It’s late in the evening when the phone rings. The voice on the other end of the line, a grandchild, needs urgent help. They’ve been arrested, or suffered a medical emergency, and you must send money immediately.
Worse, it’s kidnappers and they are holding a family member for ransom. The only way to help is to pay what they ask in order to guarantee their safe return.
You receive a voicemail from the IRS. You’re delinquent in your taxes and if you don’t call back in the next 24 hours, a warrant will be issued for your arrest.
An alert pops up on your computer screen or comes through an email warning that hackers have compromised your computer. There’s no time to waste, you must call or click on the link to prevent them from stealing all your personal information.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s a contractor working in the neighborhood who noticed your chimney is in dire need of repair. They’ll fix it at a discount, but only if you commit on the spot.
Though the scenarios are different, they share one thing in common; they’re all scams.
“There are four ways these scammers are going to come after you,” said Patricia Bright, a volunteer, along with husband Richard, for the AARP CT Fraud Watch Network Team.
“They’re going to call you on the phone, which is the big one unfortunately, through the computer, the mail, or the scariest of all, at your front door.”
And, according to Richard, anyone can be a target.
“Anywhere, anytime that you spend, save, or invest your hard-earned money there’s a possibly that some unscrupulous person is plotting to steal your money, your identity, and ultimately your peace of mind.”
Sophisticated and clever, the frightening reality is that fraudsters are working round the clock to find any means possible to con unaware victims.
“These people are good at what they do,” said Lauren Vumbaco, a U.S. Postal Inspector in Connecticut, specializing in mail fraud schemes targeting seniors, specifically lottery scams.
“This is what they do all day long; it’s basically like a fulltime job for them to do these scams, and do these swindles. This is how they get paid.”
In recent years some of the most popular scams have included fake IRS tax threats, emergency requests for money by a grandchild (commonly known as the “Grandparent” scam), fraudulent calls from Microsoft or Apple claiming knowledge that your computer has been hacked, and fake lottery notifications from individuals claiming to be from reputable companies like Publisher’s Clearing House.
“Someone receives a call, or an email, sometimes a letter, saying, ‘You won the lottery,’ and you now have to prepay legal fees, purchase an item, or taxes on your winnings,” Vumbaco said.
“And then they’ll give instructions as to where to send money via mail or other currier service like Fed Ex or UPS. They also will instruct people to wire funds to certain individuals.”
Scammers may also ask for credit card numbers and pressure their victims, threatening that if they don’t act quickly, they will lose the money.
Of course, there aren’t really lottery winnings of any kind, and even if there were, Vumbaco said that legitimate agencies would never ask for payments or fees up front.
Other common scams include “free” vacation getaways, online purchase scams where buyers or sellers on Craigslist and Ebay “accidentally” overpay and ask you to refund the difference, fraudulent work-at-home schemes, where victims pay for “training,” or provide personal credit information to a non-existent employer, and accident scams, in which individuals either stage or cause purposeful car accidents in order to submit bogus insurance claims, or request on-the-spot payment to settle.
In the age of online dating, “Sweetheart” scams are yet another ploy.
“People are online, and trying to date, and they meet someone, they end up talking to that person, then all of sudden that person is in another country, then something happens, and they need money,” said Vumbaco.
“If they are asking you for money, and you have not met that person, that’s a big, big red flag.”
While the tactics vary, Fairfield Police Chief, Gary MacNamara, who specializes and gives presentations on senior scams, said that, for the most part, cons are universal in how they operate.
“All of them have a commonality to it, and most of them are designed to appear official or legitimate, they occur very fast so people have to make decisions very quickly.
“And then there’s some sense of urgency to it; either someone’s in trouble, there’s a safety issue, or I’m distracted.”
And, according to Chief MacNamara, once you’ve parted with your money, chances are slim of ever getting it back.
“Our ability to solve these crimes, the percent that we solve, is very low,” he said. “But I can guarantee that we can solve 100 percent of the scams that never occur.
“That’s why prevention is key.”
There are any number of ways to prevent becoming a victim of a scam, starting with not answering the phone if you don’t know who’s calling.
“If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer. Let it go into your voicemail,” said Patricia Bright.
“If you do answer, and they start to make you uncomfortable at any point, are asking you personal questions, hang up on them.”
While it sounds simple enough, for many people, especially seniors, ignoring phone calls can be difficult.
But according to Lora Rae Anderson, director of communications for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, if someone is truly trying to reach you with an urgent message, they’ll likely leave a voicemail or try other means of getting through.
“If it is an important call, they will leave a message, send you an email, send you a text message, afterwards, that’s something that everybody who has an important message for you will do.”
Anderson also suggests that if you’re waiting for a call that you don’t want to miss, try and obtain the number the individual will be calling from, ahead of time, so you recognize it when it comes up on Caller ID.
It’s also no longer safe to assume that just because a call is coming from a familiar area code, it’s someone you know.
Scammers and fraudsters are evolving so quickly that they’re able to make it appear as though it’s a local call, when often it’s actually coming from a country halfway across the world.
