By Mason Crane-Bolton
We know about tech. We know about scams—scams where older adults are often the target. But what do we know about how tech and scams overlap?
Wherever you live and however tech-savvy you consider yourself, it’s more than likely you encounter scams on an almost daily basis. Many of these scams may sound familiar: barely-legal businesses send flyers to your home insinuating to be affiliated with state or local agencies, or that urgent repairs need to be done to your residence; door-to-door or supermarket “magazine subscription sellers” try to get cash for magazines that will never come; a stranger who haunts a local business and always needs money for gas, etc. This isn’t a reason to give up on people or to believe that everyone you meet is out to do you wrong, but it is a reason to educate yourself and become “scam-savvy.” And where being scam-savvy may be more important than ever is in the use of those pervasive, everyday tools: our tech.
Why are there so many tech-based scams? Technology provides a quick and simple way for scammers to attempt scams on, literally, millions of people simultaneously at little to no cost. Scammers can send you emails, phone calls, and texts from anywhere in the world at any time. They can attach malware or spyware, infect your computer, get your information and your money. While there are some basic tools you can use to protect yourself from the uninvited scammers (antivirus programs for anything that connects to the internet—this includes not just computers, but smart phones, tablets, etc.) the most basic tools are free and always available: arming yourself with information, vigilance, and skepticism.
The tactics of most scammers are basic and easy to see through—so why do we fall for them? It’s not because we’re stupid or naïve—it’s because scammers also prey on our basic emotions: fear and love. The tactics of most scammers are to threaten either ourselves or someone we love.
Now, does this mean you can expect to get action movie-style emails in your inbox or texts to your phone? “Give me the last four digits of your Social Security Number or Fido gets it”? No, I don’t think that’s something you need to worry about. But what may happen is something like a call from the “IRS”—“We have recently opened a claim against you. Your bank accounts and benefits will be frozen unless we can confirm your Social Security Number,”—or from a “friend” of a loved one—“Hi, I’m a friend of your grandson and he just got arrested. He can’t make the call, but asked me to call you. Can you send a wire transfer for bail money?” Or you could get a seemingly legitimate email that appear to be from a well-known business, like Apple or Amazon.com, that claims your account has been locked, you’ve won a gift card, or someone has racked up huge charges to your account. (There are several other scams out there; the scams listed above are only a few examples of some of the currently common scam scenarios.) So, if and when you get these messages, what can you do?
First, don’t immediately react to your impulse of fear for yourself or a loved one. Don’t click on any links in an email, don’t rush off to send a wire transfer, and don’t give away any personal information, including your Social Security Number. Instead, stop, think, and confirm. Immediately hang up on any suspicious calls. If you have a concern about any claims against you or a freeze of your Social Security benefits, hang up and call the IRS (1-800-829-1040) or Social Security Administration (1-800-772-1213 or TTY 1-800-325-0778) directly. Even if the number that called you appears to be coming from a legitimate government agency, don’t trust it (scammers can disguise their phone numbers easily) and call the agency directly. If you receive a call that a friend or relative has been arrested or is in the hospital and needs money call that person first to check out the story (some individuals have reported tricking the would-be scammer by giving a false name for the loved one, birthday, etc. to verify the scam is a scam, but we recommend hanging up immediately to spend as little time talking to the scammer as possible). And if you receive an email from a business, go directly to that business’s website and verify whether there is any problem with your account (or call customer service). Never give any financial information or personal information in any of these scenarios where you did not initiate contact.
You can report fraud to the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint. To report Social Security scams, call the Office of the Inspector General at ?1-800-269-0271 or report online at https://oig.ssa.gov/report.
Scams like these are usually quick and dirty and easier to see through. The scammers aren’t too likely to hound you constantly—when you don’t fall for the scam, they’ll just move onto the next person so they can make a buck. And usually (but now always) this means they’re a little easier to spot and avoid. The IRS and SSA won’t send you robo-calls or leave automatic voicemails, your grandchild or friend isn’t likely to have a third party call you while they’re in jail, and you’re probably not the winner (but we can dream) of a $1,000.00 Amazon gift card. But what other common scams are out there?
Check back on March 7th for part 2 of our tech-scam series: One of the other most common scams aimed at older adults? “Sweetheart” scams.
Mason Crane-Bolton is Communications Manager for the New Jersey Foundation for Aging. His writing has appeared in Epiphany, UU World, To Wake/To Rise, and others.