Scammers often use programs to make texts and calls appear to be coming from whatever phone number they choose, a practice known as spoofing.
State police said a number of similar cases have occurred in the past few years, and urge anyone who receives a similar message to contact police.
Offering fake prize money is just one of many methods used by con artists. On Oct. 7, Chartiers Township police received a report from a resident who had sent money to people pretending to represent West Penn Power Co.
“They told this guy they were going to shut his electric off,” said Chartiers Police Chief James Horvath.
The man had received a phone call from someone telling him he owed West Penn Power $350. They instructed him to pay with a pre-paid debit card.
Horvath called the number that had been used to contact the man. “When you call that number, it says you have reached West Penn Power,” he said.
The company is aware of the scam, as well as several others. FirstEnergy, West Penn Power’s parent company, has a web page devoted to various scams on its website, firstenergycorp.com.
FirstEnergy emphasizes that customers who are behind on their payments will receive a written notice, not a phone call or an email demanding immediate payment.
“While FirstEnergy representatives oftentimes make courtesy calls to customers to remind them about an outstanding balance, they would explain how a payment can be made using the established payment options,” according to the company’s website.
Scammers representing FirstEnergy companies do not always hide behind phone calls or emails. Sometimes they come right to the front door.
FirstEnergy notes these potential thieves “often work in pairs, are very persistent and use a variety of excuses to gain personal information or access to your home.”
The company warns they may ask for a copy of the customer’s utility bill, or pose as contracted tree trimmers. FirstEnergy says its employees always carry photo identification, and any appointments would be scheduled in advance.
“Any police department anywhere, they will tell you stories of this nature,” Horvath said.
Horvath has been contacted by scammers himself. He said he once received a call from someone pretending to represent the Internal Revenue Service.
He warned that if someone sends money to a scammer, police will be unable to get their money back.
Horvath offered simple advice to anyone who receives a call from a person demanding money.
“Just call the police before you act ... Hang up, and call us,” he said.