ESSEX, Mass. (AP) — "Hang Up On Fraud."

The sign board greeting those driving into Essex and to Cape Ann on John Wise Avenue, Route 133, has had many scratching their heads since it went up.

"A simple message on the board — 'Hang Up On Fraud.' I want people thinking about that," police Chief Peter G. Silva said. "I want them to see that, I want them to question that, and say, 'What does this mean?'"

Silva is embarking on a fraud-fighting campaign, and one of the tools in his arsenal is helping people recognize scammers — especially the telephone variety.

Fraudulent callers are increasingly posing as National Grid and IRS employees, saying people must pay bills immediately or face dire consequences. "Particularly you see the IRS. The IRS is probably what we see as one of the most popular ones," Silva said.

The scammers often ask for personal information, such as bank account and social security numbers or credit card information.

That's when that sign board message — "Hang Up On Fraud" — should become a mantra. Silva stresses that if the company is legit, it should already have that personal information. If residents are unsure about a call, hang up, he says, then look up the company's phone number and call back.

"The irony is — the harsh reality is — as much as we're doing, we are still, unfortunately, seeing residents and business owners that are giving out personal information and have been victimized," Silva said.

"One of my goals with the selectmen for this year is to really focus on the issues surrounding fraud," he said. "Fraud, unfortunately, is so prominent and frequent in our society that I just think so much needs to be done."

In one of the most recent fraud cases, a person handed over more than $40,000, an amount the victim never saw again. "It was just a completely bogus scam," Silva said.

He said he hopes to raise awareness about possible fraud among residents by doing as much diligence as the police department can do. He has spoken to residents, posted on social media and now through the sign board.

Officer James Romeos, 34, oversees the programming and maintenance for the sign board. "The goal is to get people interested and say, 'What do they mean by 'Hang Up On Fraud?'" Police want the public to call and ask questions if they are doubting the legitimacy of a call.

"If it sounds like it's a scam, it's probably a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true," Romeos said.

He suggested residents keep an ear out for people asking for payment in the form of gift cards. "What we're trying to do with the sign board there is the first step, helping people recognize it's a scam," Romeos said.

According to Silva, people are victimized every day. "We need more education on this and we need people to question phone calls, mail correspondence, any of these things which are very easy targets," he said. There is even the danger of "row boat" callings where scammers target thousands of people in a short period of time.

"Many people are getting victimized through phone fraud," Silva said. "If something doesn't sound right, hang up immediately, notify the police department and do not give out personal information ever."




Information from: Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times,