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Experts say don't fall for scammers' scare tactics

Scams can happen any time of year, but with online holiday shopping underway there are more opportunities for those looking for a way to gain access to personal information.

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The information on this postcard is fake. It did not come from Northwoods Bank but was sent to some area residents by scammers in an attempt to get them to call the number and gain access to information that could give them access to money or even the title to the property.
Contributed / Northwoods Bank
We are part of The Trust Project.

Scams can happen any time of year, but with online holiday shopping underway there are more opportunities for those looking for a way to gain access to personal information.

Ginnie Petersen is the retail banking manager for Northwoods Bank. She said the most recent scam involves mortgages and mortgage insurance. “A warning or final notice postcard will come in the mail,” she said. “It says their mortgage insurance with Northwoods Bank is in jeopardy. People call us terrified, especially the elderly. I tell them to turn the postcard over. On the back side in very tiny letters it says they are not affiliated with Northwoods Bank. It gives a number to call and says it needs an immediate response.”

She said, if someone calls that number, the scammer will ask for information with the goal of stealing mortgage information.

“Especially for people who have already paid off their house, the scammers will go in and put the title in somebody else’s name,” she said. “I’d say five or six people a month walk into the bank with that mortgage card and two or three a day call in.”

The bank reports this type of activity to law enforcement, the Federal Communication Commission, the Federal Trade Commission and the post office.

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Petersen said lottery scams are still number one in the nation.

“Someone calls and says they won $9 million from Publisher’s Clearing House, but they need to pay the taxes up front,” she said. “And the caller ID says Publisher’s Clearing House. We tell them Publisher’s Clearing House never calls you. In Park Rapids, I personally know five people who replied and sent off an average of $75,000 to $90,000. They have caught numerous people doing these scams. But unless it’s over $250,000, the person scammed won’t get their money back.”

Don’t act out of fear

“Elderly people more easily fall prey to fear tactics,” Petersen said. “Someone might call claiming they are from the IRS, rattle off a badge number and claim they owe back taxes and they are due immediately or the FBI will come to their house.”

Petersen said scammers often call the elderly on their landlines late at night. “There are elderly people going to Walmart in their pajamas to get gift cards to pay the IRS,” she said. “These people who are responding to the scammers are so frightened. God bless Walmart and Walgreens employees who have stopped thousands of dollars of these crimes by not allowing these elderly people to buy the gift cards. One store employee talked directly to the scammer and that ended it.”

Petersen said she learned through training that in some older people the skeptical part of the brain may not work as well, which feeds into the fear factor because they think what the scammer is telling them must be real.

“They lose that discernment and they fall for it,” she said. “They don’t check with someone because they are being threatened. I could tell you story after story about the lies scammers are telling these sweet older people. They come in asking for unsecured lines of credit to pay someone in cash or want to take large amounts of money out of their account.”

Petersen said she tries to intervene by talking people through the logistics of what they are asking for and explaining why it might be a scam.

“I deal with this so often,” she said. “Our tellers are trained on what to say if someone comes up asking to withdraw a large amount of money and what questions to ask to watch out for our elderly people because often the scammers have coached the person being scammed what to say. If their reasons are suspicious, the tellers send them to talk to me.”

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Sarah Hinneberg is the chief financial officer at Citizens National Bank in Park Rapids. She said “romance scams” also continue to be big in this area. “If it’s truly a romance, they won’t ask you for money,” she said. “If they ask for money, that’s a huge red flag.”

Think before you clickAnn Lempola is the vice president/deposit operations manager at Northview Bank in Park Rapids.

She said one common scam involves a text message informing customers their debit card has been blocked.

“Make sure you don’t click on links you don’t trust,” she said. “If you want to visit a site, use a browser to search for that company and go directly to that company’s site. It is important to keep your computer software updated and never give out your PIN number to anyone. Your bank will never ask you for your card number, pin or the 3-digit code on the back of your card. And never email account numbers or other personal information.”

Lempola said anyone who believes they have become a victim of a scam should cut all ties with that scammer instantly.

“Stop answering phone calls from them, block their number and change your email,” she said. “Reach out to someone at your bank to ask for help. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed as they will help monitor your bank accounts for any unwanted activities. Your bank may ask you to change your PIN or passcode on your accounts along with your internet banking credentials. Make sure you are also monitoring your statements for any unauthorized transactions and report the fraud to local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission.”

Don’t screen share with strangers

Gabe Johnson is a technician at Microtech in Park Rapids. He said they see hundreds of people who have had their computers compromised by scammers every year. One recent scam involved a fake call from somebody claiming to be from Amazon and needing account and payment information.

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Gabe Johnson of Microtech in Park Rapids said they see hundreds of customers dealing with scams every year. If someone has gained control of your computer, a technician can remove the files they installed.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

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“Legitimate companies like Amazon won’t call you,” he said. “You’ll get an email or a text message through your account.”

He said scams go in waves and change over time.

“There are all sorts,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t thinking about it until they get scammed.”

Johnson said the best antivirus and password protection doesn’t help if you choose to give someone you don’t know access to your computer.

“Let’s just say you owned a bank and you had all of your security guards at the front door like your antivirus software to protect against bad people,” he said. “But then you have a back door and you just open the door to the scammer. That’s essentially what you’re doing if you let people into your computer. You’re circumventing any of that protection. The programs these people are using to get into your program are legitimate programs, like Screen Connect. People are giving permission to the scammer by installing this program and then inviting them to screen share.”

Johnson said often the reason people give permission is because the scammer is scaring them into thinking they need their help and must act quickly to fix a problem with their account.

His advice is to stop and evaluate the situation before taking any action by calling a family member or professional for advice such as bank officers or members of his staff.

“If someone calls with a concern the first thing I’ll ask is if at any point somebody was operating your computer, meaning the mouse was moving and they were doing something,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to confirm they allowed access to a scammer who took control of the computer. That’s the point where the computer needs to be checked out. There’s software in that computer that can allow the scammer back in at any point .”

Johnson said “pop ups” in a browser asking the computer user to call a number is the type of scamming he sees most often.

Johnson said, if someone has gained access to a computer, a technician needs to go in and find the programs the scammers have installed and remove them.

“I’ve had people bring in their computer and the scammer is still moving the mouse and fighting for control,” he said. “They will change the passwords to try to get people to call them back and scare people into doing what they say. Or they leave a message and when someone calls them back that’s when they start pressuring for information. It’s primarily the elderly these people are targeting.”

He said since the majority of these scammers are from other countries, even if the FBI knows where the call centers are, in most cases the authorities in these countries do nothing about it. “It is providing income to people over there,” he said.

When in doubt, call your bank

Northwoods Bank customers also recently received a fraud alert from the bank about a message that was being sent to customers by a spammer instructing them to call the number in the text/email and provide their card number so the customer service representative could identify the fraud.

Northwoods Bank alerted their customers that if they ever receive a suspicious email or text claiming to be from Northwoods Bank they should not respond or click the link but instead call their local branch office.

Petersen said any group wanting her to speak about the dangers of scams and how to avoid them can reach her at Northwoods Bank at 218-732-7221.

“I am 100 percent there to help people because I hate what scammers do to our elderly. I don’t care where they bank. I will help anyone stop fraud from happening. I deal directly with the police department to help stop this.”

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Related Topics: FRAUDHUBBARD COUNTY
Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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