The police impersonation scam is an especially convincing con when targeting older victims, who are more likely than younger people to trust authority figures.
Be on guard against these longtime ruses that have recently resurfaced across the country:
Arrest Warrant Scams
Claiming there's an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic ticket or other violation, police impostors threaten immediate arrest unless you promptly pay a supposed fine. Sometimes they demand your credit card number. The threat is typically made by phone, using readily available "spoofing" software that makes your Caller ID falsely show that the call comes from the local police department. Reality: Police neither give advance warning of arrests nor solicit money for unpaid fines. If you really owe, you'll be mailed a court summons or other official notification you can verify.
The Debt Collection Game
It's an old scam, but on the increase, according to the Better Business Bureau: Claims by police impostors that they'll arrest or jail you unless you pay them money they say is owed on a loan. Never mind that people who are threatened with this often don't have outstanding debts — they sometimes get taken in anyway. Reality: Although a third of U.S. states allow jailing for nonpayment of debts, that process requires the filing and winning of a bona fide lawsuit. Police are not in the business of working on behalf of debt collectors. Any phone calls, letters or in-person attempts by self-described police to collect a debt are a scam.
In the classic bank examiner ruse, which often targets seniors, scammers hang around outside banks, posing as law enforcement officers investigating a corrupt bank employee. You're asked to withdraw money so they can check serial numbers and mark the bank notes. Don't worry, they say, we'll go back in and redeposit it on your behalf. Of course, they quickly disappear, along with your cash. But there's a new twist to this old con: You may get a phone call at home from a police impostor claiming to be conducting an investigation of counterfeit money. You're asked to withdraw cash and meet the person at your house or elsewhere so the money can be "inspected" for bogus bills. Laugh if you will, but Dallas police recently arrested a scammer who, posing as a detective, managed to collect $100,000 this way from a dozen seniors. Reality: "That is something a police agency would not do," says Dallas police official Willemina Edwards. "We don't need your money to investigate a counterfeit crime ring."
The Grandparents Scam
One crook calls you pretending to be your grandchild who's been arrested, then hands the phone over to a collaborator purporting to be the "arresting officer" who seeks bail money.
Phony Police Charities
Con artists sometimes even pose as cops in lottery scams, claiming they're collecting taxes on winnings on behalf of local jurisdictions.
FBI or DEA Hoaxes
The scammers don't always claim to be with local police. Two cons that show no sign of waning: the DEA extortion scam, in which crooks threaten arrest for buying prescription drugs online or by phone unless a fine is paid; and the epidemic "ransomware" scam that freezes your computer with a bogus FBI message accusing you of watching child pornography or engaging in some other illegal online activity. Don't pay the demanded fee; your computer may still be held hostage for continued "fines."
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling). He writes the Scam Alert column for AARP.