Between Jan. 1 and April of this year, the number of fraud complaints to the Madera County Sheriff's Office has dramatically increased compared to the same time period last year.
"We are looking at almost a 250% spike in fraud complaints with 112 complaints so far this year, compared to 45 filed last year," said Sheriff John Anderson.
The majority of fraud cases reported to the sheriff's office involve financial theft and identity theft -- all of them via the Internet, regular mail and the telephone.
Anderson said the largest growing target is senior citizens.
"Con artists typically prey on the elderly," Anderson said. "Senior citizens, especially those who live alone, may be more willing to listen to a sales pitch based on the engaging nature of the stranger on the other end of the line."
Anderson said con artists target senior citizens because seniors make up the largest group of citizens who are most likely to have good credit, own a home and have a "nest egg."
It's a topic Anderson has been focused on for the past two years and frequently outlines at town hall gatherings, or when invited to speak at civic group meetings. He says that while some senior citizens are starting to catch on, others are still falling prey.
Such was the case with a recent complaint concerning a senior citizen with the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. She was swindled out of almost $50,000.
"It started with an animated call from a perfect stranger," Anderson said. "He banked on her vulnerability and in time she took the bait. He told her she was the winner of a contest that she had entered and she believed him."
She couldn't believe he was conning her because he sounded so sincere and was so engaging. As soon as he won her trust, he got her to wire some money so that he could send her the nearly $1,000 prize.
But it didn't end there.
"The calculated calls kept coming and she kept wiring," Anderson said.
Two months later he took a total of $49,654 from her.
Anderson said she's not alone. The very same thing happened to yet another senior citizen who refused to file a report. On behalf of that victim's family, the sheriff's office made a house-call to explain to the victim that the call was indeed a scam.
There is also a new method of identity theft scam surfacing in Madera County.
"Citizens who either have, or are about to receive a Medicare card, this warning is for you," Anderson said.
There is a team of thieves calling unsuspecting seniors and telling them that they need to renew their Medicare cards, but before the caller can proceed, he first reads off the four numbers he/she claims is on your checking account, and then asks you to supply the remaining numbers.
Even Anderson himself received a call from Tribune Columnist Leon Emo. He said he received a call from someone claiming to be with Medicare. Fortunately, Emo hung up.
What may seem like the obvious scam to some, might not to others, Anderson said. Much of how they get your money boils down to how they treat their victims. With some they are cajoling, with others they invoke fear.
Con artists have been known to put fear in them, bullying them into giving money. That happened in Madera County, too. The caller scared one senior citizen into forking over money she could not afford to lose.
He told her he knew her full name and where she lived. He was relentless, badgering her until she finally caved in.
Anderson says con artists are very good at acquiring bits of information about people through the Internet -- especially information on seniors. They typically prey on senior citizens because they are banking on their kindness, trust, and vulnerability.
"These predators do their homework before they call you," Anderson said. They will call you by name, and might even ask if you still live at your current address, which they will recite. They may even know the names of your relatives and your friends."
In one particular scam, they actually pose as a relative in search of financial help, he adds. Anderson said if you receive a call from anyone saying that you have won a prize, hang up. If anyone calls you about your credit card statement, your banking account, your social security card, Medicare card -- anything that involves sharing personal and confidential information -- hang up.
"And when you hang up, let your family, friends and neighbors know what happened," Anderson said. "You can help by spreading the word, so that when someone else in our community gets a call like the one you did, they'll know what to do. They'll hang up."