Tech support scams and other schemes are hitting seniors hard costing millions

Scammers have come up with schemes so clever and intimidating that consumers are handing over millions of dollars out of fear they will be arrested for not paying a tax bill. It’s become financially dangerous for a lot of people to answer their telephone, especially the elderly.

Scammers have come up with schemes so clever and intimidating that consumers are handing over millions of dollars out of fear they will be arrested for not paying a tax bill or that their Social Security number will be revoked, stopping their monthly retirement checks.

Last year, consumers reported losing $55 million to tech support scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The median individual loss was $400.

In a tech-support scheme scammers either try to gain access to your computer to get your personal data or try to sell a worthless computer maintenance program. The caller often claims to be employed by Microsoft or Apple.

The hardest hit in this type of scam are seniors. In 2018, people 60 and older were about five times more likely to report losing money to these scams than younger adults, according to the FTC. The reported median individual loss to tech support scams for older adults was $500 last year.

The Justice Department announced recently that more than 260 defendants from the United States and abroad have been apprehended in a coordinated effort with other law enforcement agencies to stop elder fraud involving more than two million Americans, most of them seniors. Many of the cases involved tech support scams.

The FTC reported recently that for the first time, impostor scams, where con artists pretend to represent a government agency such as Social Security or the IRS, topped its list of consumer complaints last year. In 2018, all impostor scams bilked nearly $488 million from consumers.

Beware of scammers who say it is the government calling:

In last week’s newsletter I asked: Have you received one of these impostor scam calls? Did you fall victim to such a scam?

I was crestfallen by the responses, particularly from seniors who are overwhelmed with scam calls.

“Now that I am retired and around the house during the day, I have found that I simply cannot answer the telephone any more,” wrote Janice McSherry of Weirton, W.Va. “The scammers have outfoxed the caller ID protections so we no longer trust that the caller is actually the person whose name appears on the ID. It’s infuriating — and, yes, we are on the do not call list, and I have reported these calls to the FTC, but now there are so many, I have simply given up.”

One morning she ignored a call, McSherry said.

“I was quite surprised when the message indicated that it was the Social Security office confirming my telephone appointment,” she said.

Other seniors fall victim because they worry their families might think they cannot live alone.

My mother-in-law is 95 and still mentally competent,” wrote Bill Ross from Yardley, Pa. “She gets such calls frequently and because she talks with these people, she probably is on a list that generates more phone calls. In the past, she gave her credit card to someone who told her that her computer (used only to play Scrabble) was broken and she authorized $179 to fix the computer over the phone. More recently, my mother-in-law called my wife to get her two $250 gift cards from a drugstore so that she could pay her electric bill. She was told that she had until 9 p.m. that night to have the gift cards, or her electricity, heat, lights, etc. would be turned off. She was given a number to call once she had the cards and someone would give her instructions on how to handle the cards. She was terrified and crying over the phone. Her main worry wasn’t the money but that her family would use loss of utility service as an excuse to assume she was incompetent financially. This loss of autonomy is an item that is rarely mentioned, but very present when dealing with a parent.”

“I get calls regularly, along with all kinds of scam offers to fix my computer or my credit, neither of which are broken,” wrote Bob Chell from Sioux Falls, S.D.

Jeanette Millard of Hudson, Mass., wrote: “Last year I received repeated threatening calls, ostensibly from the IRS, saying that I was subject to immediate arrest if I didn’t call back and talk to them. The giveaway, for me, was that there were a few grammatical mistakes in the message. I figured it was a scam. The calls were so threatening — forceful and mean and promising fast retribution — that I thought I should report them as harmful in and of themselves. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to engage with the situation at all. And I am a longtime activist under normal circumstances.”

Kay from Falls Church, Va., says she and her husband get these types of calls all the time, including one that claimed their Social Security number was revoked.

“My husband and I were able to get a chuckle out of it only because there are two of us in the house and they didn’t say which one of us would have our Social Security number revoked,” she wrote. “But I always worry about those folks who get drawn into these scams. A close friend lost a large sum of money to an IRS scam a few years back. A caller convinced her friend that her taxes haven’t been paid and the police will be coming to her door. She is highly competent and financially savvy. They caught her at an emotionally trying time in her life and made everything sound urgent and imminent. She just didn’t think everything through and unfortunately paid a high price for it.”

“I was walking to my car when my phone buzzed,” wrote Meghan Combs from Raleigh, N.C. I had received a voicemail from an 800 number. I figured it was my pharmacy saying my prescription was ready. It was a recording of a woman. I only heard half of it because it had started right when my voice-mail message picked up, but it said something along the lines of ‘ . . . there are four counts against you. If you do not return our call, we will have to issue an arrest warrant.’ At first I was shocked and kind of frightened. I thought maybe the call was from a retailer in China I had bought shoes from and never received, and therefore I had my credit card company refund me the money. Then I realized that a company in China couldn’t get me arrested for $20 shoes that I never got (duh). That’s when I realized it was a scam and blocked the number. But man, those first few minutes after the call were terrifying. And I know plenty of people who would fall victim to that, including my parents (who I will now warn).”

Here’s what the Federal Trade Commission says you should do if you spot a scam or received a call or email. File a report online or call the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or TTY 1-866-653-4261. “Your complaint can help protect other people,” the agency says. “By filing a complaint, you can help the FTC’s investigators identify the impostors and stop them before they can get someone’s hard-earned money. It really makes a difference.”

Scammers don’t obey the law, so being on the Do Not Call List won’t deter them. But you can implement procedures to protect yourself when they do call. Here’s what I do.

— Listen for the silence. I’ve noticed that with the bogus calls there is usually a few seconds of silence. It’s the computer trying to figure out if you’re a real person an answering machine. If there is a pause, I hang up before anyone starts speaking.

— Listen for the noisy background. The moment I hear a lot of people in the background, I hang up. Scammers will hire a lot of people to sit in a room to troll for victims.

— Let your answering machine screen the scammers. Typically once the machine starts to pick up the con artist or someone in one of the scammer call centers will hang up.

Also be mindful scammers use phone-spoofing technology to trick people into answering. A call may have a familiar exchange number making you think it’s legitimate.

Look for the label. My telephone carrier has added a feature that identifies robo-calls and fraudulent calls as “Spam.” When I see this label, I don’t answer the call. If it’s not automatically added, contact your carrier to see if they have a robo-call or spam alert service.

Be rude. The hardest thing for me to do was to just hang up on people. It just feels so impolite. But then I remember these folks are crooks trying to steal my money. After a few seconds of listening, if I suspect it’s a scheme, I say nothing. No “goodbye.” Just click.

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