The hosts of a Washington state event on July 28, 2021 plan to help older consumers understand how they can protect themselves against fraud. The Washington AARP will be joining with the Olympia Police Department, the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging, the Washington Attorney General’s office, and other organizations to present Tip-Offs to Rip-Offs.
The event was spurred by a Federal Trade Commission finding that “Washington consumers lost nearly $69 million to fraud in 2020, more than double the amount lost in 2019.” The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Databook, published in February 2021, found that reports of fraud and identity theft skyrocketed nationally in 2020, increasing from 3.24 million reports to 4.72 million.
While seniors are not the only targets of scammers, the pandemic encouraged criminals to turn their attention from in-person swindles to crimes committed from a distance, using telephones or the internet. The Washington event will be giving particular attention to robocalls and imposter scams. According to AARP’s Jason Erskine, those fraudulent schemes “are fast becoming some of most effective and dangerous tactics in the con-artists’ playbook.”
Erskine explains that robocalls have more than doubled in recent years, reaching nearly 50 billion calls a year. “To make matters worse,” says Erskine, “experts estimate that up to half of these calls may be attempts to defraud consumers.”
Robocalls are simply calls that begin with a recorded message rather than a live person. Many political campaigns depend on robocalls to reach potential voters. Charities use robocalls to solicit donations. Unfortunately, scammers use robocalls to encourage consumers to purchase goods or services that turn out to be useless.
While political campaigns, charities, debt collection agencies, and the consumer’s healthcare providers are allowed to place robocalls without permission, most robocalls are illegal. A business that is not exempt from the law may not place a robocall to a consumer who has not provided written authorization to call the consumer’s number. If a consumer receives a robocall that tries to sell something, the robocall is probably illegal.
The FTC recommends using caller ID to screen calls. If a consumer answers and hears a recorded sales pitch, the FTC encourages the consumer to hang up without pressing any numbers on the telephone keypad. The consumer can then go online to DoNotCall.gov to report the unlawful call. Click “Report Unwanted Calls” to get started.
Imposter scams are perpetrated by “con artists who masquerade as someone you know or are likely to trust (e.g., a friend or family member, or a representative from a government agency or well-known business) to convince or coerce you into sending them money or giving them your personal information.” Online romance scams and grandparent scams are among the imposter scams that target older victims.
Online romance scams take advantage of people who are lonely. Criminals create fake profiles on social media sites or dating apps. They strike up relationships and build trust before asking for financial help. They may claim to be stranded overseas and need money for a plane ticket to return home. They may say they need to pay for emergency surgery.
Scammers ask their victims to wire money or load money onto a cash reload card. Once the money has been sent, the profile vanishes, and the victim has no way to recover the loss.
Grandparent scams are operated by thieves who use social media to learn the identities of the victim’s grandchildren. They gain as much information as they can about a grandchild, then contact the victim to ask for help with a financial crisis.
One scammer who posed as a grandchild claimed to have been arrested after a traffic accident and convinced the victim to pay bail money. They ask for money before the victim realizes that an imposter is pretending to be a grandchild.
Scammers may initially contact the grandparent using an email address that is similar to a grandchild’s actual email address. They may also “spoof” the grandchild’s caller ID to convince the grandparent that they the caller is really a grandchild.
The Postal Service has created public service announcements describing various grandparent scams. Awareness is the best protection against fraud. Grandparents often feel the need to help their grandchildren, but they should always be suspicious when a caller asks for money to be sent by wire transfer or reloadable money cards. Verifying the caller’s story before offering assistance is a key to protecting against grandparent scams.