A renewed wave of scams targeting locals has prompted repeated warnings from local authorities over the perpetually worrying trend.
Though many citizens may be aware of telephone or online scams, the digital age has created more devious scammers than prior generations, preying on vulnerable populations such as Santa Monica’s elderly contingent.
The most common type of scam in Santa Monica and the Los Angeles area at large are known as “impostor scams,” wherein a criminal impersonates someone (typically an authority figure) to solicit money from the victim. An increasingly popular form of impostor scamming in 2023 has been “smishing,” a form of phishing when scammers pose as United States Postal Service representatives, telling victims they have a package that needs to be claimed.
“Victims will typically receive a deceptive text message that is intended to lure the recipient into providing their personal or financial information,” the Santa Monica Police Department wrote on its Facebook page to warn residents. “These scammers often attempt to disguise themselves as a government agency, bank, or other company to lend legitimacy to their claims.”
The United States Postal Inspection Service states that “if you never signed up for a USPS tracking request for a specific package,” then do not click on a link sent via text or email. The USPS uses a 5-digit short code to send and receive messages to and from mobile phones, and messages will not be sent without a customer first requesting a service with a tracking number.
To protect yourself and others from “smishing” scams, the postal service also reminds residents to delete the text messages, as “legitimate companies will not ask you to confirm or provide personal information.” Another defense is to “treat your personal information like cash,” as information such as Social Security number, credit card numbers and other personally identifiable information can be used to either steal money or open new accounts without the victim’s knowledge or approval.
Another popular scam the Santa Monica PD warns about comes from the telephone and often targets the elderly population. Utility billing scams have been rampant, with scammers calling potential victims, telling them that they are behind on payments and that their gas or electric will be turned off immediately.
“A call from your gas, electric or water company, threatening to immediately turn off your service, is probably a scam,” PD officials stated.
After claiming someone is delinquent, the scammer will then make demands for payment through prepaid debit, gift cards, wire transfers, money orders or cash payments at an ATM machine. This is what the PD calls a “dead giveaway” of a scam, as is a sense of urgency, when the scammer demands payment within an hour.
To avoid the scam, the PD recommends hanging up the phone and calling the utility company using the number on a utility bill or through the utility company’s website. If the scammer left a call-back number, it is typically a fake number.
Utility scams and “smishing” scams are just two examples of how prevalent scamming is nationwide. In 2022, Americans lost $8.8 billion to scams, an increase of over 30 percent from 2021. In the same year, over 140,000 acts of fraud were recorded in the Los Angeles area, with another 34,417 recorded in the first quarter of 2023.
“Simply knowing about the types of scams criminals run is your best defense against becoming a victim,” the Santa Monica PD emphasized.
Preventive tips in the handling of suspicious telephone or email requests:
- Do not click on any links in a suspicious email message. Instead go to the institution’s website and log in directly or call a telephone number you know is genuine.
- Do not reply to any messages that requests your personal information and do not send financial and/or personal information in an email.
- Be cautious about opening attachments or downloading files regardless of the sender. Attachments and downloadable files often contain viruses that can compromise your computer system’s security and personal information.
- Be aware that fraudulent email messages often contain spelling errors and use poor grammar.
- Be skeptical of any unsolicited calls.
Anyone with information regarding a telephone or email scam is urged to contact the Santa Monica Police Department by calling the non-emergency number at (310) 458-8491.