Editorial: Scam city

The Virginia Gazette

What is about Williamsburg that makes us a target-rich environment for scammers?

We're a largely educated populace, and there is a fair amount of wealth. Those strengths, however, are often our weakness.

Scammers seldom pray on intelligence. Instead, they appeal to our emotions.

The "grandma" scam is a perfect example. Highly intelligent people fall for a voice on the other end of the line claiming to be a grandson or granddaughter, pleading for help because he or she has been jailed in a foreign country. All it takes to get them out is wiring money, a transaction that can't be stopped once it's been approved.

Greater Williamsburg also boasts an aging population. It's a great place for retirees, and they're a vital part of the community. However, scam artists see them as vulnerable, especially when it involves helping their families.

Fear is another method scammers use successfully.-

A local businessman called recently to share a scam call he received at work. The caller claimed to be from "Virginia Power" – there's the first clue, the utility has been called Dominion Virginia Power for decades.

This scammer claimed electricity at the business would be cut off in 30 minutes if an outstanding power bill of several hundred dollars wasn't paid immediately.

The owner confirmed the address, then politely explained that it would be quite an undertaking since the address belonged to an entire shopping center, not a single business. When he produced his own power bill and the correct sum that wasn't yet due, the caller promptly hung up.

Keeping a scammer on the phone can be entertaining, but risky. Last month George Drummond of James City received a call from someone offering a way to lower his credit card interest rate. Two things tipped Drummond: His caller ID showed the number as his own, a common "spoofing" technique to hide the identity of the caller. The caller also claimed Drummond had a credit card balance of more than $3,000. He didn't.

Another rash of scams hit the area in June. The Gazette got calls from four potential victims over a three-day period.

Jerry Stirling of James City almost fell for it.

"It does get Grandma and Grandpa in an emotional state," he told reporter Susan Robertson. Stirling contacted his investment group to have $2,000 wired. The secretary warned him that it was likely a scam.

Similarly, an 87-year-old man lost about $20,000 over several months in trying to collect on promises of a new car and cash prizes. He repeatedly sent $500 pre-paid cards and wire transfers.

Two people that week reported receiving calls from someone claiming to be a police officer, informing them they had missed federal jury duty and faced arrest. Simply put, state and federal courts don't operate that way.

Williamsburg Police recently offered some simple guidelines to avoid being scammed. Mostly, it's just common sense.

•Never provide a caller with personal information, address, date of birth, and social security number.

•Obtain all the contact information you can from the caller and advise him/her you will get back in touch with them later. If nothing else it buys you time to think about the validity of the offer.

•If you stay on the phone, get detailed information about the debt, to whom the debt is owed, and good contact information about the organization or person who is supposed to receive the payment.

•Never make a payment to the caller until you have verified the call is from a legitimate source for a legitimate debt.

•Contact your local police agency and provide them all of the information you can on the call and caller.

•Share information about potential scams with family members and neighbors. Scammers prey on the elderly and vulnerable.

Are we more vulnerable than other communities? Possibly, given the area's combination of relative wealth and an older population.

No matter how often it's said, the adage is applies: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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