As technology evolves, scammers get bolder. What can be done?

Local officials, victims offer tips to combat digital con artists


On Jan. 18, business owners in the Eastwood Towne Center received calls from a phone number that matched that of the Lansing Township Police Department.

The caller claimed to be with the department and would be coming in for an inspection soon.

The perpetrator was using a scamming method called spoofing, whereby a seemingly legitimate number is replicated and used as leverage to con a victim out of money.

The incident wasn’t anything new to township Police Chief John Joseph.

“I don’t how they can make a phone call where it shows a different number, but that is frequently what happens,” Joseph said. “It can also make investigating some of these scams very difficult, especially for smaller agencies like ours.”

State Rep. Penelope Tsnernoglou
State Rep. Penelope Tsnernoglou

According to the FBI’s 2022 Internet Crime Report, financial losses associated with internet scams grew from $6.9 billion in 2021 to $10.3 billion in 2022, an increase of nearly 50%. Of the latter figure, $3.1 billion was lost by victims over the age of 60. Another recent study, published by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation in January, found that three in four adults ranging in age from 50 to 80 reported experiencing an internet scam in the last two years.

To help address the disproportionate number of seniors who are victimized, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel teamed up with state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, D-East Lansing, to host a seminar on elderly abuse in East Lansing recently.

“I thought it was an important topic to address, because it’s especially hard for our seniors to keep track of all the scams that are out there,” Tsernoglou said. “It seems like nobody is immune. I recently got a letter in the mail, supposedly from my car leasing agency, that said I needed to call or they were going to repossess it.”

In July, the Lansing Township department’s number was spoofed by a scammer who called residents claiming to be Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee to get ahold of their banking information. Both the Lansing and East Lansing police departments have dealt with similar situations over the past year. Joseph has even gotten calls from his own phone number.

Residents will frequently come in to the Lansing Township Police headquarters, 3209 W. Michigan Ave., after being targeted.

“We even had a lady came in here with the scammer still on the phone. She had $20,000 in her hand and told me they told her to go deposit it into a Bitcoin ATM at some bar, and she would get their money back plus a fee,” Joseph said.

These scammers will often weaponize fear, relying on their victims’ heightened emotions to override their better judgment. Typically, they’ll claim that the victim owes money for something, like an outstanding warrant.

“That will lead to a request for a gift card or access to your computer. They’ll take all your information. It’s very sophisticated stuff,” Joseph said. “What we want people to understand that police departments or other agencies will never call you for money. If you owe someone, they’re going to send you a letter, or you can call them directly and figure it out.”

Nessel has noted that winter is the most active season for scammers, who often capitalize on holiday shopping deals to sell products they never intend to ship. Her office sent out so many scam warnings that the department created a new website in December to help people recognize when they’re being conned.

One such warning addressed a chain of fraudulent United States Postal Service alerts that were labeled phishing attempts — a strategy used to steal information by getting the victim to click a compromised link. Another warned of a surge in fake Detroit Lions playoff tickets.

Melissa Edson, a Stockbridge resident and frequent concertgoer, fell prey to a ticket scam a few weeks ago, when she used Facebook to buy tickets to an upcoming comedy show.

“I’ve bought from individuals and all the different online agencies, and I do usually do a little bit of due diligence. In this case, I looked the seller up and saw that she had pictures and posts going back a while, so it seemed to me like she was from the community,” Edson said.

This seller asked to be paid through Zelle, a digital payment network, which Edson didn’t have. Edson told her she could pay through Venmo, a similar service.

Edson sent the money, but never got her tickets. She contacted the seller a few more times before they blocked her on Facebook. She called Venmo, which said they couldn’t offer a refund since she hadn’t selected the buyer protection option.

Fortunately, because Edson had listed her Discover credit card on the app as a backup payment method, Discover was able to issue a refund. That turn of luck echoed Nessel’s advice to use a credit card in online purchases when possible because it’s much easier to dispute than a debit card or wire transfer. “I come across scammers pretty often, but this was the first time where I got hit,” Edson said. “I’d still buy on Facebook, but I would suggest that anyone who does tells the seller they’re going to click buyer protection, which is an extra couple bucks. If they’re a scammer, they’re not going to want to go through with it.”

Erika Sheets, a local Realtor, first found herself being pulled into a similarly fraudulent internet scam in 2022.

“I had a listing for sale in Grand Ledge, and I received a call from someone who saw the house listed for rent on Craigslist,” Sheets explained. “Basically, what happens is people will call the number on Craigslist” and someone will collect a deposit from them. “They’ll go to move in and realize it’s actually for sale, there’s a lockbox on it and they can’t get in, and now they’ve lost their money.”

It’s happened a few times since, prompting Sheets to craft a Facebook post in November to warn people. “As  time went on, I started hearing more and more similar stories. It will almost look too good to be true, which is what draws people in,” she said.

Even in her personal life, Sheets said it’s become apparent that scamming has entered a new era of complexity.

“I’ve come across way more of them in the years since COVID, and it’s incredible how legitimate they can make them seem now,” Sheets said.

Back at the Lansing Township Police Department, Joseph knows he hasn’t seen his last spoofing attack. To curb these activities, he said, “our biggest deterrent is education.”

“A lot of it wasn’t being reported before, and now it is, which is good because it helps more people understand that they’re not the only ones who have fallen for it, that they’re not stupid and that it’s OK to be honest and trusting,” Joseph said.

He offered a few more tips for those who find themselves on the receiving end of a scam.

“If somebody’s trying to get money or information from you, hang up the phone, take a step back and call your local police department. Make a habit of changing your passwords often,” Joseph said.



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