BEACHWOOD, Ohio — A Northeast Ohio rabbi said some members of his congregation were targeted by someone posing as him and trying to steal their money.
Rabbi Scott Roland of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah, a synagogue in Beachwood, sent out an email letting the congregation know emails asking for gift cards are not from him, and that if anyone received one, they should not respond or pay.
This is the type of scheme Cuyahoga County is trying to protect against with a new campaign. The county is asking retailers who sell gift cards to put up a warning on sales racks, reminding people to think twice before they check out.
Sheryl Harris, director of consumer affairs for Cuyahoga County, said criminals often used to ask for money orders from people, but after crackdowns on that method, these impostors have switched to gift cards.
“We’ve just seen this huge increase, not just in the county but across the country, in the use of these gift cards as a payment method,” Harris said, noting that in October 2018, the FTC found gift cards were the number one form of payment for these schemes nationally.
One common way these schemers try to get money from people is by pretending to be from the Social Security Administration.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m an agent’ or ‘I’m an officer. Your Social Security number has been identified as being involved in a crime scene.’ Usually it’s in another state,” Harris said. “‘And there was a car that was abandoned, there were drugs in the car. And so we are going to freeze all your assets.’ And people freak out. ‘I was never in that state, it’s not me.’ And so they say, ‘Well, I believe you, so you can pay this fine and it will just be money that we hold until we investigate.’ And so then people will say, ‘Well, that sounds better than having all my assets frozen.’”
The impostors then instruct people the fastest way to pay is with a gift card, even telling them where the nearest store selling those gift cards might be.
“As this crime has sort of expanded, this use of gift cards, the gift cards themselves, like the stores that sell them, have started bringing down the dollar amount on a card, so capping them,” Harris said. “It is not unusual for one person to go to one store and only be able to buy $500, and then go to the next store so they can get the next $500 and the next store.”
Another common scheme involves targeting grandparents, where someone calls pretending to be their grandchild and asks for bail money.
“It’s almost just like if you’re being asked to pay, there’s a really good chance you’re going to be asked to pay with gift cards,” Harris said.
The county's department of consumer affairs talks to victims all the time about what happened to them, Harris said.
“As soon as they pay, all the sudden they see all the things that were wrong in that call, all the red flags,” Harris said. “It’s like their brain can work again, it’s not panicked anymore.”
The county wants stores to participate by putting up signs with consumer alerts on gift card sale racks to let people know about common schemes. Harris said that can allow someone who’s swept up in the moment to have a moment of clarity.
“No government agency of any kind accepts a gift card for payment,” Harris said. “It does not happen.”
Still, she said, people may get panicked and not realize that.
“This is just a way to remind folks, ‘Hey, wake up. There could be something wrong there. Stop and ask a question,’” Harris said.
She urged people to call their local police department to ask for clarification or help, and also to call the Scam Squad so workers there can “capture” what’s going on and share it with their networks and databases of investigators across the county and across the nation.
Harris said they’re receiving more and more calls about schemes like this, but she said she believes that’s because people are reporting more often, rather than an uptick in cases.
As for why these schemes often work, “it’s not because people are addled or confused, it’s just they’re caught up in the moment of panic,” Harris said.
She explained further, “They’re in a bad place that they’re not usually in. It’s not just like it’s a regular happy day for them. It can be the anniversary of the death of someone that they loved. They can be dealing with a health issue or maybe a family member is. They could be experiencing money trouble. There’s some kind of stressor in their life that’s a major stressor that they’re really living with, and when they get that call, they’re just so vulnerable because someone is saying, ‘Here’s a terrible problem,’ and they just think, ‘The last thing I need is a problem.’ And in that same phone call, someone gives them a solution.”
To people who fall victim to these impostors, Harris had something to say.
“You are not alone. You’re not the first person, you’re not the only person, there are many other people. But if you call us and report it, there’s a better chance that we can, one, steel our community against it, and two, actually try to target the people who are doing this work. And they are criminals, they are professional criminals,” Harris said.
You can reach the county's Scam Squad by calling 216-443-SCAM (7226). For more information regarding the Scam Squad, click here.