When disaster strikes, the first thought usually isn’t “How can I use this opportunity to make money?” but for scammers it is.
Ellen Klem, director of consumer outreach and education for the Office of the Oregon Attorney General, said scammers will take any opportunity to prey on people.
“Generally scammers don’t care about COVID, don’t care about wildfires to the extent that their actions don’t stop because of those events,” Klem said.
In fact, these are the precise situations that fuel some scams.
“What we have historically seen with natural disasters is that scammers take a hold of the news and use that to their advantage,” Klem said. “They prey on an individual’s vulnerabilities or worries.”
As the wildfires began to spread through Oregon, scams involving the fires spread as well.
“I’m sure it was within hours,” Klem said about how quickly fire-related scams appeared. Now, while hundreds remain displaced from losing their homes to the fires she’s heard reports of “company representatives” visiting evacuation and shelter sites trying to convince wildfire victims that their company is the only one certified by the Red Cross and pressuring them into using their services.
“I’m also fairly concerned about contractors, licensed or unlicensed, saying to victims ‘Oh, you need to sign over your insurance check to me’ and they’re gone, never to reappear,” she said.
On the other side of things, she’s also on the lookout for “charitable scams,” or scams that moonlight as worthy causes to be donated to, such as a wildfire relief fund. She cautions that people should research the charities before donating.
“We haven’t necessarily heard of many charitable scams, but that is something we’ve seen in the past that targets well-meaning, giving Oregonians,” Klem said.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum issued a scam alert on Sept. 15 notifying Oregonians to be certain the wildfire relief organizations they are donating to are legitimate by doing research, donating to registered charities and being wary of donation solicitations over the phone, email or at the door.
“Kind and generous Oregonians are stepping up to help out by making donations,” Rosenblum wrote in the alert. “Unfortunately, we know there are some bad actors out there who will try to prosper off any disaster. I encourage Oregonians to give, but I want to help make sure your donations get to the right place and are used for their intended purpose.”
A variety of scams
Scams can come in all forms: over texts, emails, on the phone, or from simply clicking a bad link. There are plenty of ways for scammers to gain access to personal and financial information.
Just in the past few weeks, the Rainier Police Department received a call from a citizen who had been contacted by a friend over Facebook. The friend told the victim that she won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes and told her to text a number to receive her prize.
Spoiler alert: the “friend” was a scammer, and the victim was asked to pay state tax on her make-believe prize money in the form of Nike gift cards, according to information from the Rainier Police Department.
This isn’t the first time the area has been targeted for scams of this kind. In 2019, The Chief took an in-depth look at financial fraud and the ways scammers gain access to victims computers, even remotely connecting to their computer to control it and access banking information.
Phishing can be as innocuous as an email from a coworker that might seem perfectly valid, until a closer look reveals an email address off by one letter. Inside of these emails the content can vary. Sometimes it may contain link to take the user to a login page, but when the user logs in the scammer receives their password and credentials. Other times the emails might request gift cards or forms of payment, pretending to be gifts for office staff.
The safest thing to do when encountering an email or online message that seems off is not to click any links, Klem said.
Guides from the Oregon Office of the Attorney General identified six common signs to help people identify if they are dealing with a scammer.
1. Scammers contact people out of the blue.
2. Scammers claim there is an emergency.
3. Scammers ask for personal information.
4. Scammers ask for money to be wired.
5. Scammers tell people to keep the interaction a secret.
6. Scammers make it sound too good to be true.
These are some of the tell-tale signs that something fishy is going on.
Columbia County is not the only area targeted by scammers, Curry County Sheriff John Ward recently shared a guide to help keep people protected. In his example, a scammer will call someone to alert them of a payment made from their account and ask that they visit a website to proceed or cancel. Once on the website, the scammer has access to the user’s computer and can access all of the information on the user’s computer.
His tips are to hang up on the caller as soon as they make contact. Second tip is to check bank accounts to verify all charges are valid. Third tip is to notify law enforcement.
“The people perpetrating these scams are from overseas more often than not and out of reach for local law enforcement,” he wrote. “However, should you suffer a financial loss; your banking institution/credit card company is going to want to know it was reported.”
The best to avoid falling for these scams is to stay alert and think critically when contacted by scammers.
“If it seems too good to be true, it is,” Curry County Sheriff’s Detective J Freeman said. “You should never have to pay money to get money. And no one is going to pay you $8,000 a month to drive around with a Dr Pepper sticker on your car.”
Another way to stay well-informed and safe from scams is to join the Scam Alert Network through the Oregon Department of Justice. By signing up with only an email address, people are provided with real-time information on scams and frauds as they are reported.