Telephone fraud is rapidly increasing across the country. As in Virginia, where the number of telephone fraud reports ranks the state 11th in the country, it’s also happening in Rappahannock County.
The Federal Trade Commission’s annual national survey of fraud-related complaints reported the method of initial contact by phone increased to 75 percent in 2015; in 2014, it was 54 percent.
Statistics can paint a picture — including those that indicate older Americans are often the target of phone scams — and that Rappahannock’s median age of 47.4 is 10 years older than the median age across both the U.S. and Virginia.
But experience can make it real, as one local business owner learned earlier this month.
On the morning of July 5, Gary Aichele, co-proprietor of the Gay Street Inn and a Washington Town Council member, received a fraudulent phone call. “The phone rang and it was a man [with a foreign accent] saying he was calling as a courtesy, that he was a technician on his way to disconnect the power for Rappahannock Electric at the Gay Street Inn, and he would be here in about 30 minutes,” Aichele said.
The scam was detailed and threatening enough to his business that, while remaining suspicious, Aichele and his wife, Wendy (the B&B’s co-proprietor and bookkeeper), rushed to the bank and withdrew $2,000 and drove to the CVS in Front Royal — where the caller had instructed them to go to wire the funds.
In the parking lot of the CVS, Aichele said, the couple finally got through to Rappahannock Electric, where a representative told them they were not in arrears, and that the phone call was likely a scam. Further confirmation came from the CVS manager, Aichele said, who noted that the store’s maximum wire transfer amount is $2,000 — and the fee Aichele was told to pay, $1,997, would have raised a red flag.
Aichele said he felt this incident was elaborate enough that people should be cautioned, and such schemes can come close to fooling even those who don’t fit the profile. “We read about or hear about people that get taken and we assume that they are elderly and senile or that they are young and without experience,” Aichele said. “So the fact that I could get this far down this path suggests that we all need to be a little bit more aware and cautious in dealing with people we don’t know.”
Multiple reports are received daily at the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, according to RCSO investigator Lt. Jason Romero. “It’s one of the more regular complaints,” he said last week. “Generally speaking, if we were to get 10 complaints during the course of 24-hour period, probably two or three are going be some sort of phone scam complaint.”
While the FTC has reported an increase of unwanted phone-fraud complaints, the numbers of local complaints, seemingly high, have stayed consistent over the past decade, according to Romero. Rappahannock County is not a particularly targeted area, he said. “To put it in perspective, if there is a scam . . . that is something I am not familiar with, I have never not been able to find it on the internet as a common scam happening elsewhere in the country. So we have not seen anything unique to Rappahannock County, it’s all international, or other parts of this country that are receiving the same scams.”
The sheriff’s office will post a warning of any noticeable trends in complaints on its Facebook page, Romero said.
“The nature and flavor of the scams changed a little bit over time,” he said. “I think that’s more along the lines that the people who are perpetrating these crimes are coming up with new gimmicks, new flavors, but in the end, the scam is still the same. It generally involves sending money ahead of time, whether the precursor be because . . . a family member is in trouble, or you are being offered a loan.
“I think the biggest message is that if it sounds too good to be true,” Romero said, “it probably is.”
A possible cause of the increase in phone-based fraud is that credit cards are becoming more secure, so perpetrators have focused their efforts on the telephone. In 2004, chip-enabled credit card technology was introduced to the United Kingdom; phone fraud there has increased 72 percent since. Last October, chip-enabled cards were introduced in the U.S.; for the first four months of 2016, the FTC reports a 41 percent increase in unwanted call complaints over the same period in 2015.
To stay informed on local fraud incidents, you can follow — while logged in to Facebook, that is — the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page at facebook.com/Rappahannock-County-Sheriffs-Office-438630142892606.
The FTC also provides phone fraud information, and the ability to report incidents, online at consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0076-phone-scams.