Smithfield sees scam surge

Published 7:13 pm Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Police are urging awareness after Smithfield residents have recently fallen victim to financial scams.

Although scams can come through all communication channels, it usually starts with a phone call, said Smithfield Police Lt. Pat Araojo, who leads investigations for the department. Araojo explained how a scam might start.

You might receive a phone call from someone claiming to work for or represent Amazon, the online retailer. They’ll claim there’s a problem with your account and request that you download a program to your computer, which will give the hacker access to your personal information.

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Once they have computer access, the scammers claim that the company deposited too much money into your account. The scammers then ask you to make a withdrawal in the amount of the supposedly incorrect deposit.

Then the hackers say the victim should buy gift cards for Amazon or a big box store like Walmart or Best Buy, where the scammers can turn them around quickly for possible cash back on purchases or buy easily resold, high dollar merchandise like electronics.

If the victim buys the gift cards, as directed by the hacker, the fraud perpetrator will then ask the victim to send a picture of the security code on the card, “which in essence gives them the card without ever having to make physical contact with the card,” Araojo said. “Once they have all that information, they empty the card.”

Throughout their interaction, the scammers will often insist that the victim not tell the bank or anyone else.

But sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t even stop there. If the victim is still complying with the hacker’s orders, the scammers will contact them again and say that the gift card transaction failed because they had a zero balance and they need to do the process over again.

“Unfortunately, we had a gentleman who was scammed out of almost $40,000 this past Christmas with this particular scam,” Araojo said. “It’s not unusual for that amount when [scammers] sound believable enough.”

Another giveaway it’s a scam is when hackers insist on secrecy or there’s an urgent timeframe mandated.

As an example, Araojo said in a recent case one person faced an attempted scam where he was told by someone claiming to be from Dominion Energy that he had to pay about $200 via money order in the next hour or his electricity would be cut off.

Araojo said if you get contacted by someone claiming immediate attention and cooperation is needed with a financial-related issue, you should stop and take a step back to take a look at the situation. “A lot of times, people will panic and that’s what starts the ball rolling, because people believe they’re in some kind of financial danger,” he said.

The department also recently posted on its Facebook page that some scammers are even preying on people’s fears and eagerness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Being asked to pay to get your name added to a vaccine waiting list is a giveaway that someone might be trying to take advantage of you, as no legitimate healthcare organization will request payment in advance for access to the vaccine.

Araojo said he thinks the overall stress of the last year — a ongoing global health crisis, being stuck at home under quarantine and social isolation, different work, school and family dynamics, the financial stress of being let go from a job, political upheaval — may have caused some people to let their guard down from just being mentally and physically overwhelmed with everything happening in the world.

“My takeaway for people would be before rushing into any kind of situation — when you get a call about a problem with your finances, stop and think before completing anything that they request,” Araojo said. “Talk to a loved one, a relative, a neighbor. Call the police. If you suspect that something’s not on the up and up, take the time to look into it, do your own research.”

Smithfield-area residents are encouraged to contact the police department or local law enforcement if they suspect they’ve been approached by or fallen victim to a financial scam. The FBI also accepts reports directly from the public through the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at You’ll be asked to provide your name, contact information and details on exactly how you were scammed.