Police in Eagan are increasingly hearing from distressed residents about how telephone scammers have duped them into handing over hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
The toll from this year alone is expected to surpass $500,000.
From late January to late August, victims have filed 29 reports about scam calls meant to instill fear, including: threatened deportation, a jailed loved one needs help or a computer virus needs urgent attention. Fourteen reports were filed from January through May, with 15 in July and August alone.
"I would imagine there are many more going unreported," said Aaron Machtemes, a police officer in the south metro community of about 65,000 residents. "We've seen $100 scams for concert tickets that might have people just counting their losses and moving on."
About one-third of those victimized this year in Eagan are in their 20s and 30s, about the same proportion as people 60 and older, according to data released by police last week.
Gamel Anderson, a 34-year-old Eagan resident, told police that "Olivia" called him claiming his Social Security number had been compromised and his identity was being used to smuggle drugs in Mexico. Anderson said he loaded $2,000 onto Visa gift cards and gave the cards' numbers to the woman who called after being told that the U.S. Marshals Service had a warrant out for his arrest.
"The people who fall victim to scams have varying degrees of education, socioeconomic status and life experience," Machtemes said. "Everyone is susceptible to being scammed."
Some scammers have gotten away with as little as $100, while another kept going back to a 63-year-old man until he drained him of $160,000 through various ruses. The grand total in Eagan for 2019 stands at $441,000 with more than three months to go.
Most scams work by inciting panic and requiring a person to take immediate action. Xcel Energy and other providers have long been warning their customers throughout Minnesota and beyond about callers claiming to be from the utility and threatening to cut off electricity unless an immediate payment is made.
Scammers may even manipulate a phone's caller ID to look like they are calling from Xcel Energy, the utility said in a recent scam alert, which noted that any disconnection would be communicated through the mail.
"When the victim panics from a supposed missed bill or threat of arrest, their critical thinking shuts down," Machtemes said. "Scammers take advantage of this panicked state and can convince people to divulge personal information and/or to give up money to remedy the situation."
Machtemes concedes that "it is extremely difficult to find or arrest the perpetrators," given that many are tucked away overseas. "Even if scammers are in the U.S., it's very difficult to find them."
Public awareness about how scams operate appears to be the most effective protection, Machtemes said.
"We need to take the scams seriously and not think 'this would never happen to me,' " he said. "Talk to loved ones, and if they ever get a phone call that is making them panic or feel guilty, they need to call a friend. I've seen many times a third-party perspective has brought people back from the brink of tragedy. That panic feeling should be an immediate clue that this might be a scam."