Scam calls impersonating law enforcement on the rise

Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 10:49 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - According to Truecaller, an app that identifies and blocks spam calls, Americans lost nearly an estimated forty billion dollars to scams in 2022. Scam calls are certainly on the rise and now scammers are getting more clever.

Law enforcement agencies are raising awareness about a new kind of phone call scam claiming to be the police or sheriff’s department. It’s not often that these scam calls are recorded, but a voicemail left by a scammer helped Sioux Falls police raise awareness of this growing trend.

“We wanted to release that to show people how innocent these calls start, how easy it is,” explained Sioux Falls Police Department’s public information officer, Sam Clemens. “It doesn’t seem like there are any red flags that would be there, but I know the name of the officer that was mentioned. Obviously, that’s not his voice. A lot of people aren’t going to know that.”

What sounds innocent at first can take a turn when the caller urgently asks for money using stories like warrants out for your arrest, failure to report for jury duty, or being part of an investigation. These calls are not exclusive to Sioux Falls.

“There’s always some different variation. It’s not always the same scam,” Clemens said. “They’re always tweaking it, always changing it, and I think saying you’re from a law enforcement agency adds a little bit more to it. It makes it seem a bit more legit. It makes it seem like hopefully, people won’t question that because they don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to get arrested and so they’re more likely to do what the scammers are asking.”

Reports are coming from across the state of South Dakota. For example, Brookings County alone has seen many in the past two weeks, including three reported in the last 24 hours. These calls are difficult to trace back, especially if the call originates from outside the United States.

“Our hardest uphill battle has to do with the ability to clone phone numbers or to get online phone numbers,” said Kevin Murfield, the investigations sergeant for the Brookings County Sheriff’s Office. “South Dakota, I feel we’re more vulnerable because of the 605 across the board. If they want to, they can get as precise as getting to your locals. Unfortunately, for a lot of times, we hit dead ends where we can track it to a certain point and then we lose it.”

As technology becomes more advanced, some say that scams are getting more sophisticated and that this trend will continue. Murfield has dealt with many iterations of scams and they continue to get more complex. He recalled dealing with a few individuals who were taken advantage of by a scammer in the early development of cryptocurrency.

“It’s hard to look into the future but to do that, you kind of have to look at the past and how things have kind of evolved,” said Murfield. “Moving forward, it’s going to just get worse. With the AI technology that’s coming out, the things that they can do, that’s a scary thing to think of that someone can call in and get voice-dubs of family or a loved one and try to get some money that way. I definitely think we’ll be fighting an uphill battle.”

There are a number of strategies used by scammers, but some red flags make a scam easier to spot. No government agency will ask for payment in the form of a gift card or cryptocurrency, so that would be a dead giveaway. Both Clemens and Murfield said that scammers will try to keep you on the phone instead of letting you check any information. If a scammer uses a tactic of telling you that they have a warrant for your arrest, most counties will be able to confirm that with a phone call to the correct number, or counties like Brookings County have warrant lists on their website. Clemens and Murfield said that the best thing to do if a call is suspicious is to hang up and cross-check it. If it is a scam, please file a report of the call to authorities.

“There’s no harm in getting information from that person, the name they claim to be, a contact number, but then you need to hang up and verify that through a separate means,” Clemens said. “You don’t have to worry about being rude to these people. They’re trying to steal from you.”