Our office and our Bureau of Investigation want to warn residents of a frightening scam that has happened in the Coachella Valley - but could happen anywhere. This scam has existed nationally for several years.
In this scam, suspects target victims telling them they have kidnapped a loved one and then give specific details demanding money as ransom for their return. Our office is aware of cases in Indio and Cathedral City, both involving Spanish-speaking suspects. In the local cases, the children had not been kidnapped, were found to be safe, and no money was given to the suspects.
Should you be contacted in this scam, please contact your local law enforcement agency immediately.
The links below provide more information and tips on what to do if contacted by a scammer.
Hundreds of thousands of concertgoers travel to eastern Riverside County each April to attend the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. Residents of that area can rent their homes for significantly more than at any other time of the year due to the high demand for lodging during festival time.
Many homeowners utilize online rental listing services to list their home for rent. These services do not always verify that the person making the listing is actually authorized to rent the home, thus creating an opportunity for scam artists to step in and prey on unsuspecting victims.
While there tend to be increases in these scams around festival time, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office wants to warn potential renters that they can happen anytime of the year.
The DA’s Office is currently prosecuting at least three separate cases involving false or fraudulent real estate rental listings in the Coachella Valley. These scams appear to correspond with the time periods of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals and involve combined losses exceeding $220,000 to nearly 80 victims. In each of the cases filed by the DA’s Office, would-be renters identified homes for rent on Internet rental listing services. They communicated with someone claiming to be the owner or the owner’s agent and were sent rental contracts and information for accessing the house. Believing the rental to be legitimate, the victim would send a deposit to reserve the rental typically either by check or wire transfer. Unsuspecting victims traveled to Riverside County, some from as far away as the East Coast or Canada, only to find that the house they thought they rented was not actually for rent and the money they provided as a deposit was gone.
This scam is difficult to detect because of the ease of listing a home for rent online. However, the DA’s Office offers the following tips to help prevent this type of fraud:
Don’t pay in cash or via a wire transfer. Checks and credit cards may offer some sort of protection in the event of fraud.
Whenever possible, don’t send payment through the mail. Arrange to meet with the owner or agent at the property. If the “owner” is out of town or out of state, you may want to pass and look for a locally owned residence.
If possible, inspect the property before renting. Obtain identification from whoever claims to be renting out the property.
Before paying any money, call a local title company or a local real estate office and ask them for a property profile of the address. Verify the name of the owner. Look online for rental scams with that address or the name of the owner.
Be suspicious of high security deposits. The more demanded upfront, the higher likelihood that it is a scam.
Use websites that have visible customer feedback, ratings on landlords, and a better reputation for secured transactions.
If the home is being advertised by someone claiming to be a real estate agent then you can go to the California Bureau of Real Estate website (http://www.dre.ca.gov/) and verify the license.
If the listing is being advertised by a property management company, then those companies are also owned by licensed real estate brokers. Their licenses may also be verified with the Bureau of Real Estate.
If owners of homes are advertising online, they may also be advertising in the local papers. Check to make sure the contact info is the same for both listings.
The best practice is to work with a local real estate agent for rentals and sales. If the agent has not done their due diligence with the tenant, and you lose money as a result –you can contact the Bureau of Real Estate and seek restitution through them.
There is a scam happening in Riverside County and across the state in which members of the public are being contacted by con artists claiming to be with either with the Superior Court or the Sheriff’s Department. The scammer then asks for personal identifying information from the intended victim either over the phone or by setting up an in-person meeting.
This scam involves the con artist demanding payment to clear up an outstanding warrant that supposedly has been issued because the victim failed to perform jury duty service.
Payment is usually demanded by the scammer through a pre-paid credit card transaction of some type. There has even been one instance in which the con artist asked the meet the victim at the courthouse in order to collect the “fine” to clear up the warrant.
Please know that these calls or contacts are fraudulent and have no connection whatsoever with the court or sheriff’s department. No court or sheriff’s employee will ever contact you or any member of the public asking for personal or financial information in place of attending jury duty or to clear up any supposed failure to report for jury service.
If you or anyone you know receives a phone call demanding payment for an outstanding warrant for failure to report for jury service, hang up and immediately contact your local law enforcement agency to report this crime.
A prevalent scam that targets primarily seniors is commonly known as the “grandparents scam.”
In this scam, the con artist poses as the grandchild -- or a friend of a grandchild – and either calls or sends an email to the intended victim stating that the grandchild is in a foreign country and is in some sort of trouble (such as financial trouble, illness, or physical danger) and money must be sent to them right away to get them out of the trouble.
These criminals prey on the kindness of a concerned grandparent, who is naturally very concerned and wants to help his or her loved one. The con artist asks for money to be wired quickly and, pretending to be the loved one in trouble, tells the grandparent not to tell anyone.
This particular scam has been around for years and the FBI reports that the Internet Crime Complaint Center (known as IC3 and on the Internet here: https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx) has been receiving reports about this scam since 2008. However, since that time, both the scam itself and the scam artists have become more and more sophisticated.
Through the Internet and various social networks, such as Facebook and others, a criminal can more easily uncover personal information about their targets. Having that sort of personal information makes the impersonations used in this scam more believable. For example, a victim’s actual grandson may mention on a social networking site that he is a photographer who often travels to Mexico. So, for example, when the scam artist calls the grandparent, he will represent that he is calling from Mexico where someone stole his camera equipment and passport.
Often, these scam phone calls may happen late at night or early in the morning when most people are not necessarily thinking clearly.
There are also scenarios in which the con artist may instead pretend to be a police officer, lawyer, or doctor at a hospital calling on behalf of the grandchild. They will represent that the grandchild is in some sort of trouble, such as being arrested or having been in a bad accident.
There have been times that two people are involved in the scam in an attempt to make it seem more realistic, with one person pretending to be the grandchild and then handing the phone to someone else to describe what is supposedly wrong.
Here are some tips from the FBI about what to do if you have been targeted in this scam and how to avoid becoming a victim of this scam:
What to do if you have been scammed:
The financial losses in these types of cases -- while substantial for the victim, usually several thousand dollars per victim -- typically don’t meet the FBI’s financial thresholds for opening an investigation. If you think you are a victim of this scam, we recommend filing a Special Prosecutions complaint with the Riverside County DA’s Office (English or Spanish), contacting your local law enforcement authorities, or state consumer protection agency (http://www.dca.ca.gov/). We also suggest you file a complaint with the FBI’s IC3, (https://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx) which not only forwards complaints to the appropriate agencies, but also collates and analyzes the data -- looking for common threads that link complaints and help identify the culprits.