Think you’re safe from calls that target your cash? Think again. We asked the experts how to recognize and fight common scams.
Story by Julie Saetre
Amy Nofziger got the call on a late-October afternoon. An urgently recorded message announced that the call was from the Social Security Administration, a United States government agency that records personal earnings and distributes funds to retirees and those with disabilities. Her Social Security number had been used in a crime and would be suspended, the message warned, unless she called a certain number to resolve the situation.
Nofziger, however, was the wrong person to contact. As director of fraud victim support for AARP, a U.S.-based nonprofit directed at those ages 50 and older, she knew that the phone call was part of a scam that had been sweeping the country for more than a year. Had she called the number, a scammer would have tried to get personal information (including her Social Security number) to steal her identity, Social Security benefits or talk her into handing over money.
It’s a lucrative ploy. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission reports that in a 12-month period from March 2018 to April 2019, consumers lost US$19 million to the scam. It’s one of many that are just a phone call, text message or mouse click away. In 2018, consumers in the U.S. lost nearly $1.6 billion to fraud, and they’re not alone.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission warned in late 2019 that consumers in that country were on pace to lose a record AU$532 million to scams by year’s end, while the European Central Bank reports that Europeans rack up annual losses of €1.8 billion to fraud. And in Asia, a 7% increase in crime during the first half of 2019 was largely attributed by police to scam cases.
Think it can’t happen to you?
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and I’ve struggled with helping people understand that it doesn’t matter your education level or your income level or who you are or where you grew up. We’re all vulnerable to scams and frauds.”
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” Nofziger says, “and I’ve struggled with helping people understand that it doesn’t matter your education level or your income level or who you are or where you grew up. We’re all vulnerable to scams and frauds.”
That’s because scammers prey on two emotional trigger points: rewards and fear. When people suddenly receive a lucrative offer or face a personal threat, the reactive emotional brain tends to leap into action, drowning out the calmer cognitive side.
“You’re not thinking, ‘Let me lay out the pros and cons of this to see if it makes sense,’” says Nofziger. “You’re thinking immediately, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do X, Y and Z,’ because otherwise, you’re not going to get your money or bad things are going to happen.”
The Social Security ploy is an example of a fear-based scam. It’s one of many that fall into the category of “impostor scams.” In this case, it’s a scammer impersonating a government agency. In the U.S., scammers also make big bucks pretending to be from the Medicare federal insurance program or the Internal Revenue Service, among others.
“Scammers are very good at what they do,” says Patricia Poss, a senior attorney in the division of marketing practices for the Federal Trade Commission. “What we have seen is impersonating someone who’s trusted, who has some credibility. And they like to use something that you have a sense might be true. It’s based on a news report or something that you know about the government or that agency or business. We particularly see it when something has changed in the law or something new is happening with that agency.”
In Europe, for example, scammers are taking advantage of the uncertainties surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union to trick people into buying the European Health Insurance Card, even though it’s free to citizens in the European Economic Area countries and Switzerland. In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services recently issued new, free Medicare cards, giving scammers the perfect opportunity to convince people to hand over funds to pay for the card or reveal personal information to get one.
Government impostors aren’t afraid to switch things up to the reward angle, though. They’ll also pretend to be offering a grant or sharing the good news that someone has won a federally supervised sweepstakes or lottery. All the target needs to do is pay taxes or a service fee so the funds can be released. In an ironic twist, some scammers have claimed to be from the FTC, which exists to protect consumers from deceptive business practices.
Another form of the impostor scam falls under the “family and friend” category and uses the ultimate fear tool: loved ones. Known as the “grandparent scam” because it often targets seniors, it involves someone pretending to be a grandchild, child, niece, nephew, sibling or friend or a legal or medical professional representing that person. The loved one is in some sort of trouble — they’ve been arrested, injured, stranded — and they need money immediately for legal or medical fees, travel expenses, etc. A newer incarnation claims to be coming from a kidnapper, asking for ransom funds to free the loved one.
“They’re counting on you to respond quickly before checking out that it’s not real,” says Poss.
Patience is a virtue among scammers going for a large haul. Nowhere is this more evident than in the romance scam. It might begin when someone joins an online dating website, hoping to find a committed partner. Or it could be a message on Facebook, Instagram or another social media site (Words with Friends is a particular scammer favorite) from an attractive stranger or someone claiming to be a former classmate who always had romantic feelings for the target.
