Island authorities warn of increasing holiday-time plague of scams, mail and identity theft

It’s once again the most wonderful time of the year — for criminals.

Yes, just as decorations and Christmastime commercials have crept ever earlier into our lives, so too have the illicit schemes of thieves and scammers. The busiest time of the year for criminals who long to separate you from your mail, cash, and personal information now stretches from early November through the end of the calendar, well into resolution time, according to the Bainbridge Island Police Department.

And more people than ever are being targeted.

There have been about 50 known victims of mail theft in the last 60 days on Bainbridge Island, according to Bainbridge Police Sgt. Trevor Ziemba. And while a slight seasonal uptick of such theft is pretty much tradition, this year is on track to be the worst yet.

“That they’ve started this early is very concerning to us,” Ziemba said. “We will see an increase in mail theft, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas, because more gift cards and being sent, more cash, different things like that.

“It’s kind of like what’s happening nationwide,” he added. “We start the holiday season now in November, so it seems like that behavior on the criminal side is early.”

Crooks even have a cutesy name for stealing mail around the holidays: Grinching. Funny, right?

And online as well, scams and identity theft are on the rise, Ziemba said — two heads of the same less-than-festive beast.

“We started decorating early, they started thieving early,” Ziemba said. “Starbucks decided that the holiday season was going to start on Nov. 6; the criminals said it started earlier than that.”

Outreach and informational campaigns by police and city officials are in the works and expected to roll out very soon, including a mass Nixle alert regarding the crime trend, and flyers posted wherever gift cards are sold, warning of the common hallmarks of a scam.

“[The clerk] is just going to hand them a sheet,” Ziemba said. “If you’re buying a gift card for this reason, it’s probably a scam. Go to this website or call the police.”

For most on-island retailers, this is business-as-usual, but with the added authority of an official flyer.

“When I talk to each one of these — Safeway, Town & Country, Walgreens, ACE, different places like that that have gift cards — every one of them said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve talked to dozens and dozens of people and stopped it before,’” Ziemba said.

“But they’ve also had people that are adamant that they were going to buy $4,000 worth of gift cards because their grandson was injured in Germany and they needed to pay this [bill]. And [the clerk] is saying, ‘This is a scam, it’s absolutely a scam.’ ‘No, give me the money.’”

If the store clerk is telling you something is a scam, it very well could be. They see this kind of thing a lot.

Also, speaking of dead giveaways, and it seems this cannot be stressed enough, police ask islanders to please note: “The police, the government, the IRS will never ask you to pay for anything with a gift card, ever,” Ziemba said.

“The IRS, if they want your money, will just take it from your bank account. They just will. But if they’re telling you to go down and get a Google Play card to pay off your tax debt, it’s not legitimate.”

Even when it’s a matter of physical mail being stolen, there is almost always a cyber component to these types of crimes.

“I’ve sat back for the last couple of weeks, because somebody asked me about it, and I don’t have the exact figure … but I would say that probably well over 50 percent of our calls, I would say even higher, involve technology in the criminal aspect of it,” Ziemba said. “It’s a collision because I was on my phone. It’s a ticket because I was on my phone. I had my identity stolen because of something dealing with technology — it’s my credit card, it’s your phone, however that was able to get across.

“If people are stealing your gift card, they’re going having to go online to [use] that … even the ‘We’re in a domestic violence [situation] because I saw what my [partner] put on Facebook.’ Or they’re on their phone with somebody, or finances. There is a cyber component to, I would say, the majority of our calls.”

Ziemba thus advises the following “best practices” to improve, what he calls a person’s “cyber hygiene” or “cyber health”:

• Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it is (nobody wins international lotteries they don’t remember entering).

• Google can be helpful: Do an internet search for the suspicious phone number or email address, odds are you are not the first target;

• Do not answer unknown numbers, let it go to voicemail and see who it is;

• Check your credit once a year (and, for parents of young children, your kids’ credit, too);

• Really consider what you’re putting out on the internet, via social media; and consider emailing gift cards rather than mailing them.

To protect your physical mail, Ziemba said there are several reliable products for sale now, both for surveillance and locker-type devices to hold mail, that concerned residents should consider.

“I really want our community to be engaged in this because this is something they can protect themselves from,” he said. “Especially with cyber-related stuff — I can’t patrol that. I can’t put a high-visibility patrol on your credit. I can’t do that for your bank account. I can’t do that for the telephone calls you’ll receive. This is something that the individual person has to step up for themselves, they have to fight for themselves. They have to protect themselves on this.”

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t call the police about such things. Ziemba said people absolutely should report scam emails and phone calls, and more than that besides.

Victims, and those targeted, should also visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov and report such scams, no matter how embarrassing it may be.

“Some of the scams … are very personal and so people don’t want to air out that, if they feel it’s true,” Ziemba said. “’You haven’t paid your taxes, you’re going to go to jail unless you give us $3,000 right now.’ They don’t want to call us up and say, ‘Hey, listen, am I going to go to jail?’

“[Criminals] base these upon fear,” he added. “But it’s scam, it’s a fraud. It’s something that they’re doing; they’re using that fear, they’re using that unknown to benefit them financially.”

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