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Wauwatosa Police Captain confronts scammers over the phone

Posted at 3:32 PM, Nov 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-16 19:23:31-05

A Wauwatosa Police captain received a shocking response when he confronted a ring of scammers over the phone. 

Capt. Brian Zalewski posted a video of the interaction on the police department's Facebook page. 

Zalewski said a woman alerted police about the scam after someone called her from the Wauwatosa Police Department's phone number and provided her with a different number to call back in order to pay fines. 

She told police that, upon calling the second number, she was told she owed $1,900 in fines and that her credit report was showing the outstanding debts. 

Following the woman's complaint, Zalewski called the number, which begins with area code 844. 

Zalewski told the scammer he was calling to inquire about a call that claimed he owed the police department money for fines, and asked the person on the other end of the line what the charges against him are. 

"The charges against your name are that you're a (expletive) stupid person," the scammer answered. 

"How much is that going to cost me, then?" Zalewski asked. 

"It's going to cost you a lot, being stupid," the man on the other end of the line replied. 

Zalewski said other areas of the country have reported similar scams, with some victims in Ventura County, California being provided the same, 844 number to call back. 

According to the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau, several students at UW-Stevens Point were duped by a scam in which spoofers used the number for the Green Bay Police Department. That happened a couple years ago. 

"I want to know why you're using our department's phone number to try and scam people," Zalewski told a second scammer upon dialing the 844 number back. 

"Because it's good and easy money," the scammer said. 

"Because it scares them off," the crook added. 

"I'm going to respectfully ask you to stop doing that, and stop victimizing people," Zalewski said. 

"Sorry, I can't do that," the scammer replied. 

Zalewski said Wauwatosa Police will continue to investigate the scam and try to put as much information about it as possible out to the public to minimize the number of people victimized. 

According to Jonathan Arnold, an IT instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, the technique the scammers are using to mask their phone number as Wauwatosa Police's is called "spoofing." 

Arnold said it involves setting up a "private branch exchange," which is what allows a caller to alter the phone number that appears on a call recipient's caller ID. 

He said the technology has become much easier to purchase and use with the growing popularity of phone lines over the internet, rather than through the traditional, phone jack in a home or business's wall. 

"Two hours, $20, and you can probably do it yourself if you want," Arnold said. 

He said many businesses use private branch exchanges to control what number appears on a client or customer's phone. Arnold said the technology is especially popular among businesses who have clients in different states. 

"This is just a case of scammers misusing that legitimate technology," he said.

Arnold said the technology does not allow the caller to change his or her actual number, which is why the scammers targeting the woman in Tosa still provided an 844 number to call back. 

Jim Temmer, the President/CEO of the Wisconsin BBB, said that should be a red flag - especially if someone calls you asking for money or personal information. 

"We tell people, if you don't know the phone number calling you, or you're not sure, don't answer," Temmer said. "If it's important they'll leave a message." 

"Then you can look up their phone number and call them back," he said.

Temmer also said, while the scammers on the other end of the line often sound amateurish, people more easily fork over money when they're scared. 

"It's all about fear," Temmer said. "When people are thinking emotionally, they don't make good decisions."