What begins as flattering and flirtatious exchanges evolves into what the target believes is a genuine relationship. Then the requests: “I lost my job and can’t pay my bills.” “I want to visit you but don’t have the money for travel.” “My daughter desperately needs surgery, and I don’t have insurance.” The target is in love, and will do anything, including parting with lots of money, to help.
“When I talk to audiences, they’ll say, ‘I’ve been married for 25 years, so this would not be applicable to me,’” says Nofziger. “And I bring up how many divorces I’ve heard about because of romance scams happening to married people.”
Scammers also separate consumers from their finances through real estate and timeshare scams, both of which disproportionately harm older adults, who often have larger savings reserves. In the U.S., older adults were 381% more likely than younger people to report losing money to timeshare fraud and 496% more likely to report a loss to non-timeshare real estate fraud, according to a 2019 report by the FTC. Consumers believe they are buying a flexible vacation timeshare or a retirement property in a dream location, only to be left with nothing more than an empty bank account.
Similarly, older people are more likely to lose money to scammers offering investment opportunities to grow a retiree’s nest egg. Ranging from low-risk, high-interest returns to financial seminars (“Find out how to make $5,000 to $10,000 in only 10 to 14 days!”) , these scams can quickly drain a person’s life savings. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission recently reported that older consumers in that country reported losses of AU$7.6 million to such scams in 2018, and in the United Kingdom, investment scams more than doubled in the first six months of 2019, amounting to £43 million, according to the Financial Times.
“Scammers are very good at what they do. What we have seen is impersonating someone who’s trusted, who has some credibility. And they like to use something that you have a sense might be true.”
Older consumers also are more vulnerable to tech support scams. In the U.S., those ages 60 and older are five times more likely than younger people to report losing money to such schemes. A person might get a phone call from someone claiming to be from a well-known tech company’s support group, wanting remote access to the target’s computer to fix a problem. Instead they’ll plant viruses and/or steal personal information. Other times, contact will be made via a pop-up message on the computer warning that the device is malfunctioning or infected with a virus, or scammers buy ads that turn up in an online search for tech companies. Again, the goal is remote access into the computer, or gaining funds to fix a problem, whether or not one actually exists.
And these scams just scratch the surface. New ones surface seemingly daily. So how can consumers protect themselves?
“A lot of scams have some very common characteristics,” Nofziger says. “So you can start spotting the red flags and have your radar go up.”
The experts suggest following these tips to keep your money where it belongs: with you.
Look for the ask. Whatever the prize promised or the threat described, you’ll be asked to pay and/or provide personal information to resolve the issue. Legitimate contests don’t require payment to collect your winnings, and government agencies will not call you unsolicited to seek payment or collect private information. “If you even know that bottom line, we can eliminate a lot of the impostor scams,” Nofziger says. If you still have concerns, hang up and call the agency or company directly through contact information you find from an official website or other valid source.
Beware of the gift card. “The No. 1 thing to look out for is if someone’s asking you to pay with a gift card,” warns Poss. “That’s a scam. Gift cards are for giving gifts. They’re not to make payments.”
Also be wary of wire transfers. Scammers know that once money has been transferred to another account, it is very difficult to retrieve. “There’s a whole new currency of fraud out there with gift cards and money transfers,” Nofziger cautions.
Don’t trust caller ID. Scammers can fake a phone number so the call appears to be from a reliable source.
Put the brakes on your emotions. If you fear a loved one’s life is in danger, your first response will be to do anything to help, immediately. “Stop, take a break and think about it cognitively,” says Nofziger. “Or call someone to help get you out of that emotional ether that these scammers are putting you under.”
Watch what you make public on social media. Scammers will use details such as loved ones’ names, your location or your employment status to develop believable scenarios. “Scammers craft their message to the person that they’re trying to victimize,” Nofziger says. “The more we understand our vulnerabilities, the more we can spot the scam coming to us and understand the persuasion tactics that the scammers are using.”
Get help: IdentityForce, a Kiwanis partner, can assist with identity, credit and privacy protection. Learn more at kiwanis.org/identityforce.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.