Scams and fraud taking advantage of pandemic anxieties are on the rise. Criminals utilize calls, text, email or malware to target unemployment benefits, the PFD, and personal information via Social Security, the lottery, or U.S. Census. Corinne Smith investigates a range of common scams and the red flags to look out for.
Sara Hadad-Dembs got the call that her 19-year-old daughter was in a car accident driving with some friends in Colorado Springs and the injuries sounded serious. She was being taken by ambulance to a local hospital, and Hadad-Dembs was left to pace her home in Petersburg waiting for the next update. No one was thinking much about her car, or what was left in the car.
“So she was taken to the hospital, and left behind her purse in all of the confusion,” she explains. “And the tow-truck driver apparently had gone through her purse and removed her debit card, her ID, everything that was in there. They took pictures, is what the police determined, they took pictures of everything and then sold the information online.”
They put everything back afterward to make it look normal. Then, scammers immediately called her daughter, who was able to answer her phone in the hospital, and posed as her bank’s fraud detection agency. At the same time, they were hacking her accounts. So when she received identification codes from her real bank, she mistakenly told them, and they hacked it.
“When she did that they gained access and changed all the information on her account, they stole her identity, they wiped out her savings account, it was very very quickly.” Hadad-Dembs says she and her husband realized in about 15 minutes that something sounded suspicious. “But by then it was already too late.”
The scammers acted quickly to capitalize on three things to defraud her – access, urgency, and a highly emotional situation.
Sara Hadad-Dembs herself is a financial advisor with Edwards Jones investments based in Petersburg, Alaska. She shares her daughters’ story to help people safeguard against scams, look for red flags and prevent hardship. Her daughter’s bank did insure her savings, but it took months to correct the fraud and verify her identity, on top of her recovering from the accident. It also shows that anyone can be a victim, regardless of age.
“A lot of the time we focus on the elderly being victims but anybody who isn’t paying close attention,” she says. Anyone can get caught up in a scheme, in an untruthful relationship or fraudulent lottery winnings. “And you genuinely want to believe that this is true. Anybody can be a victim.”
Right now, scammers are rushing to exploit the anxieties of the pandemic, tax season and the coronavirus recession, with millions of Americans collecting unemployment benefits.
According to a 2019 report by the cybersecurity firm Symantec, an estimated 1 in 10 Americans are victims of identity fraud annually and 21% of those have been victimized multiple times.
Whether by calls, texts, emails, malware or hacking, scammers are assaulting unwitting Americans at record numbers. Authorities are warning to stay vigilant for scams involving unemployment, taxes, social security, immigration status and the US Census.
We know some scams from Hollywood and TV like the romance scam, or the grandparent scam, where someone will pose as a grandchild on the phone, in some kind of crisis, asking for money. There are many scenarios where fraudsters pose as a government agency, immigration authorities, Medicare, or the US Census to get your social security number.
Hadad-Dembs gives a workshop walking through the most common scam scenarios like the social security scam. “The red flag here is the social security administration would never call you. If there’s a problem, they’re going to send a letter. And they would know that number, they’d never ask you for your number.”
The lottery scam involves sending a winning letter or phone call, to get a victims attention. “It could be hundreds of dollars to tens of millions of dollars,” Hadad-Dembs says. Then ask for money in order to collect.
“What they’re gonna try to do is try to solicit funds by asking you to send some money to cover the taxes before you can receive the winnings, or supply your bank account information to have the funds deposited.”
Hadad-Dembs says never provide bank account information to someone you don’t know, and if in doubt, check the company. If scammers are on the phone, hang up and investigate the claims on your own. The sense of urgency is fabricated.
Same goes for the collections scam. “Basically they pressure you to pay your debt immediately,” she explains. “The claim they’re going to send somebody to arrest you or to your workplace. And then they’re going to have you send that money, but one of the red flags is you’re sending the money to someone else.” Like wiring money to an overseas account. Or demanding payment by gift card.
Hadad-Dembs emphasizes gift cards are only for gifts, and should never be involved in legitimate payments.
Emails or texts from unknown sources that contain hyperlinks should be deleted. Or it could be malware being installed on your device, putting you at risk for identity theft or financial exploitation.
When confronted with a suspicious situation, she says it’s important to have a trusted friend or family member to talk to. If you are a victim of a scam, don’t be afraid to report it, so that those criminals can’t victimize anyone else.
“It’s very important to stay diligent,” she says. “Just be diligent and look out for your older folks, or your younger folks, who might not be aware of these things.”
If you or someone you know is scammed or suspect fraud, Hadad-Dembs recommends reporting to the Alaska Attorney General’s Office at 1-888-576-2529, and the US Bureau of Consumer Protection at ftc.gov/complaint
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