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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Scammers step up targeting of Bay area

TAMPA — It could be a scary phone message to get.

“This is Officer Ron Davis from the state investigation department,” the voice on the other end says. “The reason for my call is to make you aware that we have received a legal affidavit, legal case file against your name. (You and another person) are under investigation and there are three federal investigations and charges been pressed against you. So as soon as you receive this message, I want you to return this call.”

Except there is no state department of investigation. The caller sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of a New York police detective from a television drama.

Yes. The scammers are at it again.

Actually, scammers never rest.

A few weeks ago, they were calling people claiming to have kidnapped one of their loved ones and demanding ransom money.

For years, they have been conning people out of money by claiming they need cash to access lottery winnings.

Now, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says thieves are using computer programs that allow them to spoof caller ID to make it appear as if they’re calling from legitimate places, such as the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office or the electric company.

They’re claiming they’re with the sheriff’s office or the IRS, accusing victims of committing crimes and threatening arrest if money and personal identifying information isn’t provided. Or they’re saying the electric bill is overdue and they’re going to shut off the lights if victims don’t send money right away.

Because a few victims have fallen for the scam, the crooks have amped up their efforts in Hillsborough County, said Sheriff’s Cpl. Bruce Crumpler. “Once someone gets a payment, they tend to saturate that area thinking it’s a target-rich environment,” Crumpler said.

After Anastasia Garza got a call at work from her mother about a threat to turn off their electricity, Garza called the number her mother gave her. Garza said she spoke to someone who told her they’d received her payment but it hadn’t been placed into her TECO account. She needed to pay $217.50 to cover the last two months.

She was told she’d be reimbursed with the money that hadn’t gone into her TECO account. She was told to go to Walmart and purchase a MoneyPak prepaid card and add the money to the card.

She called the phone number she was given and gave a number on the back of the card. When she received no reimbursement check, she called back a week and a half later. She was told that as a good customer, she qualified for a program where she could pay a one-time fee of $546 for a year of TECO service. Garza said she asked and was told she could make two payments.

She sent the first payment with the MoneyPak account. When she called to make the second payment, a child answered the phone.

She called back and left a message for the woman she’d been dealing with, but was suspicious. So she got her TECO account number and when the woman called back, Garza asked her for the account number. When she was given the wrong account number and incorrect information about her supposed balance, Garza realized she had been duped and alerted law enforcement.

“The first couple of days I felt awful,” said Garza, 44, of Riverview. “This had never happened to me. I thought, ‘Why did this occur?’ I felt disillusioned.”

When Vipul Kabaria’s wife got a call from someone claiming to be a state investigator accusing her of tax fraud, Kabaria was determined to help law enforcement.

Kabaria, a physician and an honorary sheriff’s deputy, knew he was being scammed.

When Kabaria called the number and said he was calling for his wife, he was told he was being investigated, as well. They told him he was being charged with IRS fraud and there was a warrant for his arrest.

“Immediately, I knew it was a scam because the same thing happened to my sister in January,” Kabaria said. He also knew another physician who had gotten a similar call. The caller wanted his Social Security number.

Kabaria said he pretended he was getting a piece of paper to write something down, and hung up.

The scammer kept calling back. Kabaria contacted the Sheriff’s Office, hoping agents could trace the call.

But detectives couldn’t trace it.

Crumpler said most of the callers are overseas, often in Nigeria and Ghana. They’re out of reach for law enforcement. So investigators just try to get the word out to alert the public not to fall for the cons.

Crumpler said law enforcement, including the Internal Revenue Service, would never call someone demanding money or personal information.

If the electric company or any other business calls to collect an overdue bill, Crumpler advises citizens to check to make sure it’s legitimate. Call the number on a bill or look up the company phone number.

“Don’t call the number they gave you,” he said. But do write the number down and get a description, if possible, of the caller’s voice.

Crumpler said the scammers appear to be targeting Indian immigrants and Spanish speakers.

[email protected]

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

Tribune Reporter Jose Patino contributed to this report.

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