It sounds like a pretty obvious scam: you get a phone call, and then another, both claiming to be from the Ann Arbor police. The callers say there’s a warrant out for your arrest from U.S. Customs and Immigration officials. You can pay $3,000 in iTunes gift cards they say, or go to jail.
If you’re an immigrant, or just unfamiliar with how police operate, this can feel very real, says Ann Arbor Detective Lt. Matt Lige.
“And all of those factors in concert, the victim may have not known what the law enforcement culture is regarding arrest warrants, and thought that what she was being told was accurate. And she went and purchased those … cards in hope she wouldn’t be arrested," he says.
So far, police say they know of just one victim who’s paid these particular scammers: the Ann Arbor woman lost $1,500 in total, moving from one store to the next, buying iTunes gift cards in hopes of avoiding jail.
Lt. Lige says they’re seeing these phone scams “more often than I’m comfortable with,” but “what makes this one unique is the suspects used the Washtenaw County central dispatch as the caller ID. And the number that she’s got on her caller ID, is from central dispatch. That is something we haven’t seen before, but again, it offers a certain legitimacy to the caller.”
Scammers are continually finding new ways to impersonate law enforcement, he says.
“[The trend is] to try and prove to the caller that they're somehow affiliated with law enforcement. And the level of effort to try and prove that to the caller, seems to be increasing.”
But tracking down the people making these calls can be tricky. “In similar investigations, the track has led us to Puerto Rico. And once it crosses international boundaries, the jurisdiction that we have to investigate that any further is very complicated. And there’s also been instance where money transfers have come through residents of this city, and the money is literally being wired into another country. And certainly in those cases, when it happens, it makes a legitimate local invstigations very difficult.”
Lt. Lige says there are certain cases where they notify the IRS or the FBI. But just to be safe, remember that police won’t ever ask you to pay a fine over the phone. “Use your instincts. Hang the phone up. Don’t use the number the person is providing you. Don’t go to a website the person is providing you.
“Nine times out of ten, there’s no legitimacy to these calls. But the duress that the callers are put under – in this case, (the threat of) arrest – cause people to want to avoid that and pay for fines over the phone with a credit card. And that is simply not how the law enforcement profession conducts business.”