Fraud Alert: Imposter Scams hitting up local phones

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - We all get them -- annoying, unwanted phone calls.

Many of those calls come from tricksters, who will try to scare you and get you to hand over your valuables, either money or personal information like account numbers and identification.

Imposter scams -- a type of phone fraud in which the phone number and caller ID may appear to come from a legitimate source or someone you know, and the caller claims to be with an official agency -- are on the rise.

[LIST: Scams reported in the Anchorage area]

"The phone rang, and these people knew my name," Dean Cannon, an Anchorage homeowner, explained to KTUU as he described a recent call he's convinced was bogus.

"They called me up asking me if I wanted a free home evaluation from Keller Williams," Cannon said, naming a national real estate company that does business in Alaska.

It made some sense, since he's among the many Anchorage residents doing repair work after the Nov. 30 earthquake. The call, which began with (907) 269-**** also appeared to come from a state agency. Many state offices in Anchorage use phones with a 269 prefix.

But still suspicious, Cannon decided to ask the caller a bunch of questions of his own:

"'What's your name again?'"

"'Where are you?'"

"'What is your extension?'"

"'What address are you here in town?'"

"'I will come see you.'"

Consumer experts say Cannon's skepticism is well-placed.

Eventually, the caller hung up.

After a call to the real estate firm Keller Williams confirmed they don't have anyone offering free home inspections, Cannon knew he'd caught a fraud.

"So our suspicions were confirmed. It's definitely a scam," Cannon said.

Cannon believes it was would-be burglars, hoping to get invited in to case his home. Then, strike later when no one was home.

Anchorage Police told KTUU, it's not unusual for thieves to case neighborhoods.

Another style of call making the rounds is a scam in which the IRS appears to be after you.

"They are frightening for a lot of people because a lot of people feel like they owe money. You know, they feel like they need to pay," Robyn Walker, a media specialist with the Internal Revenue Service, told KTUU.

Callers or recorded messages may claim you owe money, that charges are being filed, an arrest warrant will be issued, or wages will be garnished.

"If the IRS had to call someone they wouldn't threaten the person with law enforcement with police officers or immigration officers," Walker said.

The IRS imposter scam has been around for a few years.

But the scam that's really taking off is a version in which a caller poses as a someone from the Social Security Administration.

"You can tell it's a fake phone call when you listen to it," Anchorage resident Kim Thorp told KTUU.

The call, which came in from a New York number, claimed Thorp's social security number was being suspended.

"I thought it was bogus first right away. 'Cause the government's not going to call you. They're going to send a letter," Thorp said.

"If that happens, if someone's calling you out of the blue like that, that's a scam. The government doesn't contact you out of the blue like that. You should hang up on them," William Maxson, Assistant Director of Marketing Practices with the Federal Trade Commission, told KTUU.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are falling for it.

"In the last 12 months, we've received over 76,000 complaints just about people impersonating the Social Security Administration and making calls to people. And those consumers that had reported those complaints to us had lost $19 million," Maxson said.

Anchorage Police say this and similar scams are trending in Anchorage.

Versions of the scams may appear to come from law enforcement, the government, the courts, utilities, family members, friends -- basically anybody you know or with whom you do business.

The callers will claim something bad will happen if you don't act. And they'll claim it's urgent.

"It's absolutely a scare tactic. I mean the whole point is to make you terrified, to not have you thinking straight and to make you do things you wouldn't normally do if you had a minute to sit back and think about what's happening," Maxson said.

Anchorage Police say it's okay to feel worried. But you need to take steps to protect yourself. Remember, the scammers want you feeling panicked.

"Let's say it's enough to make you worried. That's okay. You hang up, and then you find the phone number, and you call that company directly, and you inquire about your account," said Renee Oistad, spokesperson for the Anchorage Police Department.

Also, beware of requests for unusual payment methods.

"No legitimate company anywhere, law enforcement, company, business, ever, ever asks for payment in gift cards," Oistad said.

Legitimate businesses will never have you buy gift cards or read the numbers over the phone.

"Once the scammer has the gift card number then they can drain all the money off that gift card, and they've essentially monetized it," Maxson said.

The bottom line?

Be wary, because imposters are creative, persistent, and hard to catch.

Cannon said he feels phone scams are just one more way crooks are trying to get what's not theirs.

"If you got something to lose, somebody wants it. And now they are calling you," he said.

Here's a list of places to report fraudulent calls.

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