Berks County Police Chief Warns of a Phone Scam

Posted on January 16, 2021 by

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A Berks County police chief is sounding the alarm over the latest strain of a phone scam that has claimed at least two local victims by stirring panic that their identifications were used by drug smugglers.

South Heidelberg Township Chief Leon J Grim said on Friday that two township residents were scammed out of $8,000 and $9,000, respectively, over the past two weeks. In both cases, the victims received a call from someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration Essential. The caller said each of their social security numbers was being used to lease a car for drug smuggling.  They were told to hold the line to be transferred to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent who would provide instructions for them to assist in reinstating their social security card and clear their name. 

“They’re scaring the victims into believing there was a crime that was committed; that the vehicle was rented with their information, and in order to clear their name and help with the investigation, they would have to spend money to reissue a new card,’’ Grim said.  “It’s a derivative of the so-called grandparent scam, in which a caller purporting to be their grandchild calls from another state or country, pleading for bail money. “

“The scammers use various tactics to convince the victim that their grandchild has been in an accident that killed someone (sometimes a pregnant woman), and they’re asked to pay for bail and an attorney by purchasing thousands of dollars in gift cards,’’ Grim said. “They’re preying on people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. They’re preying on people’s level of trust and scare tactics, saying ‘Hey you’re party to this crime, so you need to step up and help us with this.’’ 

On 23 November, a 38-year-old South Heidelberg woman was scammed out of $9,000. The caller told her the vehicle, which was leased using her Social Security number, was found abandoned in Washington state with a large amount of cocaine, and there was human blood found in the vehicle, an indication that perhaps someone has been killed. The woman spent four hours on the phone as she drove to her bank, where she withdrew her money, and numerous stores, where she purchased prepaid debit cards and gift cards until she reached the $9,000 mark. 

Many national retail stores are aware of such scams and set limits of a few hundred dollars per gift card purchase, so the victim had to go to several stores in the area, all the time staying on the phone with the purported DEA agent. Every time she would purchase a card, she would verbally provide the numbers on the back of the card. The scammer would immediately use those numbers to apply the entire balance for online purchases of merchandise.   Police managed to trace some of the cards to the retailers and stop the delivery of the merchandise, but that will not get the victims back their money.

Both of the local victims seemed to be in their 30s. On Thursday, a 34-year-old man reported falling victim to a nearly identical scam, costing him $8,000.

“The guy thought he was in trouble,’’ Grim said. “He thought his job was in jeopardy.’’

By ramping up the fear tactics, the callers keep their victims on the phone so they cannot get in contact with anybody else to ask them if it seems believable. The easiest way to prevent being scammed is to hang up as soon as the demand for such payment is made by a law enforcement agency and call local police. No legitimate government agency will accept payment by a gift card.

“They’re looking for 1% or 2% of people that are going to believe their caller, and then they’re going to keep them on the line the entire scam,’’ Grim said. Grim said the victims were told they would get their refunds for the money they put out. 

“Yes, I have been scammed before,’’ Paul Molchanow said. “It was a company claiming to help me pay off my student loans. They said, if I gave them $1,000, I would get out of paying for the rest of my student loans. They started taking money out of my account, so I called the bank and had to cancel my credit card to get my money back. When I tried to call the number back, I realized it was a fake. After all that, I got a new card.’’