Scams, Schemes, and Fraud


There are all sorts of scams, schemes, and fraud going on every day in communities all across the United States. Palo Alto, unfortunately, is no exception. While Palo Alto remains a very safe city, these sorts of white-collar crimes are prevalent in our community. Expand the accordions below to learn more about some of the most common types of fraud events we see in Palo Alto, and learn what you can do to protect yourself.

Identity Theft

Unfortunately, identity theft is a burgeoning crime in the United States.  It occurs when a suspect uses your personal identifying information (like your name, date of birth, social security number, driver license number, and so forth) to open fraudulent accounts and incur charges at your expense.  The damage done by identity thieves can be long-lasting, and can be time consuming and frustrating to undo.

If you have become the victim of identity theft, we recommend you visit, the federal government’s one-stop resource for identity theft victims. The site provides streamlined checklists and sample letters to guide you through the recovery process.  We also encourage you to call our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413 to learn how to file a police report.

If you would like to obtain free copies of your credit report, we recommend you visit this website from the Federal Trade Commission and follow the instructions there.

How is Personal Identifying Information Stolen?

  • From thefts of purses, wallets, briefcases, backpacks, etc. containing identity information.

  • Mail theft from unsecured mail boxes.

  • From business, financial, medical or government computer databases.

  • When criminals retrieve unshredded documents and mail, containing identity information, from dumpsters (often referred to as "dumpster diving").

  • By purchasing identity information from information brokers.

  • By illegally obtaining credit reports.

  • By stealing identity information found when criminals commit residential and commercial burglaries.

  • When your mail is illegally rerouted from your home or P.O. Box to a different address.

  • By stealing identity information via the Internet.

  • By purchasing identity information from "inside" sources at banks, schools, medical facilities, DMV, insurance companies, government agencies, etc.

How Do Identity Thieves Use Your Information?

  • Thieves open new lines of credit and take out new loans using your identity.

  • Thieves open bank accounts using your identity.

  • Thieves impersonate you and pass fraudulent checks through your bank account.

  • Thieves impersonate you while committing crimes, making you the subject of a criminal investigation, not them.

  • Thieves file for bankruptcy using your identity information.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk for Identity Theft?

  • Before providing any personal identifying information to a business or other person, find out how it will be used, whether it will be shared with others, and the entity's privacy policy. Ask about "opting out" of the sharing of your identity information.

  • Closely monitor your bills and statements for accuracy. Dispute, in writing, any inaccurate or suspicious charges.

  • Follow up with creditors when you do not receive your bills during their normal billing cycle. It may be a sign that an identity thief has rerouted your mail to another address.

  • Deposit your mail at the post office in an interior collection box. Do not leave outgoing mail in unsecured locations (like the mailbox at your home) for convenient pick up by the mail carrier.

  • Only have mail delivered to a secure, locking mailbox.

  • Have the post office hold your mail while you are away from your residence or business. Visit the U.S. Postal Service website for more information.

  • Do not keep PIN numbers or password information in your purse, wallet, or organizer.

  • Limit the amount of identity information you keep in your purse, wallet, or organizer.

  • Use complex passwords on all of your accounts.  Do not use easy-to-discover information such as your mother's maiden name, birthday, social security number, or phone number for your passwords.

  • Do not give identity information to anyone with whom you have not initiated contact yourself.

  • Shred all documents containing your identity information using a cross-cut shredder.

  • Secure documents in your home that contain identity information.

  • Make your phone number unlisted, or only list your name and phone number (not your address also).

  • Limit the release of your name, address, phone number, and other identity information.

  • Do not complete personal profile surveys such as those found on new product warranty cards.

Telemarketing Schemes

Telemarketing is a legitimate multi-billion dollar business in the United States. However, fraudulent telemarketers try to take advantage of everyone, but particularly the elderly on the theory that they may be more trusting and polite toward strangers.  Every year, thousands of consumers lose money to these con artists, ranging from just a few dollars to their entire life savings.

You can avoid many telemarketing calls by registering online with the National Do Not Call Registry.

Reasons People Can Easily Become Victims of Telemarketing Fraud:

  • Often it is hard to tell for sure whether a sales call is legitimate.

