Low-tech scams wreak high-cost damages

Each year the Mercer Island Police Department receives about two or three reports of phone scams, but Cmdr. Leslie Burns suspects it's more common than the department's reports show.

The "relatively new" scam involves someone, usually from out of the country, who calls an elderly person with some general personal information, the kind of details easily found online through a Google search.

Usually the scammer tells the victim that they're in Canada, a family member is in jail and they won't be released until a certain amount of money is wired.

"It's a far-fetched scam, but they're playing on emotions," she said. "I can't think of an agency (in the U.S.) that would ask you to wire money."

Never wire any money unless you are wiring it to a family member, friends, or someone you know and trust, she said.

"I think it happens more than its reported," she said.

Executive Director of Aljoya, Marla Becker, is thankful scams have not been a problem for her residents. The Mercer Island retirement community periodically distributes handouts to its community members with tips about fraud, how to identify it and avoid becoming a victim, she said.

The tight-knit community and support staff may be another reason Aljoya's residents haven't been affected.

"They talk with their neighbors," she said. "They talk with each other over dinner. They're a safety net for each other and they have staff that they can come to."

Seniors aren't the only ones affected by scammers.

Check fraud affects all ages, Cmdr. Burns said.

"Ever year we have rashes of 'mailboxers,'" she said. "They come around in the middle of the night, take mail from unlocked mailboxes and go back to their caves."

They sift through the letters for bank statements and other personal documents, open the mail and use the information to make unauthorized purchases and steal victims' identities.

"It's not very sophisticated," she said of the process, "but it causes a lot of financial damage."

It's an easy crime to avoid, she said.

"We strongly suggest locked mailboxes. Don't put outgoing mail in an unsecured box; put it in a post office drop box," Cmdr. Burns said. "If you're on vacation stop you mail, forward it, have a friend pick it up, or make sure the mailbox is locked."

If you suspect you've been the victim of identity theft, fraud, or another kind of scam, call the Mercer Island Police Department police dispatch line, (425) 577-5600.

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