Don't Be Duped (Like I Was)
The Internet Scammers Are Getting Better at Their Craft
I like to think I am smarter than the scheming scammers who prowl the Internet. The evidence says otherwise. I’ve been duped, more than once.
Last month, for example, I received an innocuous text from a friend. “How are you doing today?” It seemed impolite not to reply, so I texted back, “Just fine. Nice to connect with you.” Whereupon my friend shared some great news. “I got $200,000 from the government grant program who are helping the retired non retired students old disable widows deaf and dumb in the community.” Okay, I thought, that’s weird but still possible. And the grammar is messed up, but really, who types well with their thumbs? But then she continues: “I think you need to check this out by contacting their claiming help desk. Do you know how to do that?”
Finally the red alert signal fired in my brain. I picked up the telephone and called my friend. “By any chance, did you recently get a $200,000 grant?” I asked. “Honey,” she said, “if I did, I wouldn’t be here answering this phone!”
I had been suckered in by identity theft. But see how easy it is to fall for it?
That scam didn’t cost me anything. A few years ago I was not so lucky. While cruising the Internet one Friday late afternoon, a pop-up exploded onto my screen, accompanied by the blaring of air-raid sirens and a booming voice telling me my system had been seized by spyware. I tried to escape the pop-up but found my screen was frozen. I turned the computer off and on – an action the pop-up specifically warned me against – but still the frozen screen and the alert came up immediately. Frustrated and desperate, I called the telephone number on the screen for technical assistance. The tech staff, who spoke with thick Indian accents, said they could only find the problem if they linked my computer to their system. Reluctantly, I agreed. For five hours that evening they worked it over, deleting the invasive viruses and reinstalling everything until they declared the problem fixed, in return for which I paid the princely sum of $499. The next morning the computer wouldn’t start at all and I was back on the phone breathing fire. Five more hours on the operating table, and finally my computer awoke, like its old self.
A few weeks later I was explaining this to my friend, the networking guru. “Oh, no, you didn’t,” he said.
“Uh oh. Was it a scam?”
“Absolutely,” he assured me. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“My mistake,” I mumbled.
To pour extra salt on the wound, I have received several dozen phone calls over the past two years from persons with a variety of accents, offering to refund my money. I listen – until they tell me the only way they can pay me is if I will let their computer link up with mine. “No way,” I say, and share a pithy piece of hard-earned wisdom, the family-friendly version of which is, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Only they don’t get the family-friendly version. That is when they hang up.
Apparently scammers circulate a list of names and telephone numbers that have been lucrative strikes for them. My name must be on the list in big bold letters with a gold star that means “Here be stoopid.”
Why am I telling this? Only to emphasize that the scammers are getting smarter. If even an educated, sentient, technologically semi-literate gent, wizened by age and toughened by worldly experience can get taken for an expensive ride, it can happen to any of us.
The Latest and Greatest Scams
Scamming seniors is a growth market. A 2015 report estimates that seniors lose $12.5 billion to scams annually. Scammers love us because we’re polite, we’re trusting, and sometimes we’re so lonely that we fall into conversations with these scumbags before we realize we’re being tricked. They also know how to play on our worst fears.
Here are some of the current favorites to look out for:
Your grandchild has been arrested and needs bail money sent by wire transfer or prepaid card. (This is particularly frightening and emotional. Federal agents in Baltimore last week broke up a ring that used this scam to bilk at least 70 seniors of $1.5 million.)
Your Social Security number has been suspended because of suspicious activity, and your benefits will stop if you don’t reactivate your number. (The real Social Security Administration never reaches out by telephone.)
There’s a problem with your Medicare account, which requires a fee to fix. In some variations, you must sign up for Part D to keep your other benefits - as if Medicare wasn’t confusing enough already! (And again, Medicare employees don’t pick up the phone to call you.)
You’ve won an all-expenses paid stay in the Caribbean. We just need your credit card number to reserve your place. (Not to be confused with the semi-legitimate free trip in exchange for sitting through a two-hour sales pitch for a timeshare.)
Amazon is about to process your recent purchase for $499, unless you respond within 24 hours. (For the record, the real Amazon would not hesitate to process the charge.)
Get the cash from your reverse mortgage and invest it in an annuity, or a real estate venture. (Reverse mortgages are a legitimate tool, but a plan for reinvesting the equity is a four-alarm signal flare that something’s fishy.)
The perfect sweetheart you met and courted over the Internet needs money to take care of her pet’s emergency surgery. (Good rule of thumb: Don’t trust the photographs. Your romantic interest on the Internet probably lives in a basement in Turkmenistan and weighs 400 pounds soaking wet.)
These are just a few. You can check out a more exhaustive list at “Common Scams That Target the Elderly. ”
Investment scams are a whole category unto themselves. Often the targets are high-wealth individuals, but scammers are equal-opportunity sleazebags who have been known to siphon off a senior’s life savings. There are as many variations on the schemes as there are tax loopholes. The Securities and Exchange Commission has a brief report on the latest fads in fraud (and the dangers of following hot tips on social media) here.
If you’re worried about an elderly relative falling prey to a smooth-talking scam artist, Consumer Reports has helpful tips to stop fraud.
As they used to say on Homicide, “Let’s be careful out there!
But What Do You Want to Talk About?
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