Ashutosh Mondal was swindled out of thousands of dollars in early February after he sent cryptocurrency to scammers who said his Social Security number had been compromised.

The Eden Prairie man had gotten a call from someone who called himself Manro Parres, who said he was with the federal agency. The call was interrupted by another person claiming to be a local police officer, who said there was a warrant for Mondal’s arrest that could be lifted if he followed Parres’ instructions.

An Indian immigrant, Mondal worried the threat might affect his visa extension in the United States. So he followed the caller’s directions — and lost $22,000 before realizing he was engaged in a scam beyond the scope of local law enforcement. “I lost 80 percent of savings,” he said.

A recent national study found that Hennepin County was in the top third of counties nationwide targeted by scam artists. County residents were especially at risk of fraudulent contact during the NCAA Final Four and tax season, officials said. Among states, Minnesota ranked at Number 26 for scam targets.

The study, conducted by AllAreaCodes, an online database, analyzed 15 million consumer complaints released by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the past three years.

Immigrants like Mondal, along with senior citizens, are most vulnerable to phone scams that can cost them thousands, according to a recent IRS report.

“Nobody wants to be in trouble, and I think that’s something that’s particularly scary [for vulnerable groups]. ... They’re quicker to pick things up to avoid police showing up at their door,” said Bess Ellenson, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Minnesota and North Dakota.

In Eden Prairie, police saw an uptick in scam calls like the one Mondal got in the past six months. Police said they responded to just under 100 calls for scams or attempted scams.

It’s likely even more cases exist because, according to Eden Prairie police Sgt. John Wilson, not all get reported.

“A lot of people don’t even call us until they get victimized,” Wilson said.

For Mondal, getting scammed has resulted in some major lifestyle changes.

“I can only spend my biweekly paycheck now, and not beyond that. I can’t do anything else,” he said. “Now I can’t send money home [to India].”

Social Security scams have increased over the past tax season. According to FTC data, there was a “dramatic increase” in reports of scammers telling people that their Social Security numbers would be frozen or seized because they were connected to a crime. That’s not true: Social Security officials do not suspend numbers or direct people to withdraw money, the FTC says.

Shawn Mosch and her husband, Jeff, have operated a website in Bloomington — Scam Victims United — since 2003, after they were swindled out of $7,200 while trying to sell a car.

“We were among ... the first people to get hit by [counterfeit cashier’s check scams], and because it put us on a roller coaster that we weren’t expecting to get on, I started gathering information,” Shawn Mosch said.

The couple put together a playbook for victims of scams and fraud, including places to report cases, federal and state resources, and a message board to interact with a network of scam victims.

In the website’s first two years, Mosch claims to have saved more than 300 people from becoming victims and helped prevent more than $2 million from getting into the hands of the counterfeiters.

Mosch said she usually sees an increased amount of traffic on the website around tax season or holidays.

“I do feel like Minnesotans are trusting, so that may be why more people become victims of scams,” she said.

While scam calls may be more frequent in Hennepin County, the number of those who fall victim is actually falling in at least one respect.

Ellenson said that nearly 400 ticket scam reports were submitted to the BBB last year, prompting the bureau to issue increased warnings about fraud schemes before the NCAA tournament came to town last month.

“People are becoming more aware of not answering phone calls from numbers they do not recognize,” Ellenson said. “If you get a [scam call], block them, or if you get a call from a number you don’t recognize, don’t answer it, and if you do, hang up. Agencies are really trying to spread the word, and people are listening.”

 

Isabella Murray is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.