Between January 1 and April of this year, the Madera County Sheriff's Office has received more cases of fraud compared to the same time period last year.
"We are looking at almost a 250 percent spike in fraud complaints," said Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, "with 112 complaints so far this year, compared to 45 filed last year."
The majority of fraud cases reported to the sheriff's office involve financial theft, identity theft, all of them via the internet, snail-mail and the telephone.
The largest growing target, he says, are senior citizens.
"Con artists typically prey on the elderly," says Anderson, because generally speaking, "senior citizens, especially those who live alone, may be more willing to listen to a sales pitch based on the engaging nature of the stranger on the other end of the line."
He says they target senior citizens because seniors make up the largest group of citizens who are most likely to have good credit, own a home and have a "nest egg."
It's a topic Anderson has been focused on for the past two years and frequently outlines the dos and don'ts when speaking at town hall gatherings, or when invited to speak at civic group meetings. He says while some senior citizens are starting to catch on, others are still falling prey.
Such was the case with a recent complaint concerning a senior citizen with the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease. She was swindled out of nearly $50,000.
"It started with an animated call from a perfect stranger. He banked on her vulnerability and in time she took the bait," he said. "He told her she was the winner of a contest that she had entered. And she believed him."
She couldn't believe he was conning her because he sounded so sincere and was so engaging, Anderson said. As soon as he won her trust, he got her to wire some money so that he could send her the nearly $1,000 prize.
But it didn't end there, he says. "The calculated calls kept coming," Anderson said, "and she kept wiring." Two months later she was out a total of $49,654.
She's not alone. The very same thing happened to yet another senior citizen who refused to file a report, Anderson said. On behalf of that victim's family, the sheriff's office made a house call to explain to the victim that the call was indeed a scam.
A new method of identity theft scam is surfacing in Madera County, Anderson noted. "Citizens who either have or are about to receive a Medicare card, this warning is for you."
Anderson warns that there is a team of thieves calling unsuspecting seniors telling them they need to renew their Medicare cards, but before the caller can proceed, he first reads off the four numbers he/she claims is on your checking account, and then asks you to supply the remaining numbers.
What may seem like the obvious scam to some, might not to others, said Anderson. Much of how they get your money boils down to how they treat their victims. With some they are cajoling, with others they invoke fear.
Con artists have been known to bully people into giving money. That happened in Madera County, too. A caller scared one senior citizen into forking over money she could ill afford to lose. He told her he knew her full name, and knew where she lived. He was relentless, badgering her until she finally caved in, Anderson said.
Anderson said con artists are very good at acquiring bits of information about people through the internet especially information on seniors. They typically prey on senior citizens because they are banking on their kindness, trust and vulnerability.
"These predators do their homework before they call you, Anderson said. They will call you by name, and might even ask if you still live at your current address, which they will recite."
Anderson says if you receive a call from anyone telling you that you have won a prize, hang up. If anyone calls you about your credit card statement, your banking account, your social security card, Medicare card, anything that involves sharing personal and confidential information, hang up.