When Taunton resident Dennis Hohengasser’s cat died, he was heartbroken and soon after went online searching on Google for another cat to adopt. The first four websites that came up were actually paid ads. He also noticed they had bad grammar and spelling mistakes. When he Googled one of the addresses, he discovered it was an empty, abandoned building.
He finally found one that was legitimate and was instructed to pay using Paypal. He hadn’t used it in a while and attempted to put in his password three times, but each time it wasn’t correct. He then got a pop-up notification that said his account was compromised and gave him a number to call. He called and was told by the person on the other end of the phone the problem could be corrected if he gave him access to his laptop.
However, within four minutes, Hohengasser realized this was a scammer and although he was in a weak emotional state because he lost his cat, he knew he had to stop. Hohengasser made it that far the process despite being a volunteer for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, who has been trained extensively on how to spot fraud and prevent it. He even teaches what he has learned to others around the state.
There are thousands of people of all ages who fall victim to scams via email, phone or even door-to-door because they are not educated about them. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how tech-savvy you are.
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“Scammers are criminals who know how to get us ‘under the ether,’ which is a heightened emotional state where we are more vulnerable,” said Alice Diamond, volunteer of the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline and Massachusetts AARP Speakers Bureau where she speaks about fraud to community groups and at senior centers.
Scammers use very sophisticated and persuasive strategies to convince victims, said Diamond.
“They can frighten us by saying, ‘We have kidnapped your grandchild;’ or ‘ Your computer is infected.’ They can tempt us with opportunities for getting rich by saying, ‘You won a sweepstake.’ They can pose as people trying to keep us from getting scammed by saying, ‘I am calling from your bank because your account was compromised.’”
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Diamond said educating people about scams is the best way to prevent them. However, there are so many scams and scammers that alerts would be going off constantly with a system like Amber Alert.
“Combatting fraud requires collaboration between local, state and national organizations and law enforcement and must be ongoing,” said Diamond.
“There also needs to be policy and legal changes to protect victims, including new regulations for peer-to-peer payment apps and gift cards.”
More than $8 billion was lost to scammers last year and it is estimated that only 5% of scams are reported because many victims are embarrassed and don’t share what happened to them, according to Diamond.
“We are trying to get people to overcome the reluctance to admit they’ve become a victim. That’s a tool fraudsters count on, so we encourage people to own it,” said Michael Festa, state director of AARP Massachusetts.
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Learn about the latest online scams with these tools
The AARP Fraud Watch Network has a free Watchdog Alert anyone can subscribe to which provides email or text alerts about the latest scams biweekly.
The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation recommends the following sites to sign up for alerts:
Why aren’t more of the scammer stopped
Festa said scams are more of a problem now than they ever were.
“It is almost exponentially increasing,” he said.
The reasons are because COVID exacerbated loneliness and isolation which makes some people vulnerable to incoming calls and emails and feeling like people care about them as opposed to being a potential mark.
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Second, Festa said the inherent evolution of technology is another reason scams continue to rise.
“You could come up with a phone number that shows up on caller ID as ‘Melrose Police Department’ or you can pretend you are a government agency,” he said.
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Third, fraudsters build upon successful techniques. They drop things that don’t work anymore and move on to things that capture more victims and more money, making them more successful, said Festa.
“I would say, no question, this is going in the wrong direction, which is why it’s becoming more of a priority at AARP and these other agencies because of the terrible toll it takes on innocent people.”
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According to Diamond, recent scams include fraudulent job postings, cryptocurrency investments and check washing. Also, the number of business imposters and government imposters seems to be increasing and computer tech scams are also very prevalent.
With the popularity of online dating, romance scams are also increasing.
Scammers also read about current events and then tailor their scams to the latest news, such as COVID.
In March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency, Senator Edward Markey who has been a longtime champion and advocate for consumer rights and efforts in Congress to protect consumers from robocalls and spam calls, and Senator John Thune called on the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to combat illegal robocalls as reports highlighted that bad actors were placing an estimated one million suspicious calls about the coronavirus, many of which conveyed misinformation about testing and care.
How to protect yourself from becoming a victim
The AARP Fraud Watch Network and Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation recommend the following steps to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam.
- Let your phone go to voice mail; only answer calls from numbers you recognize.
- Be aware that calls and texts can be “spoofed” by falsifying caller ID.
- Only make online purchases from websites that you know and trust.
- If you are contacted by any business or government agency, contact that organization using information that you independently verify. Never click on links in emails from businesses unless you have verified that the link is legitimate. Scammers constantly impersonate businesses including Microsoft, Amazon, PayPal, and many more.
- Never share your personal information (Social Security number, health insurance number, etc.) with anyone who you do not personally know.
- Be aware that scammers request payment via gift cards, peer-to-peer payment apps (including Venmo, CashApp, and Zelle), wire transfers, and debit cards. Money sent through these methods usually cannot be recovered.
- Be aware that there are fraudulent job postings and business opportunities, and do not share your personal information with an employer until you have verified that it is a legitimate organization and job offer.
- Only accept social media invitations (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.) from people you personally know. Do not overshare on social media.
- Never allow anyone to have remote access to your computer unless you personally know and completely trust them. Scammers use apps including TeamViewer, LogMeIn, GoToAssist, UltraViewer, and AnyDesk to take over your computer. Once you give access to your computer, scammers can steal your data, passwords, access your financial records, install a virus, and much more
- Inspect ATMs and other card readers before using. Don’t use any card reader if you notice anything unusual such as anything that looks loose, crooked, damaged, or scratched.
- Cover the keypad when you enter your PIN to prevent cameras from recording your entry.
- Use ATMs in a well-lit, indoor location, which are less vulnerable targets. Be alert for skimming devices in tourist areas, which are popular targets.
- Use debit and credit cards with chip technology. In the U.S., there are fewer devices that steal chip data versus magnetic strip data.
- Contact your financial institution if the ATM doesn’t return your card after you end or cancel a transaction
You can find more tips on the FBI website.
What to do if you have been scammed
Individuals who have been victimized by scammers, and their loved ones, should call the AARP Fraud Watch Helpline, 877-908-3360. It is available to AARP members and non-members Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The AARP Fraud Watch Helpline also runs online support groups for victims and family members. These groups run almost every day and can be very helpful to deal with the emotional impact of being victimized.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network and Volunteers of America (VOA) also have a program, VOA | ReST, which stands for Resilience, Strength and Time. The program is designed to address the emotional impact of your experience. It offers free, facilitated peer discussion groups that seek to provide emotional support for you and others in similar situations.
Scams should also be reported to your local police non-emergency number.