How to Identify and Avoid Phone/Internet Scams

Scam Call

Nobody wants to be hoodwinked by a scammer. But watch out: the next bogus text, email or phone call could bring the scam to you or a senior loved one like Mom or Dad.

Clicking on the text link or answering the robocall’s request could put you among the millions of seniors every year who are robbed or defrauded by scammers. In particular, these losses are devastating to seniors because of their inability to recover financially. Seniors lose an annual total of $3 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Seniors are targets of scammers because of their savings, good credit and reputation for being too nice to hang up on someone, says the FBI. Seniors can also be vulnerable to scammers due to their aging brains. A lapse in financial judgment is one of the earliest signs of dementia, according to a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine. Judgment issues—like low scam awareness–can appear in a person with an intact memory and no other signs of cognitive decline.

In addition, aging brains are more easily triggered by stress, say Harvard scientists. These days, fraudsters are exploiting COVID-19 stress—pandemic-related frauds are on the rise, according to FBI reports, so seniors should be on the lookout. Since COVID-19 started in January, the Federal Trade Commission has already received more than 14,000 coronavirus-related complaints, reporting $10 million in total losses.

It’s easy to see why the pandemic drives a surge in scams that seniors are prey to: Panic-plus-quarantine creates “captive” victims reactive to robocalls and bogus text links demanding urgency, for instance.

Vigilance is your best defense against scams generally, reminds the FBI. Keep in mind that scammers will exploit anything you hold sacred and every stress “hot button”—your healthcare; your Social Security and law-abiding nature; your hard-earned savings; your grandchildren’s welfare. Your fear of COVID-19 is no different to them.

Here are scams to be wary of and advice on avoiding scams and/or action to take to stop them.

Texts (with links to click) or phone calls or emails offering

  • bogus stimulus checks related to the pandemic
  • airline refunds related to the pandemic
  • COVID-19 tests
  • sales of supplies like masks
  • Medicare/health insurance fraud–a “Medicare representative” obtaining your personal information
  • Telemarketer offering prize money; the scheme may also involve making a “good faith” payment in exchange for the prize money
  • caller saying you must send money for a relative in the hospital
  • caller pretending to be a grandchild needing money for an emergency
  • scammer posing as a charity soliciting a donation
  • scammer claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the Social Security Administration
  • scammer using pop-up browser windows on your computer to warn of a virus or to encourage people to buy anti-virus software
  • scammer using emails to appear to be from a legitimate company or financial institution, asking people to log in to their account
  • scammer using an email to pretend to be from the IRS and offer a tax refund

What you can do to protect yourself from scammers

  • Don’t click text links—even links that say “STOP” or “NO.” This is one way scammers confirm the number is active. Don’t click links appearing to be from government agencies or airlines either. If you need to reach the IRS or an airline, go directly to their website for contact information.
  • Don’t download attachments on your computer.
  • Don’t log in to your accounts from an email link. Instead, go to the company or financial institution’s website directly.
  • Keep your tech software up-to-date so you’re not reacting to bogus schemes involving anti-virus software. Consider asking a tech-savvy relative to help you with tech updates.
  • Learn how to hover over the sender’s address in an email to see if it matches the company’s address.
  • Be wary of Caller IDs appearing to come from a government agency or even from a local caller whose number you don’t recognize. Let the call go into voicemail.
  • Don’t send money or share personal information over the phone. If you want to donate to a charity, go to that charity’s website. And remember: The government doesn’t send out text messages asking for personal information. Nor does the government contact people by phone unless the person initiates the contact.
  • Don’t respond to a call, email, or letter from someone claiming to be from Medicare. Instead, contact Medicare directly for any questions or billing or verification concerns you have.
  • Don’t pay a fee in return for a greater reward down the road. This is known as an advanced-fee scam.
  • Don’t offer payment in gift cards.
  • Don’t respond to a caller claiming to be a relative in need. Instead, contact that relative directly.

In addition, here’s a helpful resource for verifying whether a text or phone call or email is legitimate or a fraud. AARP’s toll-free fraud network helpline (877-908-3360).

If you’ve been scammed, report it to the federal government on the scam and fraud website.  Or, report it to the Federal Trade Commission on its scam and fraud website. Or call the FTC’s Consumer Response Center at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). Don’t hesitate to report fraud either—everyone is vulnerable to it, and you’re helping to protect others by reporting your case.