  • Telephone con artists are skilled at sounding believable, even when they are really telling lies.

  • Sometimes telephone con artists reach you when you are feeling lonely. They may call back day after day, until you think a friend, not a stranger, is trying to sell you something.

  • Some telephone salespeople have an answer for everything. You may find it hard to get them off the phone, even if they are selling something in which you are not interested.

  • You may be promised free gifts, prizes, vacations, or even the "investment of a lifetime," but only if you act "right away."  It may sound like a really good deal, but of course, they are only after your money.

Tip-offs to Telephone Fraud

If you are told any of the following things on the phone, it's likely a scam.  Simply hang up the phone.

  • You must act now, or else the offer won't be good.

  • You can't afford to miss this "high profit, no-risk" offer.

  • You have won a "free" gift, vacation, or prize, but you must pay for "postage and handling" or other charges.

  • You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by a courier (all before you have had a chance to consider the offer carefully).

  • You are told that you do not need to check out the company with anyone (including your family, lawyer, accountant, local Better Business Bureau, or consumer protection agency).

  • You are told that you do not need any written information about their company or their references.

What to Do If You Receive a Suspected Fraudulent Call

The best two things you can do during a fraudulent telemarketing call are to 1) never give or confirm any personal identifying information (date of birth, social security number, credit card number, driver license number, etc.) to them, and 2) hang up the phone as quickly as possible.  Remember, you are in charge of when to hang up.  Do not feel guilty for simply hanging up on a telemarketer - they are actually used to it!

If you have a hard time, like many people do, with hanging up on someone, here are some techniques that you may find helpful instead:

  • Use the same reply to their questions (such as, "I'm not interested") over and over again.

  • Bluff them, by saying something like, "Please hang on while I turn on my tape recorder".

  • Play dumb and make them repeat themselves over and over again.

  • Be honest, by saying something like, "I just do not have any money that I can afford to give you. Thank you for calling".

If You've Become a Victim...

If you have fallen victim to one of these scams and sent money to them, you are not alone.  Please promptly report it to us by calling our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413 so we can help you.

Credit Card Fraud

Credit card fraud is a common crime. You can help to reduce the likelihood you become a victim of it by routinely taking the following steps:

  • Sign your new credit card immediately upon receiving it, and destroy the expired card.

  • Periodically verify that you have all of your credit cards in your possession. Some thieves take only a single car to reduce or delay the potential for discovery.

  • Review your credit card statements and immediately contact the issuer if there are charges you do not recognize.

  • Set up notifications for purchases over a certain dollar amount, such that you are immediately notified of large charges and can immediately take steps to deactivate the card if they are fraudulent.

  • Don't ever loan your credit card to another person.

  • If you do not receive a new card when you old one has expired, call your credit card company. There is a possibility that a criminal has rerouted your account to a different address, and is already in receipt of your new credit card unbeknownst to you.

  • If you mail in a check to pay your credit card or other bills, always take your outgoing mail to a post office and deposit it into an approved mail box. Do not leave your outgoing mail in your home's unlocked mailbox for a mail carrier to pick it up; a thief could steal it.

  • If you receive a phone call and the caller is trying to solicit your credit card number of the phone, be very cautious as it is likely a scam. It is much safer to provide your credit card number over the phone to a legitimate company that you self-initiated contacting.

 If you have become a victim of credit card fraud, please call us in our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413 so we can help you.

IRS Scams

The Palo Alto Police Department occasionally receives reports from residents where the suspects falsely represent themselves as employees from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This scam is occurring nationally and is not unique to Palo Alto. The suspects tell residents that they owe money to the IRS, and that it must be paid immediately through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, the suspects threaten to arrest them. In many cases, the suspects become hostile and insulting.

Scammers have used fake names and badge numbers. In an effort to convince potential victims they are legitimately from the IRS, they have used commercially available products on the Internet to display the IRS toll-free telephone number or a Washington D.C. area code. Another tactic the suspects use is to send the victim a fake arrest warrant with their name on it.

