Phone Scammers: Coming to a ZIP Code Near You

In March, a phone call from a man identifying himself as Milton Schwarz, a lawyer for the U.S. Consulate in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, woke up Park Cities resident Ginny Sillers, 88.

“Your grandson Scott was in an accident on spring break,” the man told her. “The police have him in custody for DWI. And you know what Mexican jails are like.”

Sillers was so upset he almost handed over $15,000, stuffed into a magazine and posted to an address in Georgia for her grandson’s bail.

“Of course, I don’t know what Mexican jails are like,” she said. “But I figured from his tone they weren’t nice.”

Only, her grandson wasn’t in prison. He wasn’t even in Mexico. He certainly wasn’t on spring break, since he had graduated from college four years ago.

But this is how phone scammers operate. They are predators, and they use information such as ZIP codes and public records to target wealthy and vulnerable people, according to Highland Park DPS Lt. Lance Koppa. Sillers does have a grandson named Scott; and she did have the funds available.

HP police told Sillers the scammers probably got the information they needed from her late husband’s obituary, which was published in the Dallas Morning News last fall. According to Koppa, scammers target the elderly, who tend to have more money and less savvy.

Scammers are also skilled at manipulation. That’s why, instead of calling the police, or a friend or family member, so many people are persuaded to hand over huge sums of money to an unknown caller.

HP resident John Eisenlohr, 87, was a victim of a similar scam on May 6. Eisenlohr was defrauded of $5,000 before he was able to contact his grandson.

Both Sillers and Eisenlohr reported the phone calls to HP police. Koppa said that these scams are common, and that reports come in waves.

Scammers may request bail money, hospital bills, IRS payments, or energy provider payments over the phone. But they also hit in person. Koppa warned of thieves gaining entry to houses in the Park Cities by pretending to be electrical workers.

What To Do

When are phone calls scams?
– When someone you don’t know demands money or personal information over the phone
– When someone threatens you over the phone
– When someone says not to tell anyone about the phone call

What to do if you’re suspicious
– If you are near a computer, type the caller’s phone number into your search engine. Often, fraudulent numbers will have been reported already.
– Ask for a phone number to call back, hang up, and call your local law enforcement.

Should you let someone into your home?
– If someone comes to your door unannounced claiming to be from your energy provider, ask them to wait while you call the company or lok online to determine if there has in fact been a power outage or other problem in your area.

“There’s a geographic movement that we tend to see,” Koppa said. “It [the number of reports] slowly dies off and fades away and then suddenly it surges up again, like the tide. It always comes back.”

That’s because scammers will target a certain area, and then move on. Koppa says that right now, “we’re in a low spot.” But caution and awareness are still important.

According to Koppa, a high number of phone scam reports would be five in one day. A low number would be several in one week. And that doesn’t account for the number of scams that go unreported, which Koppa attributes to the embarrassment a victim may feel.

Reporting these crimes is essential, because it gives police data about what areas scammers are targeting. Koppa said there could even be efforts with other counties, or with federal law enforcement, to build an organized crime case.

Catching scammers is extremely difficult, because they hide their identities so well.

“The phone numbers are hard to track, [because] they use burner phones,” Koppa said. “They’re very, very difficult to trace.”

The only way these imposters can be stopped is if the scam stops working, Koppa advises. Be aware, be suspicious, and when in doubt, call someone you trust.

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