Warning from FBI: Scammers are posing as law enforcement

LISTEN: A not-so-new scam is becoming more prevalent and more aggressive

The phone rings. A law enforcement officer on the other end of the line tells you about an indiscretion you’ve been involved in and asks you to confirm your identity. The officer then advises you that you’re about to be arrested if you don’t pay a fine.

There are three problems with that scenario.

Number one: “No law enforcement official is going to make contact with you over the phone and ask you to provide your Social Security number,” Kevin Vorndran, assistant special agent in charge of the Criminal Branch at the Washington Field Office of the FBI, told WTOP in an interview.

Secondly, law enforcement is not likely to call you, period, about any kind of criminal matter you’re alleged to be involved in, he said.

And third, he said, “Law enforcement is certainly not going to demand any money, gift cards or something of value be sent for the phone calls from law enforcement to go away.”

But the Washington Field Office of the FBI has seen a recent increase in law enforcement impersonation phone calls.

According to the Internet Crimes Complaint Center, 10,978 people nationwide reported being victims of government impersonation scams in 2018, with losses totaling more than $64,000,000.

In this scam, fraudulent callers posing as local or federal law enforcement officers threaten to arrest the victim if money isn’t sent. The callers, Vorndran said, will often “spoof,” or fake, their phone numbers so the calls appear to be coming from a local police station or federal law enforcement office on the recipient’s caller ID.

“Not only are they being threatened with arrest, but also (scammers) threaten that there are delinquent fines to be paid,” Vorndran said.

Aside from the increase in frequency, he said, “We are seeing an uptick in the level of aggression from people conducting fraudulent scams over the phone — as impersonators of local and federal law enforcement — representing that they are with the IRS or the FBI or a local police department.”

The criminals often threaten to extort victims with physical or financial harm or the release of sensitive data. These scammers are becoming more sophisticated and organized in their approach; they’re technologically savvy, and they often target young persons and the senior citizens.

In a cautionary tale about how much personal information one should make available on social media and other online platforms, Vorndran said the perpetrators of these crimes don’t just call random numbers.

“Many of them have done research on the people they are calling. So they will have some level of advanced information that is likely from open-source information, whether it’s social media or [something similar].”

To avoid falling victim to this scam, the public is being urged to be wary of answering phone calls from unrecognizable phone numbers and warned not to send money to unknown people or organizations.

Perhaps most importantly, the FBI warns the public in a statement on its website to “never give out your personal information, including banking information.”

WTOP's J.J. Green reports on this ongoing scam
J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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