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Who’s calling? Careful, it could be a criminal

Along with family get-togethers, shopping, and plans for holiday decorations, comes another tradition — ripping off people using increasingly sophisticated scams.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Shelter Island and Suffolk County Police departments are warning residents that the holidays are prime time for criminals to profit by preying on people for financial gain.

And with all technological breakthroughs come dangers; artificial intelligence is now being used by criminals to clone voices, creating scripts and calling a person, claiming to be a family member in need of money.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, an 85-year-old Hauppauge man got a call programmed though AI with a voice claiming to be his granddaughter, stating that she had been arrested and needed $19,000 for bail. The grandfather met with an individual earlier this month claiming to represent her and handed over the cash.

Closer to home, last week a Southold man told police he was the victim of a phone scam in which he had sent around $300,000 to the Dominican Republic over the past five years.

The Shelter Island Police Department reaches out to seniors and the wider community on a regular basis to educate residents and warn them of the criminals who are after their cash.

At one such meeting, Erland Zygmuntowicz told of answering his phone at his North Ferry Road residence and listening as a person told him something that shook him to his core. An unidentified stranger said his 28-year-old daughter had been in a serious accident and needed funds immediately.

“In the background I heard a girl crying and screaming,” Mr. Zygmuntowicz remembered. “I kept asking, ‘Where is she? Is she all right?’”

Then the story changed, and he was told, “Your daughter was in the wrong place at the wrong time” and had witnessed a drug transaction. “Say a word about this and she’ll be dead,” he was told, and was then given instructions to get $5,000 and leave the Island for a location to exchange the money for his daughter.

But Mr. Zygmuntowicz’s wife, Anne Danforth, had been listening to the conversation as well, and went to her laptop and soon found that their daughter was in no danger whatsoever.

There are many aspects to the issue, but one of the most startling is the frequency of attempts to illegally separate people — of all ages — from their money. A Harris poll report says 59.4 million Americans were subject to phone/internet scams last year. The Shelter Island Police Department leadership has reported they’re receiving information on phone/internet scams on a weekly basis.

According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, $8.8 billion was lost world-wide through fraud in 2022, up 30% over the year before. The FTC reports that number one on the list of frauds is imposter scams.

In a presentation to the community before last year’s holiday season, the Island Police Department told residents that the crime can come in many guises including:

Government Imposter Scam, where a caller claims to be from the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration or Medicare. The scammers say the potential victim has unpaid taxes and threatens law enforcement action if not paid immediately, and will threaten to cut off Social Security or Medicare if identifying information is not given, which is then used to commit identity theft.

Remember, the police said, the IRS, Social Security, and Medicare never phone citizens out of the blue.

Sweepstakes Scam, where someone is told they’ve won a lottery or a prize, but must buy and send gift cards to an address to collect winnings. One clue to a scam is when you’re asked to purchase gift cards.

The Grandparent Scam, which “targets hearts.” A method frequently used is an older person receiving a call from a young person asking, in a familiar way, “Do you know who this is?” The receiver of the call will mention the name of a grandchild, and the caller will say, “Yes,” and then say they are in serious trouble and need a specific amount of money. “And please don’t tell Mom or Dad or anyone.”

Computer Tech Support Scam, which preys on those who are not up to date on computer knowledge. A pop-up box appears on a screen claiming the computer is broken and to call a number to get it repaired, which means sending money. In 2022, the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that older victims of this scam suffered approximately $238 million in losses.

One scam particular to Shelter Island is that Chase Bank has been “compromised” and money should be taken out, and cash used to buy gift cards and/or mail cash across the country. This crime happened to Islander Heather Lee, who over a few weeks, lost her entire life savings. Ms. Lee was praised by Police Chief Jim Read for coming forward to speak about the ordeal.

The police note that if you have been scammed and lost money, don’t be embarrassed, but call the Police Department immediately.

A common feature in fraud schemes is criminals providing a bogus feeling of security, even friendship, establishing trust, and gaining the confidence of the victim through personal touches and seemingly sincere discussions.

Tips to keep your finances safe:

• If you’re unsure it’s a scam, stop and talk to someone.

• Resist the pressure to act immediately.

• Do not give any personal or financial information such as credit card, Social Security or bank numbers.

• If anyone asks you to purchase gift cards, it’s a dead giveaway that it’s a scam.

• If you feel you’re being victimized, contact the Police Department immediately — 631-749-0600 — and/or someone you trust. Don’t click on unfamiliar web addresses and don’t make phone calls to unfamiliar numbers urging you to call immediately.