San Mateo residents advised to be on lookout for phone scammers 

Police in San Mateo are warning the public about a new phone scam in which callers pretending to be local authorities threaten victims with arrest, deportation or loss of electricity unless they pay up.

Reports of the swindle began filing in several weeks ago.

Initially, suspects posed as PG&E employees collecting on delinquent bills and, more recently, they have claimed to be law enforcement officers seeking payment on traffic citations and other minor violations.

“We’re going to turn off the power because you’re past due,” callers threaten, according to Sgt. Matt Lethin of the San Mateo Police Department. Callers may also mention a bench warrant for an unpaid parking ticket or failure to appear at a court date.

“The suspect will say that there’s a fine associated with the warrant and that they want the victim to pay that, and if they pay that ... they’ll take the warrant out of the system,” he said.

“The caller directs them to go purchase certain types of prepaid cards and then to call them back when they have it, and to give them the card information over the phone,” Lethin added.

After victims provide the serial number for the cards they’ve purchased — often reloadable Green Dot or MoneyPak cards — they quickly find the cash card emptied of all funds. And all for nothing.

The tickets and electric bills are made up, and the risk of arrest or deportation for noncompliant victims is bogus.

“It is important to understand this is a scam and not the way law enforcement agencies operate,” police said in a written statement. “If you receive a similar call, do not follow the caller’s instructions.”

In legitimate cases, agencies usually serve warrants by mail and will provide contact information where they can be reached for questions.

“The warrants that the callers in these cases are representing are minor warrants for traffic tickets. Those aren’t the type of warrants that officers would actively go out and try to arrest you on,” Lethin said.

Last week, the San Mateo Police Department received an estimated 20 complaints of callers posing as law enforcement, most often as someone from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. In most of these instances, suspects identified themselves by a similar name.

The investigation into the identity of the recent scammers is ongoing, and it is not yet known if they are the same people who posed as PG&E employees earlier in February targeting non-English-speaking immigrants, police said.

San Mateo police are urging the public to be wary of anyone asking for personal information or money over the telephone and encourage those who receive unsolicited or suspicious calls to report them at (650) 522-7700.

The Foster City Police Department has warned of a similar scam this month over Facebook and Twitter and encourages Foster City victims to call (650) 286-3300.

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S. Parker Yesko

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