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Scams and swindlers have existed as long as our species. Crooks always will find clever schemes to defraud people, combining old tricks with new technology. 

Among the most common locally reported scams are those enacted over the telephone, says Sgt. Pete Simpson of the Portland Police Bureau. Nationally, about 1 in 10 adults lost money to a phone scam in 2015, according to Truecaller, a provider of mobile communications apps. Victims lost an average of $274 each.

Local phone scams include: a caller insisting an individual owes money to the IRS and must pay over the phone; fraudulent utilities calling and threatening to turn off power if the victim doesn’t pay up; and someone posing as a court official demanding money to prevent arrest. Then there’s the classic grandparent scam: Someone poses as a grandchild in desperation — arrested in Mexico over spring break, for example — and in need  of money immediately. 

All the scenarios have elements in common, says Simpson. They are high-pressure calls that ask a victim to purchase a reloadable cash card, such as Green Dot’s MoneyPak or Vanilla Reload. The victim buys the card and reads its number to the scammer, who then drains the card. 

Phone scams might seem old school in the digital world, “but if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t keep doing it,” Simpson says. 

It’s usually impossible to retrieve the money, he says, and because the calls originate outside the United States, the crime falls under federal jurisdiction.
“There’s not a lot we can do,” says Simpson, adding that the bureau’s focus is on education and prevention. 

Although a growing number of young people fall victim to phone scams, scammers often prey on seniors or residents for whom English is a second language. 

Fraudulent utility companies will target convenience stores and small restaurants owned by immigrants, threatening to turn off power.

Kat Kelly, director of programs for El Programa Hispano and Catholic Charities, works with immigrant communities to educate them about scams. She also communicates with Portland police to track trending scams.

According to Kelly, notary fraud commonly targets immigrants. She said in most parts of Latin America, you must be a lawyer to be a notary; in the states, that’s not the case. 

“People take advantage of this cultural knowledge and lead people to think they’re an attorney doing reputable legal work,” she says. For example, when Measure 88 was defeated in 2014, making proof of U.S. citizenship required for new driver’s licenses, “notaries were saying they could provide a legal document, and you could drive if you paid a certain amount of money,” says Kelly.

The Oregon Department of Justice warns of fraudulent magazine sales, where door-to-door magazine subscription sellers use fraudulent or intimidating tactics to sell magazines. Sellers tell consumers that they may purchase a subscription and donate it to charity or that the solicitor works for a charitable organization.

For information on additional scams and frauds and how to avoid them, go to usa.gov/common-scams-frauds.