Phone and Web Scams Blitz the Palisades

Nigeria: Home of princes
Photo courtesy of Reuters


Despite residents leaving their garage doors open at 3 a.m., Pacific Palisades may be the safest city in Los Angeles, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Michael Moore told the town’s community council on Thursday, Sept. 14.

And, just to avoid complacency, the genial officer introduced an LAPD detective who revealed how this town is being targeted by a new generation of internet and phone scam artists—because this is where the money is.

Only then did representatives on the Pacific Palisades Community Council, including worldly wise lawyers and hardheaded money people, realize how often they, too, are being targeted by these scammers—sometimes every day.

It is not just the elderly.

With an increasing variety of professionally written cold call “scripts” being deployed by criminals at home and abroad, a surprising number of younger people are falling for scams, which can earn fortunes in an almost-risk-free, almost-invisible crime wave.

And while sexual predators, troublesome adolescents, and the random opportunism and drunken violence of the mentally disorganized may always be with us, LAPD believes these scammers are the future economic threat to Palisadian family fortunes.

LAPD Detective Kristin Y. Cho told PPCC she is investigating an increasingly sophisticated array of telephone tricks and online scams on the Westside.

In a blood-chilling litany of larceny, she ran through the playbook.

First up, the dating site sweetheart who woos for hours on the phone, sends gifts and photographs but never shows his or her face on Skype. That is a red flag, Cho said.

She told the sorry tale of the 65-year-old professor who was tricked into wiring such a con artist $34,000 bail money when he had been “arrested” on his way to her home.

Next, the grandmother scam: the early morning call from a young-sounding person to an elderly “relative” also needing money for bail.

He or she is waiting for the “mark” to give away information such as “Billy, is that you?”

A thief calling himself “Simon” wormed $66,000 out of one victim, asking Granny to hand it over to a courier. But in this case, Simon was tracked and arrested.

David Card, representing the Rotary Club, recalled an early morning call from a “policeman” seeking bail for a relative. Although “confused” at that hour, he replied “I will get back to you”—but, smartly, went back to bed instead.

Then there is the publishing clearing house sweepstakes, where a “Tom Sawyer” sucked $258,000 out of a bank account as “fees” in advance of a $1.5 million prize.

If the scammers are foreign, they tend to adopt such “American-sounding names,” while homegrown fraudsters opt for the bland.

In the IRS scam, a con man claiming to represent tax collectors demands instant settlement of an imagined debt. One victim, Joan, an attorney, lost $160,000 under this pressure. The IRS will never demand such a settlement, Cho said.

Richard Cohen, PPCC treasurer, said wearily that he was targeted like this at least weekly.

Bogus IRS agents have reaped $54 million since October 2013, according to the Treasury Inspector General: Such calls are rising yearly by 13 percent, according to the telecom company First Orion.

There are many variants, Cho said, and, like all predator hunts, the vast majority fail.

A few successes, however, justify establishing well-funded call centers of criminals willing to spend months grooming victims for a payday.

Criminologists will shortly “celebrate” the centennial of the daddy of all these scams, the Nigerian prince. In 1920, the original Nigerian scammer, writing to targets in colonial Ghana, offered juju spells for little return, signing his letters “P. Crentsil, Professor of Wonders.”

As far as the fraudster is concerned, as long as Palisadians leave their garage doors and check books open, wonders will never cease.