By Melissa Preddy
Detective Alan Clemens has heard many variations on consumer scams, but one recent twist caught his eye: would-be robbers pretending to work with legitimate crews from utility companies.
“A woman reported that a stranger came to her door, pointed to a Detroit Edison crew down the street and needed to come into her house and shut off the water,” said Clemens, of the Livonia Police Department in suburban Detroit. “Fortunately, she recognized it as a scam and called the police.”
Door-to-door, phone and online crimes are not new, but in Michigan reports are on the rise. According to state police statistics, there were 16,937 incidents of fraud involving false pretense, swindles and con games in 2014—up from 14,193 five years earlier.
Criminal techniques evolve with technology, Clemens said. Thieves program cellphones so that phony Internal Revenue Service demands appear to be coming from Washington, or they direct targets of “You’ve won a sweepstakes” scams to load cash onto debit cards to “pay transfer costs.”
“Fraud is our highest crime when we run the stats,” Clemens said. “It’s actually taken over from drug crimes. And a lot of it goes unreported because people are embarrassed.”
A painful memory
Billie Stewart, 69, still feels the sting of being swindled for nearly $50,000 in family reunion funds some 20 years ago by a bogus travel agent.
These days, she has channeled her anger into volunteering for AARP Michigan’s Fraud Watch Network program, which offers talks and workshops on how to avoid becoming a victim.
“I still cry,” said Stewart, a Detroiter who coordinates after-school programs for children. “And I want to enlighten as many people as I can. Somebody else will not get taken that easily.”
Stewart and other volunteers are trained by AARP using tools like “The Con Artist’s Playbook,” a resource AARP developed to help people recognize the psychology behind ID fraud, theft and scams.
They offer free one-hour talks and intensive two-hour workshops to community organizations, churches and other groups, said Lisa Whitmore Davis, associate state director of community engagement for AARP Michigan.
“We have really upped our engagement in this issue. Every year I get more requests. Last year we held 50 sessions, and we hope to do more this year,” Whitmore Davis said. “We teach you how to not be easy prey.”
Detroit volunteer Ann Lindsay conducted four workshops last year and wants to top that in 2016. She said interest is keen among participants, with many sharing tricks tried on themselves or friends. They talk about the “grandparent scam,” where a crook pretends to be a distressed grandchild calling from afar for financial help, or a phishing email that demands money to “repair” a balky computer.
“Most of these people are not gullible, and many are very feisty,” Lindsay said. “But people of older years were raised in a more polite era and tend to be more trusting. We give specific techniques, like using caller ID or talking to family before sending money, to avoid being victimized.”
AARP also partners with community groups on services such as document-shredding events and “scam jam” safety fairs, Whitmore Davis said.
In addition to live events, the AARP Fraud Watch Network site ( aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork) offers an array of resources, from tips to a popular interactive map with scam reports from consumers and police alerts.
If you suspect a swindle, call the AARP Fraud Watch Helpline at 877-908-3360 toll-free, urged Whitmore Davis. “Law enforcement resources are limited, and we collaborate by manning that hotline.”
To schedule a Fraud Watch talk for your group, call 313-832-6846 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth, Mich.