A surge of scams: Agencies offer advice on how to avoid falling for criminals’ tricks

  • HPD illustration


The Hawaii Police Department and other agencies are warning people to be on the lookout for telephone and online scams from people claiming to represent legitimate organizations.

One of the scams on the Big Island includes criminals posing as police officers who demand money via wire transfer, according to the HPD.


Meanwhile, the IRS reported Wednesday an “industrial scale” of texting scams in which hundreds of thousands of text messages were sent to potential victims in recent weeks.

The scam messages often look like they’re coming from the IRS, offering lures like fake COVID relief, tax credits or help setting up an IRS online account. Some of the messages contain links that will allow malicious users to extract information from the victim’s phone.

Recipients of these IRS-related scams can report them to phishing@irs.gov.

Police Capt. Rio Amon-Wilkins of HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division said scam calls and texts tend to come in waves, with cases increasing in an area for a period of time before the scammers move on to fresher hunting grounds.

Both the police and the IRS said scammers often ask victims to send money or face penalties.

Common recent scams reported by the HPD include the prize-winner scam, where a criminal convinces a victim they have won a prize, but must first send a payment to claim it.

Another one is the check payment scam, wherein a criminal will contact someone selling an item on an online marketplace and send a check as payment. That check will be for more than the agreed-upon price, and the criminal will ask the victim to send back the balance, only for the check to later bounce.

Other scams include spoofing, in which a criminal can make their contact information appear to be from legitimate sources, or the Google authentication scam, where a scammer will send the victim a confirmation code to “prove they are a real person.” The criminal will then use that code to create a Google voice account using the victim’s phone number, which they can use to scam other people or apply for fraudulent lines of credit under the victim’s name.

“The number one thing to remember is, don’t give out personal information over the phone,” Amon-Wilkins said. “The number two thing is, don’t send money to anybody.”

Amon-Wilkins said the police department, and also most legitimate institutions, will not ask people to send money via text message.

“Generally speaking, nobody at the department is going to be asking anyone for money at all,” Amon-Wilkins said.

But Craig Gima, communications director for AARP Hawaii, warned that scammers are becoming more sophisticated.

“What we’ve heard from fraud investigators is that (scammers are) getting more organized,” Gima said. “These people are opportunistic, and they adapt.”

Gima said scams tend to “follow the headlines” and predicted that people likely will see an increase in scams asking for money on behalf of Florida residents displaced this week by Hurricane Ian.

Gima noted that even interacting with a scam communication gives scammers an opening to exploit your personal information.

One scam, he said, involves a fake notice from the AARP asking people to call a number. Even if that call doesn’t lead to the victim sending money, the scammer has a reliable phone number for a potential victim that can be sold to other scammers.

“Just don’t click on links,” Gima said. “You don’t have to respond to texts from strangers.”

But Gima also said that victims of scammers often don’t report it because they feel stupid or personally at fault for falling for a trick.

“We’ve got to change that stigma,” Gima said. “These people are criminals, and they’re the ones at fault — not the victims.”

Amon-Wilkins said that even though most scammers are located outside of the police department’s jurisdiction, the police can act to minimize the harm from a scam if they are notified quickly enough.

“The sooner you report it to us, the better the chance we have of halting a bad transaction,” Amon-Wilkins said, explaining that police departments can and do ask each other to follow up on scam calls that originate within their jurisdiction, and can execute search warrants on bank accounts associated with suspected scammers.

Residents can report suspected scams by calling the Hawaii Police Department’s nonemergency number at (808) 935-3311.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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