The scariest news stories aren’t the ones about plane crashes, military coups, or hurricanes. The scariest thing you can read is the story of a driver who is stopped by a person she thought was a cop, only to be robbed, assaulted, or worse. In the past few years, police impersonation has become increasingly common. Although there are no national statistics, New York City claims that about one hundred people per year go to trial for impersonating an officer. It’s become such a big problem that the NYPD has created a special unit to combat it.
Some people have an implicit trust for police officers, and criminals exploit that in order to make people let down their guard. The internet is also making it easier than ever before to impersonate an officer—fake badges, uniforms, and other police paraphernalia are widely available to anyone willing to pay. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of these scams tend to target the elderly, the very young, and women who are alone. Fortunately though, even the most thorough impostor can’t get everything quite right, and there are many ways to recognize a fishy situation and keep yourself safe.
On the Road
Getting pulled over is nerve-racking enough without having to worry that you’re being targeted for an ambush. If you suddenly see flashing lights behind you (especially at night), don’t pull over until you’re in a well-lit or populated area. Throw on your hazard lights and slow down a little, and a real police officer will take that as a sign that you acknowledge them and will stop at the first opportunity. Once you’ve reached a gas station, convenience store, or somewhere else where there are other people around, it’s safe to stop.
When the officer approaches your car, keep the windows rolled up and check for proper identification. Generic badges are easy to buy, but officers should be able to show you a shield that specifies the name of their agency and their badge number. Generic shields that just say “POLICE” or “INVESTIGATOR” should be treated with suspicion. Real policemen also wear nametags, carry radios, and wear duty belts with citation pads and other accessories. Those in a generic-looking uniform who aren’t wearing the proper accoutrements are probably not who they claim to be. Cars can give away an impostor, too. Real police cars have license plates that identify them as police vehicles, and their sirens and lights are built into the car, not attached by hand or removable.
Occasionally, plainclothes officers can make stops in unmarked cars. They should still be able to show you their badge and photo identification. If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to call 911 and ask if an unmarked car has made a stop in your area. Police dispatchers know where their units are, and they can confirm the officer’s identity. If the dispatcher has no record of a car in your vicinity, stay inside with the doors locked, and they can send a patrol car out to investigate.
Police officers understand safety concerns, and are happy to verify their identity, even if it means following you down the road to a well-lit gas station, waiting while you call 911, or even calling in another uniformed officer. Legitimate cops will understand that these aren’t unreasonable requests, and impostors may reveal themselves by being impatient, aggressive, or demanding. Anyone claiming to be an officer who won’t show an ID or let you verify his identity should not be trusted.
Vigilance at Home
Occasionally, criminals show up on doorsteps, not only claiming to be police officers, but also masquerading as cable repair people, meter readers, or representatives from some municipal utility, to try to gain access to unsuspecting victims’ homes. Real service technicians, like real police officers, usually wear uniforms and always carry proper identification. Beware of anyone who claims to be with the power company, the electric company, or anyone else who shows up unannounced to check on some vague, unspecified “problem in the area.” Most service people don’t make housecalls without appointments, and utility technicians aren’t even responsible for anything within your house; they only take care of what’s outside. They should also carry a work order or some other kind of paperwork, and they should be driving a clearly-marked company vehicle. If they seem legitimate but you’re unsure, ask them to wait outside while you verify their story by making a phone call. Never allow someone at your door to place the call for you or require that you use their phone, because you have no way to know who he’s really calling. Google the correct phone number yourself. Again, real servicepersons are happy to wait while you verify their story, and they understand that it’s reasonable to be suspicious of anyone who asks to enter your home.
Many impostors give themselves away not only by their appearance, but also by their behavior. A real police officer has a strict protocol to follow, and they don’t ask personal questions, ask you to accompany them to another location, or ask you for credit card information. Other suspicious behavior includes asking you to pay your “ticket” in cash up front, or offering you some too-good-to-be-true service, as long as you pay in cash. Likewise, with people who ask to enter your home, legitimate servicepersons do not snoop around your home, ask if you’re alone in the house, or do anything else inappropriate.
Many people who are taken advantage of in this way fail to notice multiple warning signs that something wasn’t right, such as an “officer” without a badge, or a “service technician” without any tools or paperwork. Our intuition is a powerful predictive tool, and many victims simply fail to heed that inner voice which tells them that something is wrong. Protecting yourself from these impersonation scams may seem like common sense, but remember—that’s exactly what the perpetrators hope you won’t use.
Updated September 1, 2010