Financial insecurity, isolation and a pandemic with a death toll now approaching 700,000. Rarely have senior citizens had so many worries. To this we must add the growing number of scams that are being perpetrated upon them by con artists.
As is often the case during difficult times, these lowlifes have been working overtime, ripping off seniors any way they can. What makes them even more evil is the creativity and resourcefulness that they bring to their “job.”
“During the pandemic, we witnessed new scams that involved masks, non-FDA approved medical supplies, immunity boosting products, and equipment through online purchase scams relating to COVID19,” says Vee Daniel, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of upstate South Carolina.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Testifying before Congress last week, she said “We have also seen fake websites, phishing emails that involved stimulus checks, price gouging, scammers impersonating government agencies like Medicare, and promoting fake vaccines. We have also seen an increase in romance scams during COVID-19.”
Vaccinations can guard against COVID-19 itself, but sadly there’s no shot that can protect us against these predators. The pandemic, which is raging again—U.S. deaths are now back over 2,000 a day—has increased isolation for millions, making them ever more vulnerable to scams that arrive daily in the mail, online or by phone.
It’s depressing to consider the scale of this problem. Lois Greisman of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told lawmakers that in calendar year 2020, it took in—get this—“more than 4.8 million reports, both directly and through its data contributors, about problems consumers experienced in the market.”
Nearly half of these—2.3 million—were fraud cases, Greisman said, 1.4 million were identity theft and another 1.2 million were other problems. All told, Greisman estimated that consumers lost some $3.4 billion to fraud last year alone. She correlates age with financial harm, noting that “reported losses (were) particularly large among people 80-plus, who reported the largest median losses of $1,300.”
According to the FTC’s data, “Romance scams,” in which crooks prey on the loneliness of seniors, is the most lucrative scam, accounting for an estimated $139 million in losses in 2020. “Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries” was next with $69 million followed by “Business Imposters,” who stole $65 million.
Bad as these numbers are, there’s no doubt that the true problem is far bigger. Because “the vast majority of frauds are not reported to the government,” Greisman says, “these numbers represent only a fraction of the older adults harmed by fraud.”
As mentioned above, crooks have lots of ways to approach you. The FTC’s data shows that “frauds initiated online” were the most frequent, but in terms of sheer money stolen, the biggest rip offs start with a phone call. “Understandably,” Griesman testified, “this trend became more pronounced with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Phone rip-offs usually begin with crooks trying to lure you into a conversation. Perhaps you don’t talk to very many people any more; a soothing, friendly, empathetic voice on the other line might seem nice, but it’s all designed to create trust and get you talking. The longer you stay on, the more likely it is you’ll let your guard down and give up sensitive data, like your birthday, Social Security or bank account number. Sometimes the scam will play out over more than one call, and if you take their bait once, chances are they’ll soon be back for more.
Let me repeat the simple advice I’ve given before. Hang up. No matter how nice the other person seems, just hang up. I know we’ve been brought up to be polite and civil — and that’s just what the criminals are counting on. For you to be nice. Don’t be nice. Just hang up.
What about being approached online? Crooks are so clever these days that they can create emails, even websites that look like the real thing. Watch out. If you’re asked to “confirm your identity” by typing in, say, your birth date or Social Security number, don’t. Delete the email. And never open a link in an email. Just delete it.
What if the email seems real? Look at the address bar—the place where you type in the address of websites. If it’s legitimate, it should begin with a lock symbol on the left, followed by https://www. – and then the site.
Even then, if you have any doubts, why not just call their toll-free number? Why are they contacting you out of the blue, anyway?
The BBB, meanwhile, offers 10 great pieces of advice on how to avoid scams. These are really helpful. Follow them and you’ll be far less likely to be a victim. I don’t want you to be a statistic.