If you receive a telephone call from someone claiming to represent the IRS, we suggest taking the following steps:

  • If you know you owe taxes or you think you might owe taxes, hang up and call the IRS directly at (800) 829-1040. The IRS employees can help you with a payment issue. If there is no payment issue, they will be able to let you know.

  • If you know you do not owe taxes or have no reason to think that you owe any taxes (for example, you've never received a bill from the IRS, or the caller made threats as described above), then report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration via their website. They are the lead agency for investigating this scam.

Real Estate Scams

The Palo Alto Police Department often receives reports from alert residents notifying us of real estate rental scams they discovered on the Internet. This scam is occurring nationally and is not unique to Palo Alto. For these scams, the suspects use photographs of houses that are legitimately listed for sale in Palo Alto and then create false advertisements saying the homes are for rent. Their goal is to steal your money by obtaining a "security deposit" and/or "first month's rent" via check or wire transfer. The suspects typically claim to be out of the country and say that while there may be a "For Sale" sign on the property, they have recently taken the house off the market.

To avoid being a victim of this scam, please visit the property you're interested in renting prior to sending a security deposit anywhere. If there is a "For Sale" sign in the front yard, please contact the realtor to confirm the status of the property. If there is no "For Sale" sign, an Internet search of the property may show if it is legitimately listed for sale. Another indicator of a scam is if the property is being offered for rent at a rate that is significantly lower than other rental properties in the area. Finally, if you are unable to get in contact with the owner to have them show you the property, it is likely a scam.

If you are aware of these scams, please report it immediately to the website where you initially found the property advertised.

If you become a victim of this scam and have actually sent the suspect money, please report it to us by calling our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413.

Utilities Scams

Occasionally, scammers posing as utility companies have targeted Palo Alto business owners. These scammers call businesses and represent themselves as being from "The Disconnect Department" of either the City of Palo Alto Utilities Department or Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). In an effort to convince business owners they are legitimately from the Utilities Department, they have used commercially available products on the Internet to display the Palo Alto Utilities Department telephone number on the business owner's caller ID system.

The suspects have been successful in convincing some business owners that their account is past due and that power will be shut off if they do not make an immediate payment. The suspects instruct the business owners to go to their nearest convenience store to purchase pre-paid credit cards or "GreenDot MoneyPak" cards (what amounts to a reloadable debit card - visit the MoneyPak website for more details), and then provide the numbers on the card to the suspect over the phone. Once that occurs, the suspects gain immediate access to that money.

This is never a legitimate means of collection on past-due accounts. In actuality, when a customer has not paid their bill, the Utilities Department sends out multiple written warnings if an account is past due, and shutting off power is an option of last resort. If business owners or residents ever get a call where the caller claims to be from the Utilities Department and asks for money or other personal information, they should hang up and then immediately call the Customer Service Center themselves at (650) 329-2161. A Utilities Department customer service representative will be able to assist the business owner further.

If you have actually sent money to these suspects and become a victim, please report the crime to us by calling our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413.

"Grandson" Scams

A phone scam that occasionally occurs around Palo Alto is the “grandson” scam. Here’s how it works.

An elderly resident will receive a phone call from someone who purports to be their “grandson.” The suspect says that he has been arrested for DUI in an out-of-state city, and needs bail money. The suspect instructs the victim to go to a convenience store, purchase “Green Dot MoneyPaks” (what amounts to a reloadable debit card - visit the MoneyPak website for more details), and provide them with the unique identifying number on the back of the card. Once the suspect obtains those identifying numbers, they gain ready access to that money and defraud the victim.

If you've been the victim of this scam and have lost money, please call us our 24-hour dispatch center at (650) 329-2413 to file a report. If you can, please note the originating phone number, as that may provide a clue for detectives to follow.

This is, unfortunately, a very common scam nationwide (which a quick internet search will confirm). For those of you with elderly friends or relatives, no matter if they live in Palo Alto or elsewhere, please tell them about this scam so they don’t fall victim to it.

Consumer Fraud / Deceptive Business Practices

If you believe you have become a victim of consumer fraud or a deceptive business practice, we encourage you to contact the Consumer Protection Unit of the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office for assistance.

You are welcome to visit their Consumer Protection Unit website for more information, e-mail them at, or call them at (408) 792-2880.