Loudoun authorities report a sharp rise in phone scams

The phone call is intended to elicit visceral fear: A police officer is on the line, or a lawyer, or an IRS agent. The caller is telling you that you or a family member has done something wrong — missed a court date, failed to pay taxes, become the subject of an arrest warrant — and that the only way to fix the problem is to pay a fine.

It’s an especially predatory fraud scheme that authorities in Loudoun County are seeing far more of lately, according to the sheriff’s office and the Leesburg police. And even though many of the intended victims are skeptical enough to end the call and contact authorities, others have felt compelled to follow the caller’s instructions, paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the scammers, who promptly hang up and are never heard from again.

Telephone scams have been around “forever, in various forms,” Leesburg police spokesman Jeff Dubé said. But the number of scammers posing as police officers and other authority figures has risen sharply in recent months, and law enforcement officials are stepping up efforts to warn the public about the scams.

“The trend with callers impersonating authority figures has picked up this year, and now it’s rolling pretty heavy,” Dubé said. “It first came onto our radar when they were impersonating Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies, saying people had missed jury duty . . . and now we’re getting them where the caller is pretending to be a Leesburg police officer.”

Leesburg authorities issued a new warning to residents last week, after two more cases were reported June 27, including one in which the scammer used a second person to pose as an “attorney” to help facilitate a transfer of funds to settle an outstanding arrest warrant.

In both cases, Dubé said, the victims were robbed of $2,000 after following instructions to obtain an electronic MoneyPak order — or “Green Dot Card” — from a convenience store.

Once the victim confirms the purchase of the card and provides the serial number, the funds are electronically transferred to the scammers, and the call ends abruptly.

“They try to pressure you and intimidate you until you’re at the point where you’re scared to death,” Dubé said. “They’ll require that they stay on the phone with you. And once you have the card in hand, then they try to be your friend, and say, ‘Okay, give me the serial numbers off the card and we’ll get this process started.’ ”

Loudoun authorities want to make one point particularly clear to county residents: Even if you have committed an infraction that could result in a fine, law enforcement officials will never contact you by phone to collect payment.

“If we had a warrant, we’d be knocking on your door,” Dubé said.

Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman echoed that warning, calling the scams particularly “deplorable” for their tendency to prey on people’s fear of authority figures.

“We don’t conduct business that way,” Chapman said. “We want to make sure people know that.”

The phone scams fall into a category of fraud known as “phishing,” in which scammers try to fraudulently acquire sensitive information — passwords, serial numbers, credit card information or other personal data — often by posing as a trustworthy person or business. These scams can be carried out by e-mail or other electronic communication, authorities said, but phone contact is also used and appears to be an increasingly popular approach.

Leesburg authorities report that they’ve received 14 reports of telephone phishing scams since March. The sheriff’s office tracked 850 fraud complaints last year, and 850 more have been reported since January. The investigations are complicated by the fact that many of the scams originate from overseas, he said.

The sheriff’s office has tried to fight the scams through community outreach and education, conducting information sessions at senior centers and holding a June 25 community meeting in the Dulles area to inform residents about the rising threat. Numerous representatives of neighborhood watch groups attended that session, the sheriff’s office said, and additional community training meetings might be scheduled.

Chapman said that the problem is likely to be more widespread than the reported numbers suggest.

“I think there are probably a lot of people who don’t realize they were scammed,” he said. “They might also feel reluctant to report it, because they might feel embarrassed that it happened. . . . But if it happened, don’t feel that you shouldn’t report it. These [callers] can be really convincing on the line. We want to know about it.”

Residents who think that they may have been a victim of a telephone scam should call the Loudoun sheriff’s non-emergency number, 703-777-1021, or file a report at www.sheriff.loudoun.gov/reportonline.

Information about the variety of consumer scams currently documented is at www.lookstoogoodtobetrue.com.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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