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Fighting Back Against the “Scam”-demic

Older adults are often targeted by scams, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new avenues for scams.  Fear and isolation may have made people more vulnerable to scams and con-artists, leading to a “scam”-demic accompanying the global pandemic.  In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that Americans aged 60 and over lost over $602 million to fraud, scams, and financial exploitation schemes. 

Some new scams based on COVID-19 included calls promising antibody tests, gathering personal information claiming to schedule a vaccine appointment, and gathering personal information under the guise of contact tracing.  Scammers sold products falsely claiming to be miracle cures or to prevent COVID-19.  Some related scams sought banking information with the promise of additional stimulus payments.  The isolation caused by the pandemic also led to a rise in romance scams.

Some of the top scams reported in 2020 were:

  1. Government Impersonation Scams – IRS impersonation scams have been very common in previous years.  In 2020, Social Security scams became more common.  Scammers claim the victim’s Social Security Number has been suspended or used in a crime.  The caller attempts to scare the victim by threatening lawsuits or to stop Social Security payments.  The scammer then requests personal information that may be used for identity theft, to take over the victim’s accounts, commit prescription drug theft, or to submit fake billings to Medicare. 
  • Romance Scams – This is a confidence scheme in which a person pretends to be romantically interested in the victim in order to steal money from them.  They may use personal information from social media and dating sites to target a victim, claim that the relationship is “destiny” and “fate,” attempt to isolate the victim from family and friends, and always have an excuse why they cannot meet in person.  Scammers often claim to be Americans who are currently living, working, or travelling abroad.  Once the victim is attached, the scammer may ask for money, financial assistance, or help with financial transactions, or may use compromising pictures or information to extort the victim. 
  • Computer Tech Support Scams – Scammers may call and pretend to be from a well- recognized technology company (such as Microsoft or Apple) and offer fake security plans or claim that the individual’s computer has been infected with a virus.  A pop-up may appear on the computer screen which falsely reports a problem and provides the scammer’s phone number to call to “fix” it.
  • Grandparent Scams – This scam involves a caller who pretends to be a grandchild of the victim. The “grandchild” needs money to help him/her with an unexpected expense such as a hospital bill, car repair, or unplanned trip.  The pretend grandchild may ask the grandparent not to call the parents.  Another variation may be the caller pretending to be a police officer, lawyer, or physician who is helping a grandchild.
  • Sweepstakes Scams – The victim is contacted and informed that they have won some sort of sweepstakes or lottery, and must provide their personal information to collect their winnings.  Scammers often use the names of real lotteries and sweepstakes, such as “Mega Millions” and “Publishers Clearing House.” The victim may be told they must first pay processing fees and taxes before they can receive the prize.  After sending this money, the victim receives no prize, but likely will receive a lot more scam calls asking for more money. 
  • Debt Collection and Utility scams – These scammers tell the victim that they owe money and try to get them to pay it.  The caller may threaten lawsuits, threaten to shut off utilities, tell the victim there is a warrant out for their arrest, and may pretend to be a government entity.  Some utility scammers will even show up at the victim’s door in person to demand money.  This type of scammer will typically impose deadlines, such as the end of the business day.  As part of the process, scammers will gather personal identifying information that may be sold to identity thieves.  These scams are challenging because real debt collections may follow similar patterns.  If you are suspicious, you could contact the creditor directly at the number from your bill and check your credit report.
  • Government Grant – Scammers may reach victims through online ads, phone calls, texts, or emails.  They promise free money to pay for education, home repairs, business expenses, household bills, or other expenses.  They may pretend to be with government programs.  The scammers will typically ask for personal information to see if the victim can “qualify” for the grant.  They then ask for bank account information, either to deposit the grant or to ask the victim to pay for fees or expenses.  They may also ask the victim to pay the fees or expenses with some other method, such as buying gift cards. 
  • Unsolicited Phone Calls – These calls are often Robocalls that mechanically dial phone numbers in sequence and use a recorded message to make a large number of calls without much effort by the scammer.  They often spoof numbers to make it appear they are calling from a government office or the victim’s local area code.  These calls are often used to identify easy victims to target with other types of scams.

Scammers are creative and regularly come up with new schemes.  Some red flags to watch for are:

  • They pressure you to make quick decisions and may threaten you
  • They may pretend to be a government employee
  • They pressure you not to consult with friends or family
  • They ask for personal information like your social security number or bank accounts
  • They may offer you an amazing prize or free trip that is too good to be true

Be cautious if someone who contacts you is following any of these patterns or raises red flags.  The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging maintains a hotline for callers to report fraud and scams at 1-855-303-9470.  If you are contacted by a scammer, you should report it by calling the hotline, and contacting the police and attorney general to report any theft. You can also report scams to the Federal Trade Commission:

Kelly Walsh Appleyard, Attorney