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MN attorney general says newer, sophisticated scams victimizing Minnesotans

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has been traveling across the state to warn and inform Minnesotans of a wave of newer, more sophisticated phone scams. Submitted photo

DEERWOOD, Minn.—Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson was in Deerwood Monday, May 7, "spreading the word" on a wave of newer, modern variants of traditional phone scams that are creating a surge in fraud and identity theft plaguing Minnesotans and people across the United States.

Swanson said innovations in technology—notably, software capable of "caller ID spoofing"—enables scammers to mask their identities and locations in more sophisticated ways. By using these new tools, scammers impersonate local numbers or legitimate businesses, which allows them to target victims across the globe with relative ease.

"It can be big money. I mean, huge amounts of money," said Swanson during a phone interview. She noted multiple times that older people and the financially insecure are favorite targets. "I always say, 'Every good scam has a couple criteria—people have to want to believe it, and they have to have a couple grains of truth.' They're very, very industrious about how they go about it."

The slippery nature of caller ID spoofing, coupled with the global reach of these scammers, means it's nearly impossible to retrieve lost funds—a reality that means preventive measures are crucial, Swanson emphasized.

"Be vigilant against them—there are callers bent on taking your money," Swanson said. "The best thing to do is hang up on them, don't talk to them. You don't have to be nice to them. Get off the phone as quick as you can."

Posing as a local or legitimate caller ID is an effective, tried-and-true fleece, Swanson said, because potential victims are more inclined to answer calls and trust the scammer in these cases.This capability to avoid detection also means it's increasingly difficult for law enforcement to apprehend scammers, a problem resulting from and compounded by the nature of these groups. Compared to scammers in the past—typically lone actors, localized and less sophisticated—Swanson said these scams represent the work of complex transnational criminal organizations better equipped than their predecessors.

New strains of an old virus

During her interview with Forum News Service, Swanson identified four variations of phone scams victimizing people across the United States and drawing the attention of the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General:

  • "The high-tech scam," as Swanson called it, characterizes scams involving criminals posing as corporate employees for companies such as Microsoft or Apple, who mislead the victim into believing their computer is damaged, infected with a virus or somehow compromised. The scammers convince victims to grant them access to their computers in the guise of help. After sabotaging the victim's computer, the scammers will request their credit card information to pay a "fee" for repairs. Scammers also may able to install software to extract sensitive information, such as social security numbers, for identity theft purposes.
  • "The IRS scam" is defined by scammers masquerading as Internal Revenue Service agents or government employees, Swanson said. In these cases, scammers contact the victim to "address" non-existent irregularities with their tax forms or unpaid back taxes. By banking on the anxieties of these people—who often are financially insecure, elderly or both—scammers can convince victims to pay exorbitant fees or hand over crucial identity information in the misguided effort to protect their finances and credit scores.
  • "The 'Can you hear me?' scam," as Swanson noted, differs significantly from the other three in that the objective of the scammer is not to acquire information, but a soundbite. By answering the seemingly innocent question "Can you hear me?" and responding in the affirmative, scammers are able to take that sound bite and use it to authorize purchases. This scam also may be based on the fact the scammers already have the victim's credit card information, Swanson added.
  • "The car warranty company scam," Swanson said, is similar to "the IRS scam" in that scammers pose as employees of car manufacturers and try to manipulate victims into handing over sensitive information. By acquiring a car's information, such as make or model, as well as the name and address of the car owner, scammers send a postcard falsely notifying the owner their warranty soon will or has expired. Through appearing legitimate, scammers are able to convince victims to buy useless warranties for $2,000-$3,000. Swanson noted the precarious position of many car owners, 40 percent of whom don't have enough money for serious repairs, leaves many vulnerable to this scam.

With a wave of scams international in scope, Swanson said, it's nearly impossible to accurately determine the number of victims and how much damage has been inflicted.

Instead, the recent rash of scams came to the attention of government officials and law enforcement because of numerous reports, Swanson said. An assessment, she added, that's been reflected by feedback she's received in her efforts to inform Minnesotans on the subject. Phone scams pose a real and imminent threat for many people in Minnesota and across the United States.

If readers have concerns, need more information or wish to report these instances of fraud, they can call the Minnesota State Attorney General's Office at 651-296-3353 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Swanson noted callers will be connected with specialists and not voicemails or automated customer service.