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Top scams of 2015 are familiar to Sonoma County detectives

The threat is simple: Pay the IRS for unpaid taxes or else the police will show up at your door.

It’s one of the most prevalent impostor-type scams that targeted people - especially elders - this year, Sonoma County law enforcement officials and senior advocates said. Fraudulent calls from the IRS also were the top scams reported to the Better Business Bureau nationwide.

“They call and threaten that (you) have to pay the bill: ‘Send a MoneyGram or the police are going to show up at the door,’?” Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Josh Ludtke said.

But the threat is absolutely false. It is part of an enduring set of schemes criminals use to bilk people out of cash on the phone, often by requiring they act quickly, without time to think it through.

Like the two-bedroom house for rent immediately available, sight unseen, with a deposit paid with a cashier’s check. Or a sweepstakes prize ready for delivery with a small processing fee paid upfront. Or the job listing offering a chance to “make big bucks working from home” by signing up now.

If the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is, said Ludtke, who runs the department’s property crimes detectives unit.

“The best thing you can do is to be really cautious. No one here ever wins the lottery in Nigeria,” Ludtke said.

The scope of the problem is hard to capture. Many people likely don’t report being victimized because they are unaware or are ashamed.

In 2014, the IRS said that the Treasury Inspector General identified 1,100 victims who collectively lost $5 million through unsolicited calls demanding payment. The agency reissued public warnings about the fraudulent phone calls in October and stated that its employees will never call to demand payment.

About 17.6 million Americans lost an estimated $8.6 billion through telephone scams that same year, according to a 2014 Harris Poll conducted for a company called Truecaller that surveyed 2,040 people. The average reported loss was $488.80.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Raasch said the competitive rental market in Sonoma County has opened up the door for more scam artists demanding people pay upfront fees or deposits for houses or apartments not even on the market.

“Someone takes a picture of a house and puts it up for rent on Craigslist,” Raasch said. “Then they tell a potential renter, ‘Text me at this number,’ and the next thing you know they’re getting scammed for deposit and first month’s rent.”

Criminals subscribe to information clearinghouses like Spokeo to use personal details that make their pitches sound real, he said.

Preventing such crimes is essential because they can be impossible to investigate because of the technology available to help criminals create fake phone numbers and call from anywhere in the world, both detective sergeants said.

“It astounds me how creative the criminals are,” said Crista Chelemedos, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, a local nonprofit ombudsman program for seniors.

Local seniors have received a flood of fake calls this year from people pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service or demanding payment for fines supposedly incurred for missing jury service, Chelemedos said.

“They absolutely convince them,” she said.

These types of scams disproportionately target seniors, Chelemedos said. She advised people to talk regularly with elderly family members about the kinds of phone calls they receive and financial donations or transactions they make.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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