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Suffolk County officials warn of new telephone scam

In a case involving a Melville man who fell victim, spoofing software made it appear as if the calls were legitimately coming from the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Suffolk County officials, including Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, at microphone, warned residents Thursday about a new telephone scam involving a phone number for the U.S. Social Security Administration.  (Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz)

Fraudsters are employing a new phone scam that displays a caller ID that looks like a legitimate source, whether it’s the U.S. Social Security Administration or PSEG Long Island, officials warned Thursday.

Suffolk County officials are so worried that they held a news conference Thursday to warn people about the new scam. In addition, PSEG Long Island held an informational session Thursday to caution senior citizens, who are often the target of such scams.

Essentially the scam bypasses people’s defenses by displaying what looks like an authentic caller ID. That can lead people to open up to a scammer, and consequently open up their accounts and finances to thieves.

“You can see how sophisticated this is, and how legitimate they seem to people,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “If someone is calling, and they seem to be a real source, do not turn over money without verifying through another source."

County officials featured one victim's story.

Wayne Chertoff thought he was scam-proof. His tried-and-true defense: If the phone rings and nothing appears on the caller ID, don't even answer.

Last week, Chertoff, 67, said he learned the hard way that his defense no longer works. In the process, he lost $1,400.

When the phone rang, the caller ID indicated it was the Social Security Administration and showed a legitimate phone number for the federal agency.

The Melville resident answered, and when all was said and done over the next two days, the hustle had drained him of his savings.

Chertoff, a retiree with a bad back, said he feels he should have known better than to fall for a con game. He used to work as a store detective.

But he said the caller seemed so professional and quickly put him in a state of panic. The caller, a woman, said that his name and Social Security number were linked to accounts in Texas that were sending thousands of dollars to Mexico and Colombia. 

An arrest warrant had been issued for him, she added, but she could help him clear it up. She instructed him to go to a drugstore and purchase a $500 gift card. He said he did and gave her the card number over the phone, essentially handing over the money.

The next day, the scammers called again and upped the ante. This time it was a man who called, and he sounded helpful. In the background of the call, Chertoff said he heard what sounded like a room full of operators.

The scammer instructed him to get two more prepaid cards for $900, all to supposedly clear up the mess and protect his money.

"This time around, a  … manager at the store said, 'Do you know what you're doing?' " Chertoff recalled. "I thought I knew what I was doing. I'm not proud right now."

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said this was the first such telephone scam reported to the county.  She said similar scams often target senior citizens, especially around tax time. Now, though, scams occur year-round, she said.

Chertoff said that almost immediately after he made the final payment, he became suspicious and called the police.

"Now I can't pay my rent, my car insurance, my credit cards," he said.

The evolving technology of scammers is showing up elsewhere as well.

PSEG Long Island on Thursday brought some cautionary advice to about 30 seniors at the Great South Bay YMCA in Bay Shore. The utility warned people about "PSEG Long Island" popping up on the caller ID.

The seniors also learned to beware of people who show up at their doors wearing clothing with a company brand but lacking the proper identification, said Robert Vessichelli, a senior security investigator with the utility.

Linda Fiveson, who runs two businesses in Syosset, said she nearly felt the sting of a scam in which a caller impersonated a PSEG employee. 

The man on the line told her that her payments were past due and that he was preparing to disconnect her service the next day.

"I was so panicked," said Fiveson, 69, describing the evening call to her office about four months ago. 

She offered to deliver payment that moment. He said it was too late. She called up her accounts on her computer and said they had been paid. He said he was in the dispatch office and didn't have access to those accounts. 

She offered to pay by credit card, but he said no. He basically had her begging for a way to resolve this, she said. She was afraid of the embarrassment of her businesses losing power, not to mention the potential for financial losses. 

Fiveson runs a nutritional counseling business and a food-preparation company. She has some 16 refrigerators.

Finally, the man said she could resolve the situation with cash. He started to tell her she should go to a drugstore — and then something clicked in her mind. She hung up and called PSEG, and the nightmare ended.

"He gave me just enough time to think," she said. "I almost went the full distance."

Beware of evolving scam technology

Scammers are showing an evolving grasp of technology, making it more difficult to spot their flimflams and hustles.

The old defense of screening calls by caller ID may not work now, Suffolk County officials said. Scammers are using spoofing software that allows them to mimic the IDs of legitimate sources.

The Suffolk County Police Department cautioned that that neither government agencies nor utility companies will ask for payment of fees, fines or bills via prepaid gift cards.

Caution and skepticism are some of the best defenses. Use a utility’s website to check whether any bill is overdue.

PSEG Long Island cautions customers to beware of emails that appear to be bills from the utility. These emails request personal information, leading to identity theft. 

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