Slamming the Door on Scammers

Below is the text of my first article as printed in The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving Portage, Valparaiso, Chesterton and Hobart. This article appeared in the July 28, 2010 edition. The column appears on the fourth Wednesday of each month in the print and online editions. Yes, I’ve been calling myself a “journalist” because of this new venture.

Q: I’ve heard of crooks going door-to-door and tricking people into letting them in. How does this scam work?

A:  With all the attention paid to email scams, computer viruses and other electronic methods of committing fraud, it’s easy to forget that a lot of scams are decidedly low-tech in their approach. Door-to-door scams are very common and have been reported several times in Northwest Indiana over the past few years. The usual targets are people who live alone, especially the elderly.

The most common setup involves two people who knock on the door and claim to be from the power company, phone company or from a municipal department. They will ask for access to the home while they perform some task— testing water for bacteria is one example. While one crook distracts the homeowner, the other steals cash, jewelry and other valuables.

Another version involves criminals claiming to work for an alarm company. They tell the victim that their house has been selected for a possible free burglar alarm installation. This is just a ploy to case the house for a future break-in.

There are endless versions of these scams. Sometimes only one crook shows up on your doorstep while another waits outside; other times they may offer home repairs, take the victim’s down payment and never return.

The first rule in preventing this type of fraud is to never let anyone into your house without verifying, beyond doubt, who they are and why they need to come in. You can’t just take a stranger at his word these days.

If someone comes to your door, claims to represent a utility company and asks to enter your house, the first thing you must do is ask for identification. If they’re legitimate, they’ll have an ID card and will be happy to show it to you. Their vehicle will also be well marked.

Once they’ve shown you their ID, it is still a good idea to double-check. Politely tell the person on your doorstep to wait a moment, lock the door, and call the company. Ask if they have workers in your neighborhood performing tests or repairs and if anyone should be asking to gain entry to your house. If the story checks out, you can be confident that they are who they claim to be.

The behavior of the person on your doorstep can also be an indicator of trouble. If they run when you ask for ID, or become belligerent, that is a warning sign. Lock your door, call the police, and provide as much information as you can. A real utility worker will understand your concern and should not mind waiting a couple minutes.

Even armed with knowledge, none of us is immune to being scammed. What should you do if you realize you’ve already let criminals into your house?

First, do not let them know you’re onto them. A cornered crook can be dangerous. Remain calm, try to remember as many details as you can, and wait until they are gone to lock the door and call the police. Your safety is far more important than any cash or objects the thieves might get away with.

Make sure to talk to your family, friends and neighbors about this type of crime, and always stay vigilant.

Door-to-door scams: the Alarm Company Variant

I write a lot of articles about high-tech forms of fraud, but that doesn’t mean all scams are electronic in nature. Just as a large amount of identity theft starts with dumpster diving, thousands of people still get scammed in person every year.

A recent variation (discussed in this video from CNN) is that criminals will ring your doorbell, claiming to represent an alarm company, and tell you that you’ve been selected for a possible free burglar alarm installation. They will ask to be let in, supposedly to see if your home qualifies and to scope it out for the installation.

What they’re really doing is, in the parlance of every bad robbery movie you’ve ever seen, is casing the joint for a future break-in. They’re making mental notes of where you keep everything.

If they’re slightly less sneaky, they might just rob you on the spot once you let them in. Either way, the situation is extremely dangerous.

The first thing you have to remember is that burglar alarm companies don’t sell door-to-door. They also don’t install anything for random people for free. Call one up and ask them sometime if you don’t believe me. Okay, maybe they’ll have a drawing at their booth at the county fair, but you still have to enter, and they’re not going to just show up without calling first.

The second thing is this: the days of being able to take a stranger at his word are long gone. When someone you don’t know is standing at your front door, you have no way of verifying their story. If you haven’t requested a service (i.e., called a plumber or an electrician), don’t just accept what that person tells you, and never let them in your house under any circumstance.