Scamming the Scammers
“Hey, Grandma, it’s Danny. I came here to Costa Rica for spring break, but last night I got mugged. Yeah, Gran, I’m okay—just a few cuts and bruises—but I need money to get home. If you could Zelle or Venmo me $500, I’d really, really appreciate it. Thanks, Gran. Love you.”
“CONGRATULATIONS! We’re going to make it rain! You just won $25,000 in the Saskatchewan Lottery! Here’s what you need to do to collect your winnings! Just send us a check for $1,000 for processing. And we’ll send your winnings! It’s as easy as that! Our address is at the bottom of this prize notification. We also take Visa, Mastercard and Discover.”
“Good morning. This is Mr. Jones with IRS. My badge number is 4321549. This is to advise you have an outstanding debt in the amount of $3,458.00. It is in your best interest to take care of this immediately to avoid additional penalties and interest, which are accruing daily. We also must advise that if you do not pay, we can confiscate your bank accounts, your home—or send you to jail. If you will kindly stay on the line, we can get this debt paid by getting your bank account or credit card information. If you don’t have these, we will accept department store gift cards. Which is your preference?”
And the list continues. Nearly one in three Americans were targeted by fraudsters last year. According to government statistics, of the over $34 million lost so far in 2022, nearly $10 million—a third of total losses—were by victims over the age of 65. Older people tend to be more trusting, more polite and are less likely, usually out of embarrassment, to report crimes against them. This all contributes to why they so often fall victim to fraudsters. Let’s look at some of the ways older people are targeted, how you can avoid becoming a thief’s next mark and what to do if you’re victimized.
Far and away, the most popular scams reported are what’s known as phishing scams. In phishing, the scammer convinces you to give them your sensitive information: Social Security number, bank account numbers, passwords, etc. Often the request comes as what appears to be a communication from your bank or credit card company. They want to “verify” your information. Or they’ll tell you your account has been compromised; they’ll provide a link for you to enter and verify your info.
Don’t fall for it! A good trick is to run your cursor over any links. You’ll notice the link does not go to the company the e-mail is supposedly from. Also, read the email and check for grammatical errors or English usage that’s not common. Call your bank or credit card company—not the number provided but the number from one of your statements—to confirm they contacted you. Provide as much information as you can get to the authorities. See the electronic tip form at tips.fbi.gov.
The Internet is much like the wild, wild west when it comes to finding a trusted computer professional. And the bad guys’ six shooter is aimed straight at your wallet. Many unsuspecting users fall prey to phony computer repair schemes. Just because they advertise on the web—or their company name sounds like that of one with which you’re familiar—that doesn’t mean they’re honest. A good source for finding a qualified, legitimate computer professional in your area is Thumbtack. Another good source is Best Buy’s Geek Squad. A third excellent source is InfoTech Remote Support.
There are any number of fraudsters lurking out there, waiting for you to give them access to your computer. Their “cheap” services can be quite expensive. Once they have access to your machine, they have your accounts, passwords, etc. Beware the flashing pop-up that says your computer has a problem and the provider can help. Immediately turn your computer off and call a trusted computer professional for assistance.
Online shopping scams are next. These would include discounted gift cards, fake coupon sites, shopping account hacks, etc. Often the scam sites have names that closely resemble legitimate sites. Check the site with the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker tool. And remember, if a sale is too good to be true, look a little deeper—it’s likely a scammer in action.
Back to your “grandson, Danny” … before you send him anything, check with other relatives to be sure you’re sending it to the right person. Ask if they’ve heard from him: Is he traveling? Is he in trouble? This one is popular among thieves because the scammer counts on the likelihood you won’t remember the sound of “Danny’s” voice. Ask “Danny” a couple of family questions to which he should know the answers, but that no one outside the family could guess. If he can’t answer them, hang up.
Hacking, identity theft, remote access, ransomware, and malware are an entire family of computer-assisted scams that target the elderly. Often by phishing, fraudsters obtain your sensitive information by tricking you into providing it. They then use this information to take over your existing accounts or set up new ones. Ransomware is exactly what its name suggests. Click on the wrong link and malware is introduced that takes over your computer. The scammer then holds your computer for ransom, releasing it only after you have paid them some exorbitant sum.
