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Recently, a somewhat elderly and very distraught woman walked into the office of Sean Lening, President of the Kiowa County National Bank in Eads. She told him that she’d received a phone call. Her grandson had been arrested; he was in jail and needed her to send $1500 right away.

Lening asked if she had her grandson’s phone number stored in her phone. She did. Did she have her phone with her? She did and handed it to him. Lening dialed the grandson’s number and wasn’t particularly surprised when the young man answered.

“Where are you?” Lening asked.

“On Maine Street,” the young man said. “I just drove past the bank.”

The elderly woman, realizing what just happened, broke down in sobs.

Welcome to the world of scammers and the victims upon whom they prey.

We live in an age when “high tech” devices allow us to enjoy unprecedented ease and speed of communication. Unfortunately, those same devices can become open, unlocked doors allowing criminals to enter our lives and exploit our vulnerabilities in a number of ways. It’s high-tech robbery pulled off from a remote location, and anyone with a computer, a phone and a sophisticated knowledge of databases can commit the crime without even having to leave their couch. And it is, indeed, a crime. A weapon may not be involved; the victim may not find herself staring into the eyes of the perpetrator. But its impact can be just as violating and financially devastating as being held up by a guy with a gun on the street.

A 2017 study conducted by TrueCaller/Harris reported that one in ten Americans lost money in a phone scam last year costing about $430 per person. That adds up to more than 9.5 billion and is an increase of 56% over the previous year.

Part of the increase is attributed to wide use of mobile phones, which people carry with them all the time, making it more likely someone will answer the scammers’ call. Robo-calling and number finding technology have made it easier and cheaper, as well. Scammers are also finding ways to disguise themselves so that a victim will see a familiar or recognizable name appear on the screen—such as the local bank or a well-known hospital in a city nearby—and answer the call.

These statistics and practices are neither new nor surprising to Sean Lening. “At this bank alone,” he says, “we probably average in a six month period about 20-25 people who come into the bank because they’re being scammed.” Kansas based Girard National Bank, KCNB’s parent bank and comprised of multiple branch locations, reports numbers ten times that amount.

Fortunately, Lening says, many of KCNB’s customers will come in while the scam is in progress, giving Lening and his employees a chance to intervene before it’s too late.

And, sadly, there is no shortage of stories. Lening describes a situation where a customer came into the bank and, with her phone in hand, gave the teller a note. “The note said she’d won a new car,” Lening says, “but she needed to send in a fee before she could collect the prize. The scammer—who was still on the phone—had told her to not say anything to anyone, so she wrote down her request on a note.”

Lening states that it’s always a relief when the bank can intervene and not only prevent customers from becoming victims but stop a scammer in his tracks. But he warns would-be victims to be especially vigilant from that point on. “I’m always concerned that, when these scammers see how close they got,” he says, “it makes them more determined to try again with a different tactic.”

It may be tempting to wonder how someone could not spot a scam the moment the conversation begins. However, that’s where the true heartlessness of scammers comes in. Phone scammers deliberately target people when they’re in a crisis and are distressed. For example, they’ call people who have just come through some kind of natural disaster. They’ll say they’re from a charity or relief organization and will request personal information—such as account information or social security numbers—as part of a process that will deliver aid to the victim. During tax season, they’ll pose as an IRS agent, telling the victim they are delinquent on their taxes and must pay immediately or risk being arrested and taken to jail. And, as the 2017 study reported, scammers are increasingly targeting older adults, those individuals still living on their own and, perhaps, more susceptible to either notification of winning a contest or calls for help from children and grandchildren. But, Lening adds, some of the scammers are pretty reckless; one person demanded payment in the form of iTune cards.

Nonetheless, it is typically those people who are the most vulnerable with the least ability to pay who are the exact victims scammers will target.

Phones are not the only in-road to extortion. Scammers and hackers—people who know how to gain access to people’s computers—will use those devices directly in their attempt to extort funds from businesses and individuals, alike.

Recently, people have received phone calls from individuals saying they’re from Microsoft, and a virus was discovered on their computer that must be removed immediately. For a certain amount of money, the caller can remove the virus. In other cases, the scammer will offer to “fix” the virus remotely; all they need is for the victim to take the steps that will allow them to access their computer from a remote location. Once hackers are in the computer, they collect all its stored information, including social security numbers, passwords, account numbers and contacts.

Another technique being used gives the victim no choice but to comply or risk having his computer rendered unusable. A message appears on the screen that states the computer is locked, usually because the hacker has infected the computer with a virus called “ransomware”. And, just as the name implies, the hacker holds the computer ransom, stating that a payment is required—often in the thousands—for the computer to be unlocked. This extortion was used on a police department in Kansas where there was a demand for $3,000 or the computer’s information would be erased. The department had no choice but to comply; otherwise, they would have lost all their data.

The act of holding a computer ransom worries Lening most of all. As he puts it, “If they’ll do that to a police station for $3,000, can you imagine what they would demand from a bank?”

Even though hackers and scammers are getting smarter, people are not powerless to protect themselves and lessen the risk of being victimized. For this reason, both Kiowa County National Bank and Tammy Simmons with Eastern Slope Rural Telephone offer some basic tips to help people avoid being nailed.

 HANG UP. Scammers, posing as officials, will include a threat of arrest or a serious credit problem if you fail to take steps to resolve an alleged debts. Government agencies and most legitimate organizations do not conduct business in this way. The best advice is to simply hang up. If you’re worried the call may be legitimate, hang up, look up the legitimate phone number and place the call yourself. Never use the number the scammer gives you to call.
 If you get a suspicious looking email, DON’T OPEN IT. Mark it as Spam and delete.
 Never wire money or purchase money orders and/or prepaid cash cards in response to a telephone appeal, whether it is from a stranger or someone who claims to know you. Avoid any “get rich quick” schemes. If it sounds too good to be true, well…you know the rest.
 And never let emotions or fear overcome your common sense. If you get a call for money from a friend or a relative, slow down and verify everything. Don’t let anyone rush you into making a hasty decision that could cost you money.
 Change both your passwords and usernames on a regular basis.
 Make sure your computer is protected with a good anti-virus software and schedule updates regularly.

Chances are, if something doesn’t seem right, it isn’t. If you suspect you’ve been the target of a scam, contact your bank immediately and then the Sheriff’s Department. Bottom line: be pro-active and err on the side of caution.
Anyone wishing additional information can contact Sean Lening, KCNB, at 4385331 or Tammy Simmons, ESRTA, at 719-743-2441.


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