Stopping predators who attack vulnerable victims — be they child, elder/disabled adults or helpless animals — has long been at the heart of your Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.
Prosecuting thieves who take advantage of our community members who fall victims to our multiple disasters has also been at the core of who we are.
Imagine a single senior who, because of their age or underlying condition, is forced to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in an effort to reduce their loneliness turns to a dating site. Now imagine a soulless predator who takes advantage of them for just those reasons.
The scammer’s successful formula is quite simple: The thief uses a fraudulent/stock/Facebook photo and appears attractive. Once they make contact with their prey, they offer them some much needed attention and compliments.
Next they go on to creating false empathy for the victim, and then sympathy for themselves. Once trust is established they go in for the kill.
They ask the senior for money for some dire situation and the senior, believing they have found their soulmate and acting out of love (based upon prolonged loneliness), gives them that money.
Most people believe this could never happen to them or someone they love, but they are wrong.
Lonely people living in isolation during a pandemic are easy prey for these despicable thieves. This kind of scam is called a “romance scam.”
As we grapple with the health and economic crises occasioned by the spread of COVID-19, another epidemic has emerged — internet scams.
In the last couple of weeks, Santa Barbara County residents, victimized by the romance scam, have lost many thousands of dollars. One victim was unwittingly conned into becoming a money mule (money laundering).
These fraudsters can also pose as health-care workers, essential employees, U.S. military members or business executives working in another country. They might solicit funds for fake charities, a personal medical emergency, unexpected business expenses or a sick child.
When the crook has taken the victim’s last dollar, he or she might enlist their help in laundering money taken from other victims. In this case the victim will be asked to deposit funds from the scammer into their bank account, and then forward the money to other accounts, which are controlled by internet criminals.
According to the FBI, “The COVID-19 pandemic provides criminal opportunities on a scale likely to dwarf anything seen before. The speed at which criminals are devising and executing their schemes is truly breathtaking.”
Whether you are worried about getting personal protective equipment or a COVID-19 test or vaccine, or you are isolated, lonely and looking for friendship and/or love, there is a scammer right around the corner ready, willing and skilled in taking your hard-earned money.
Scammers follow the headlines, and new scams occur as fast as new developments are reported. The FBI warns about the following fraudulent activity:
» The sale of miracle cures, testing equipment, PPE or the vaccine
» Offering early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, for a fee
» Unsolicited emails, telephone calls, or personal contact from someone claiming to be from a medical office, insurance company or coronavirus vaccine center, asking for personal and /or medical information to determine eligibility to receive the vaccine early
» Calls from someone claiming to be a contact tracer and asking for personal and financial information unrelated to health issues
» Advertisements for vaccines through social media platforms
Our office works to combat these scammers by educating our community about these scams in a variety of ways; a weekly radio show titled Scam Squad, articles in senior publications, virtual presentations about scams targeting seniors, public service announcements and by announcing new scams on our website http://www.countyofsb.org/da/.
To avoid being scammed:
» Only get information from an official government site, or your primary-care physician.
» Don’t share personal, medical, or financial information with a stranger who calls or texts you.
» Don’t respond to any solicitation in which you are asked to pay by gift card, cash or bitcoin.
» Carefully research any charity before you make a gift.
» You can’t pay to put your name on a list to get the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s a scam.
» You can’t pay to get early access to the vaccine. That’s a scam.
» No legitimate health-care worker will call about the vaccine and ask for your Social Security, bank account or credit card number. That’s a scam.
» If a new online friend asks you for money, that’s a scam.
And finally, remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
If you believe you, or someone you know, has been a victim of one of these scams, contact your local law enforcement agency.
If you know of someone who was contacted by a fraudster, you or they should report this to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov, also to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.
We in Santa Barbara County will survive COVID-19 and any other disaster that comes our way; we know that because we always have.
What we need to do, is in fact what we have always done: Be there for each other.
— Joyce Dudley is Santa Barbara County’s district attorney and Vicki Johnson is a deputy district attorney specializing in elder abuse and scams. The opinions expressed are their own.