The year 2022 boasts the dubious distinction of being America’s most fraudulent on record, with scams reaching record highs nationwide.
And the City Attorney’s Office has a simple message for San Franciscans who’ve been scammed: “Please tell us.”
“We cannot move forward unless we have evidence of wrongdoing,” said City Attorney David Chiu at a recent San Francisco meeting on scams and fraud, which brought together community stakeholders, consumer advocates and fraud victims.
It was the latest in a series of meetings the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has held with the local Asian-American Pacific Islander community since 2014, which gradually developed from small group discussions into a larger gathering of everyone concerned about scams targeting people in the Bay Area.
At the conference, Chiu described a litany of scams involving credit card arbitration schemes, online travel companies, car rental companies, tax preparation companies, and more.
One recent scam even involved artificial intelligence that mimicked the voices of victims’ loved ones — mother, brother, or wife. Sometimes it can just be the infamous grandparent scams — where a grandparent receives a panicked call from a grandkid claiming to be in trouble and needing money. “You take a deep breath and think. You’ve heard about grandparent scams. But darn, it sounds just like him. How could it be a scam?” reads an FTC article describing the scam.
In early March, his office brought a lawsuit against a company, Personnel Concepts, that had been victimizing small businesses up and down California by purporting to be a government agency sending out marketing materials, suggesting those businesses had to pay Personnel Concepts in order to stay in compliance with labor laws.
“Last year, people that reported scams to us, in general from the entire country and from all communities, reported losing $8.8 billion,” said Rosario Mendez, a senior member of the Division of Consumer and Business Education in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
“That is the most that we have ever seen,” continued Mendez, whose agency can potentially investigate and shut down companies that perpetuate these scams, which increasingly permeate all corners of life, from phone calls to text messages, emails, social media or mail, and even advertisements. But Mendez is aware that the reach of the FTC could be broader.
“One of the reasons that we are here is that we don’t hear from the AAPI community as much,” said Denise Oki of the FTC’s Western Regional Office. But each meeting offers a valuable chance for action.
Once, the FTC heard from a local Korean reporter that a victim had been scammed for thousands of dollars by text messages claiming that the king of Cambodia needed help to release some money. In response, the FTC put out alerts to 17 Korean-language newspapers and outlets in the U.S.
Data from the FTC shows the top five fraud categories in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley metropolitan area in the fourth quarter of 2022 were: Imposter scams; online shopping and negative reviews; investment-related fraud; prize, sweepstakes and lotteries; and internet services.
Impostor scams didn’t top the list for no reason; they now look too much like the real thing. One immigrant student from India received two calls from scammers with caller IDs matching the actual numbers of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the San Francisco Police Department, according to Renee Coe, a law student at U.C. Berkeley and incoming staff member at Bay Area Legal Aid.
Under threat of deportation, the student immediately paid $18,000 through Target gift cards and Zelle, of which only the $700 remaining balance on the last gift card was later recovered.
In particular, senior homeowners are sometimes targeted by home loan scams and home improvement scams, according to Maeve Elise Brown, executive director and a founder of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates.
Victims are strongly encouraged to report the scams they’ve experienced, as enforcement agencies like the FTC can only bring the cases that they are aware of, according to Mendez and Oki.
ReportFraud.ftc.gov, the FTC website, is a resource for scam reporting. “Your report is shared with more than 2,800 law enforcers,” reads the website. “We can’t resolve your individual report, but we use reports to investigate and bring cases against fraud, scams, and bad business practices.”
Fraud victims can report the crime anonymously or let someone else file on their behalf. Unfortunately, the site is currently only available in English and Spanish, but the FTC is working on more languages, according to Oki.
Likewise, after witnessing a comparable amount of fraud cases, last month the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office created an online complaint portal that is available in English, Chinese, Spanish and Filipino for individual victims to file complaints.
Notably, the portal writes “we are not authorized to represent you as your lawyer, or provide you with legal advice. Any actions we take are on behalf of the community as a whole.”
Low-income people who don’t speak English as a first language are especially vulnerable to scams, said Chiu, and the situation can be exacerbated when immigrants are seeking advice to navigate the complexity of the immigration system.
Take Leonard Lacayo, who was sued for the second time last year by the City Attorney’s Office. After being halted from providing legal services to immigrants seven years ago, Lacayo restarted his operation at 3330 Mission St., where he allegedly provided fraudulent legal services.
For immigrants, who are more likely to work low-wage jobs, one scam can be catastrophic enough to make the difference between paying rent or living on the street. Worse, immigrants are more likely to remain silent, rather than reporting the situation. “When you are defrauded, whether you are of an immigrant background, whether English is your first language, it’s natural to feel like ‘That might have been my fault. I was dumb to let that happen,’” said Chiu.
Chiu admitted that there are also times when the cases are simply out of the reach of the City Attorney’s Office. Grifters abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) who target Chinatown, Little Saigon, the Mission and the Tenderloin, are actually suing under a federal statute. And for those cases in which perpetrators are overseas, the FBI is the only agency that can make a difference.
Even so, Chiu said, “Please report, because that helps all of us alert the appropriate authorities with regard to what must happen, that have that long arm to reach into other countries and work with other countries.”
- An online complaint portal provided by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office that is available in English, Chinese, Spanish and Filipino for individual victims to file complaints.
- An FTC website for scam reporting. The site is currently available in English and Spanish.
- Legal advice line of Bay Area Legal Aid: 800-551-5554
- Contact Housing and Economic Rights Advocates: https://www.heraca.org/#contact