As scammers continue to prey upon vulnerable San Franciscans and drain their savings, the City Attorney’s Office is reminding residents that they do not have to deal with the aftermath alone.
Scammers are constantly evolving and their creativity is often underestimated, said San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu.
San Francisco’s low-income, immigrant communities are especially losing money to scams like fraudulent immigration consultants, financial investments, tax services and online travel companies, he said.
Often people cannot afford the scam that targeted them, and legal red tape can be especially challenging to navigate for people whose primary language is not English, Chiu said.
“One scam could be the difference between you being able to pay the rent, and you being on the street,” Chiu said.
Alongside legal experts, community activists and victims, Chiu took part in a March 30 San Francisco roundtable discussion on scams and fraud hosted by the Federal Trade Commission. Since 2014, the federal government agency has hosted meetings to hear from the city’s Asian-American Pacific Islander community on their concerns with scams.
“When these experiences happen, there is even more of a likelihood that folks may not want to share it because it’s embarrassing, because they think it’s their fault,” Chiu said. “We’re here today to say no, it’s not your fault, you are a victim of a scam.”
Small businesses are another common target. He mentioned a lawsuit that the city filed in early March against a direct marketing company, which allegedly impersonated the government to sell workplace compliance posters.
Residents and small businesses that believe they are victims of a scam are encouraged to contact Chiu’s office, as it is capable of enforcing the law despite arbitration clauses that prevent the creation of private class action lawsuits.
“We are able to enforce the law in ways that private lawyers cannot,” Chiu said.
“When these experiences happen, there is even more of a likelihood that folks may not want to share it because it’s embarrassing, because they think it’s their fault. We’re here today to say no, it’s not your fault, you are a victim of a scam.”David Chiu, San Francisco City Attorney
Billions of dollars lost
People are losing more money than ever from scamming. According to recent data collected by the FTC, 2.4 million victims across the country lost a record $8.8 billion in 2022 — a 30 percent increase from the year prior.
“That is the most that we have ever seen before,” said Rosario Mendez, an attorney and senior member of the FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education in its Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Mendez said the FTC has the power to investigate and shut down businesses acting in bad practice, but it can’t happen without people speaking out and staying informed on what common scams look like.
“You tell us what’s happening, we do something about it, we tell the public so they can protect themselves in the future,” Mendez said. She said issuing consumer alerts prompts a “ripple effect” in communities.
“It’s not enough to stay in Washington D.C. We have to come to the communities and hear from people.”
The Bay Area’s most popular scams at the end of 2022 were impersonation scams, where someone pretends to be a trustworthy figure like a family member or government agent, said Denise Oki of FTC’s Western Regional Office. The biggest red flag to discern these scams is the type of money they request, like cryptocurrency, wire transfers and gift cards.
“Reporting is really vital to us to do our jobs and in turn to protect you and to protect the community,” Oki said, adding that the agency does not hear from the AAPI community as often as they should.
University of California at Berkeley law student Renee Coe said she once saw a case where a student from India lost thousands of dollars after she received a call from who she thought was the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the caller ID and number matched the government agency’s. She was told she had to send $18,000 immediately, or else she would be detained and deported.
“One thing that scammers do is they emphasize the urgency of the situation, so much that you don’t have time to check with a friend or a family member who might be able to sort of ask you the important questions,” said Coe. “Most of the time, they realize it was a scam during the first person they talk to after.”
Too embarrassed to seek help
Desiree Nguyen Orth, director of the Consumer Justice Unit at the East Bay Community Law Center, said fraud victims are often too embarrassed to seek out help when they’ve been duped into investing money into financial scams. Part of the problem is that people are not able to meet their daily needs, so they are seeking out quick-fix solutions like fake debt settlement companies or wage access groups.
“We’ve seen people trying to invest in their future, trying to find some way to put their money into a nest egg, where they can have some sort of security,” Orth said.
“Many of the calls that we get are about how to manage debt. There are a lot of companies that are out there to fill that niche,” she added.
Residents who believe they are victims of a scam are encouraged to contact the City Attorney’s Office and the FTC via their online portals.