ELMHURST — Telephone scammers have been preying on residents around the city — duping them into forking over tens of thousands of dollars by posing as government officials and saying they owe money.
The GreenDot MoneyPak fraud has spread around the Big Apple and the country in recent months, prompting the NYPD to make a video warning against it in December. According to sources, there have been thousands of victims in the city and at least 10 other states.
Swindlers call up residents and say they owe thousands of dollars to either the IRS or a utility company, and have the victims put money on a reloadable MoneyPak debit card — which can be purchased at local drugstores.
The callers threaten to shut off utilities — or, much worse, deport victims — if they don't pay right away, police officials said.
Then they ask them for the serial number of the card, which gives them access to the cash, according to officials.
One victim in the 110th precinct, which covers Corona and Elmhurst, handed over $31,900 when a caller claiming to be the IRS said she owed back taxes, according to Deputy Inspector Ronald Leyson, the commanding officer, who spoke about the racket at the precinct's Community Council meeting on Monday night.
It was not immediately clear how many people have been scammed across the city or how much has been taken.
But sources said there were 17 incidents in four out of the five boroughs between Dec. 1 and Dec. 16 of last year where fraudsters claiming to be Con Ed representatives threatened to shut off a business or a home's heat if they didn't fill up a MoneyPak card, according to sources. The callers asked for between $100 and $1,000.
A chunk of those fraud cases targeted local businesses, including a bodega and a laundromat in Queens, sources said.
In one case on Dec. 2 at a restaurant in Howard Beach, the victim was contacted by a scammer, but saw a police poster about the fraud and declined to fork over the cash.
Earlier this month, an upscale TriBeCa furniture store gave up more than $1,200 in a scam, and in January a French restaurant sent $1,970 to a phone hustler who claimed they'd shut off their power if they didn't pay.
Leyson's advice is that if a homeowner receives a call from someone asking for money over the phone they should simply hang up.
"Say, 'nice try!' Click," he said. "It's a scam.
"No legitimate anybody is going to ask you for this."
Getting information about these scams are one way to stop them from happening, Leyson said.
"It blows my mind how people can be scammed," he said.