“People will call you from phone numbers that you know, and phone numbers that you call frequently,” said Anderson. “Because they have that data, and they have that information, which is really scary, but it’s something that people need to be aware of.”
A bigger challenge, perhaps, is that many people don’t want to appear rude by hanging up on a caller, or choosing not to answer the door when a stranger knocks.
But, in reality, both of those things are okay, especially if you don’t know who’s on the line or who the unexpected visitor is that’s ringing your doorbell.
“Don’t do business at the door,” recommends Howard Schwartz, executive communications director for the Connecticut Better Business Bureau, who said that if it’s an unsolicited person or persons trying to sell you something, or offering to do work on your home, it’s probably best to decline.
“They’ll generally try a high-pressure sales tactic, the most common of which is to say this is a “today-only” offer, this special price, hoping you’ll sign on the contract or pay a deposit.”
Schwartz said that making an on-the-spot decision is never a good idea because it doesn’t allow for enough time to thoroughly consider or vet the offer.
“It doesn’t give us the chance to do our research, to find out if the person who’s knocking on the door is legitimate, or from a legitimate company, and unfortunately sometimes they will use the names of well-known, trusted companies, and claim they’re representing them to try and perpetrate their scams.”
Opening the door to a stranger can pose other risks as well, according to Schwartz.
“If they convince you to let them into your dwelling, they might be scoping it out for potential plans in the future to break in.
“And, unfortunately, since you don’t know who you’re dealing with, it can result in physical harm. They can hurt you – or worse.”
Computers are another popular conduit for fraudsters, who often use scare tactics to frighten people into thinking their devices have either been hacked or infected with a virus.
To minimize the potential of becoming a victim, Anderson suggests being proactive by saving the information that comes with your device or software, so you’re aware, in advance, of who to contact if there’s a problem.
“It’s important to know that if there’s a problem with my computer, where’s my warranty, where can I get it fixed,” said Anderson. “That’s a good thing to hold onto.”
She also recommends working with an IT professional, or even a tech-savvy family member who can make sure that your computer is running antivirus or antimalware software.
“Make sure you have the appropriate protections installed on your computer, and that they’re updated regularly.”
And if you haven’t contacted a computer, software, or technology company for assistance, don’t believe anyone who randomly calls to inform you that your device is in jeopardy, let alone allow them remote access to it.
“The consequences of letting someone into your computer is they can have access to any, all documents that you have on your computer,” said Schwartz, “as well as your contacts.”
In addition, he said that bogus technicians will often keep victims on the phone for hours as they “fix” the problem, racking up a hefty bill to be paid at the end.
Scams can also come in the form of charities, said Schwartz, who cautioned against donating money to an unfamiliar charity or cause, especially if they contact you out of the blue.
“[Charities] are very important for people to verify, especially in view of the last years’ worth of catastrophes, both man-made and natural.
“We want to give, we want to be helpful; we have to stop and verify that it’s a legitimate charity, and a capable one, that has experience in collecting and distributing money.”
Despite safeguards and an increasing awareness of scammers and their schemes, many people still fall victim, through no fault of their own, according to Schwartz who said that while we can prevent being victims most of the time, things like data breaches, are out of our control.
Beyond breaches, however, there are ways that we can prevent identity theft including not carrying our social security cards with us, and being selective about the personal information we share, both online and in-person.
“That includes a telephone number, your home address, and date of birth, because criminals can take bits and pieces from different sources and put together a profile, and get enough information to steal your identity,” he said.
Instead, Schwartz recommends being stingy with our information and that just because someone like a retailer or store asks for it in order to sign up for a rewards card, doesn’t mean we’re obliged to give it.
“The key here,” he explained, “is that we don’t know what happens with our personal information; if it’ll be sold to other parties, or shared, who it will be shared with, and how they might use it.”
Instead he suggests providing as little personal information as necessary, and never putting your social security number on anything that isn’t absolutely required.
Other identity theft preventions include frequently checking your credit report for any suspicious activity, keeping close tabs on credit card charges to ensure they’re all yours, and freezing your credit to prevent someone from opening a new account or line in your name.
If you’ve been the unfortunate victim of a scam, there are things you can do, starting with contacting any relevant agencies including your bank, credit card, or credit agency, as well as the Department of Consumer Protection, Better Business Bureau, and local police.
“People often times won’t report it,” said Chief MacNamara, “even after they become the victim of it, especially because they’re embarrassed by it.
But they shouldn’t be, because, according to MacNamara, it can happen to anyone.
“Scams and crimes of that nature, are crimes of the mind, and anyone can fall victim.”
Despite the proliferation of scams and fraudsters, there’s one thing everyone can do to help prevent it from happening.
“Each and every one of us has the power to stop con artists dead in their tracks,” said Richard Bright, “we have an important tool; it’s called “awareness.”
For more information:
Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection: www.portal.ct.gov/dcp
Connecticut Better Business Bureau: www.bbb.org/en/us/local-bbb/connecticut
Connecticut Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker: https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker/connecticut
Article Originally Published Hartford Courant August 8, 2018