Image by Dennis Lane/Blend Images LLC from AARP website
By Marcus Heerdt
HOT SPRINGS – The week of Feb. 28 through March 6, 2021, is National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW). According to the Federal Trade Commission, an independent United States government agency set up to protect consumers, NCPW “is a time to help people understand their consumer rights and make well-informed decisions about money.”
Fraudulent scams via phone, internet, and by other means continue to be a problem for not only residents of Fall River County but also for the rest of South Dakota and the nation.
According to the Federal Trade Commission’s recently released data book on consumer fraud, Americans reported 4.72 million cases of fraud in 2020.
South Dakotans reported 4,064 cases of fraud in 2020, which approximates to 459 cases per 100,000 people and an average of $252 lost per case.
Reported scams include anything from identity theft to Social Security, credit card, insurance, and banking fraud.
According to Jody Gillaspie, Director at the Division of Consumer Protection in Pierre, the state of South Dakota has seen a general increase in fraudulent schemes carried out by scam artists.
“Email and text message scammers know that people are working from home these days, so we have seen an increase in those types of scams. Also, we usually see a ‘blitz’ of scams during extremely cold weather in winter and very hot days in summer because they know that people will be indoors during those times,” Gillaspie said.
Gillaspie explained that there has been a recent drastic increase in text message scams because people read text messages quickly and are likely to click on links included in fraudulent texts.
Fall River County residents share their stories
Many local residents are willing to tell their stories of fraud in hopes to educate others and how to watch for warning signs.
Hot Springs resident Sydnee Coleman was targeted in a scam after a recent visit to Texas.
Over Thanksgiving break this past year, Coleman and her family drove to northeast Texas to visit relatives for the holiday.
She returned to Hot Springs on Sunday, Nov. 29, and received a suspicious phone call two days later on Tuesday morning, Dec. 1.
“At first it was an automated message that said there was a breach of my Social Security number and to press ‘1’ to hear details,” Coleman said.
After pressing ‘1’, Coleman was transferred to a live person. The man said that her Social Security number was connected to an abandoned vehicle that was found in El Paso, Texas.
Not only that, the man informed her that the vehicle was part of an active crime scene and that blood and tissue samples were found inside the vehicle.
“He said that my Social Security number had been suspended pending investigation of the crime scene. The scary thing is that he already knew the last four digits of my Social Security number. And somehow they must have known I had recently traveled to Texas,” Coleman recalled.
Coleman asked to speak to the man’s supervisor and he transferred her to another man who said he was from South Dakota.
“He said that in order to get a new Social Security number, I had to turn over all current financial assets or they would freeze my accounts. He also said that he would send someone to my house with a new Social Security information packet,” Coleman said.
When the man told Coleman to go to Dollar General and put all of her current assets onto gift cards, she immediately hung up.
“That’s when I realized I was being scammed,” Coleman said.
Coleman called the El Paso Police Department to report the scam and according to the department, there were no current investigations involving an abandoned vehicle full of blood.
Smithwick resident Linda Colson experienced an email scam last Tuesday, Feb. 23.
Colson said that someone hacked into her email account and sent multiple emails from her address that went out to all of her contacts which included friends, family members, and even her place of work.
Colson’s granddaughter received one of the emails, and immediately called her grandmother to alert her to the scam.
The email subject lines sent by the hacker from Colson’s account included “Humble Request” and “Favor to Ask.”
“One email said that I was stranded somewhere out of town and needed help. Another said that I was at the hospital visiting a friend with terminal cancer and that I needed funds to buy her a birthday present. The email said to buy and send gift cards to me,” Colson said.
One of Colson’s contacts followed through with the request, not knowing that it was a scam.
“It is heartwarming to know that I have friends that think enough of me to go to the trouble and expense that would help me out in a time of need. It saddens me to know that scammers would take advantage of such gracious people,” Colson said.
Colson also said that the hacker had the ability to respond to emails that were sent back to her address by some of her contacts.
Colson spent two days trying to fix the problem, and worked with Microsoft to scan her computer for viruses, make sure the hacker was gone from her account, and change her passwords.
“I would urge everyone to stop and think. Take two deep breaths and really look at an email to make sure it is real or if it’s a scam,” Colson stated.
How to report and educate yourself on fraudulent activity
The Division of Consumer Protection in Pierre wants to know any and all fraudulent schemes that occur in the state of South Dakota.
“Many victims of fraud do not know where to go to ask questions. Consumer Protection would ask that you call our office before you decide what you should do – let us do the checking and the calling for you. If you sent money as a part of a fraudulent scheme, we especially want to talk to you. The information you provide stays in our system for an extended period of time and in certain instances we’ve been able to recover consumers money through various settlements throughout the years, but we have to have the consumers information on how the sent the money to the scammers,” Gillaspie said.
The South Dakota Division of Consumer Protection can be reached at 1-800-300-1986 (in-state), or (605) 773-4400 or online at https://consumer.sd.gov/.
Additionally, there are numerous other ways for the public to report scams and also educate themselves about what to look out for.
Report fraud locally:
City of Hot Springs Police Department: (605) 745-5200
Fall River County Sheriff: (605) 745-4444
National reporting agency and consumer education:
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: (855) 411-2372 or https://www.consumerfinance.gov/.
Federal Trade Commission: https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/.
*Calls requesting information on current city and county scam activity as well as statistics to the City of Hot Springs Police Department and Fall River County Sheriff’s Office were not returned as of press time.