Hernando County Sheriff's Office badge

BROOKSVILLE — Between the hustle and bustle of decorating the house and buying presents, the holidays can be a busy time for everyone — including scammers.

Asking for payment for something in the form of a gift card seems to be the latest trend, according to Sgt. Steven Johnson of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, and unfortunately, “That money is gone forever,” he said. “We cannot recover that.”

It's important to note is that residents will not be asked to purchase a gift card in lieu of making payments for bills such as utilities, electric, etc., Johnson said. He added, “If someone gets a phone call saying their electric bill is due and unless it gets paid by a gift card it’s going to be shut off, that’s a scam.”

While a majority of gas stations are transitioning to newer pumps, it’s always a good idea to check for suspicious wires by the keypad and loose credit card boots. The safest way to pay for gas without worrying about someone stealing your card information is to pay for it inside and to pay with cash.

“We’re trying to educate people that if you think you’re being scammed, you probably are,” Johnson said. “The elderly people are a little more vulnerable. We definitely see them as victims more often. I think maybe because they lack computer skills or they feel embarrassed, and they don’t want to call for help.

“If an elderly person ever finds themselves in a situation where they’re not sure if it’s a scam or not, they should take a second to stop and either reach out to a family member or the sheriff’s office for help and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening, do you think I’m being scammed?’ Hopefully someone will intervene before they go to the store and buy thousands of dollars’ worth of these gift cards and send them off.”

Variations of scams include targeting the elderly by pretending to be a grandchild asking for help to get them out of trouble. The elderly person will then purchase a gift card at a convenience store and send the code to the scammer. Internet scams may include catfishing — pretending to be an attractive male or female — and then asking for money.

“There’s very little that we can do to even identify these people,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty elaborate scheme. It’s such an easy scam to just pick up the phone and call somebody, and if they don’t want to participate, OK, they’ll move on to the next person.”

Many businesses are aware that scams like these occur and are on board with the sheriff’s office in trying to stop it from happening, Johnson explained. A lot of clerks are trained to intervene and ask people if they are sure of who they are sending a gift card to, and whether it was a legitimate phone call they received.

“It’s a shame that it happens,” Sgt. Johnson said. “A lot of these people are probably overseas as well, so we’ll never identify them.”

Residents who feel they may have been a victim of a scam can file a report with the sheriff’s office or in the case of an internet scam, file a complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, IC3, at www.ic3.gov. The website also offers tips for preventing identity theft and cyber strategy.

According to a 2019 report by IC3, a total of 1,707,618 complaints were made in the past five years amounting to $10.2 billion in losses. Florida ranked as the second-most victimized state in the country with 27,178 victims in 2019, behind California, which had 50,132 victims.

Other helpful websites to visit include The Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.ftv.gov and www.identitytheft.gov, The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force at www.stopfraud.gov, and The National Cyber Security Alliance at www.staysafeonline.org.