But crooks that target the elderly don’t just depend on the computer. Some will call you by phone. Again, if they claim to be from your bank or credit card company, hang up and call your bank or credit card company independently. Phone them at a number you have, not one provided by the caller.
The IRS scam is particularly popular currently. The callers begin politely, but quickly escalate to shouting and bullying. Remember, the IRS will never call you except in return of your call; they will contact you via snail mail (and the IRS will never, ever email you). The IRS is not going to immediately take you to jail. And IRS does not accept gift cards. Report these scams to the Internal Revenue Service by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a variation of this in which the caller pretends to be from a utility company. They advise your gas, water, electricity is in imminent danger of being shut off. Again, hang up and call the utility company at the number on your bill. Report them to the Federal Trade Commission or call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360.
Should you get a notification you won the jackpot in a lottery you never entered, alarm horns should be blaring. Should they then ask for money to get you your prize, you are being scammed. Get as much information as you can about the caller or prize notification center. Then hang up. Report them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Older people sometimes take a bad detour down Fraud Street by falling for investment scams. The caller offers stocks, annuities, and more at returns far greater than what’s “reasonable.” Your best course is to not let them get into their pitch. Tell them to mail you the information so you can discuss it with your financial advisor. If they begin to stress the urgency of action on your part, get as much information as you can, then hang up. Scammers often tell you their deal is only available for a very limited time. This is so you don’t have time to think or discuss it with someone who knows. They’re counting on your desperation or greed to make the sale. Report their information (you can do so anonymously) to the FBI.
Also beware—these scams may be presented by friends or relatives who want to get their hands on your money. They may have been fooled themselves, or they may be thieves.
It doesn’t take a world disaster for fraudulent charities to crawl out of the woodwork. Right now, you’re likely getting dozens of appeals for aid to Ukraine, starving children, abused dogs, and more. As we’ve learned over the past few years, just because it’s a charity, that doesn’t automatically make it legitimate.
There are two reputable organizations I recommend for verifying the legitimacy of people asking for charitable donations: GuideStar and Charity Navigator. If it’s not rated four stars or higher, that means little of your money will be doing the good you want it to. It’s your money; do your homework to make sure it does what you intended.
An up-and-rising scam star is online dating. Here’s how it works: You meet on one of the sites and develop a relationship. The scammer develops your confidence as things progress very rapidly and then it happens. He/she has an incredible investment opportunity, but you must act fast. You invest a little bit of money and do indeed get great returns. So, you are convinced to invest more. And more. And more. Then, when you want to withdraw some of your money, there’s nothing there. The fraudster disappears, too.
Scammers don’t just ask you to invest; they’ll ask you for money for other things as well. He/she needs the down payment on a car. Or needs your money to invest in a business opportunity. Or needs airfare to come visit you. No matter how you look at it, they want your money. Don’t let the stars in your eyes blind you to the fact you are being used. Don’t fall for it—or them. Report them to the authorities at tips.fbi.gov.
In short, guard your login information, Social Security number, banking and credit card information, and passwords zealously. Share them with no one. Never send copies of your identification or passport to anyone whose legitimacy you don’t know. Don’t talk about your financial situation. Never send money to persons you’ve only met online. Do not write passwords or PINs on the backs of your cards. Do not click on links in e-mail messages. Contact the legitimate “senders” independently. And send no one money without first confirming the veracity of the request.
How do you scam the scammers? You pretend to go along, get as much information as you can … and then report them.
The saying is old, but it’s still accurate: if it’s too good to be true, it is. That Nigerian prince is not going to make you wealthy by depositing his fortune in your bank account for you to hold … and he’s not going to marry you, either.
Contributor Paula Day Williams, EA is president and CEO of NBFS, Inc./Number Crunchers Business & Financial Services. As an Enrolled Agent, Paula is licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to serve as a tax advocate. She has 30 years of experience in accounting and accounting management. Paula serves on the Mayor’s Council on African American Elders and has served on the boards of multiple local and international nonprofit organizations.