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Be Careful Out There

Max Chi

FINANCIAL FRAUD against Americans age 60 and older costs $3 billion a year, and the average loss per incident is $120,000, according to a 2020 study by the AARP Public Policy Institute. And scams against older Americans are increasing. The FBI reports that losses more than doubled from 2019 to 2021 and internet swindles against elderly victims rose 84% in 2022.

My wife was the target of a fraud and you may have been, too. As an IT specialist, I’ve learned that most cybersecurity breaches suffered by organizations could be prevented with simple safeguards, like long and hard-to-guess passwords, keeping operating systems updated and encouraging employees not to click on links in unfamiliar emails.

Such simple safeguards will also help keep you safe at home. Here are some of the most common phone and online scams, along with suggestions for how to protect yourself against them:

“Grandpa, I’m in big trouble.” In the grandparent scam, you receive a call from someone claiming to be your grandchild or other close relative. The scammer says money is urgently needed to pay medical or legal bills. The caller might also claim to be a law enforcement officer or medical professional asking for money to cover hospital bills for your family member.

You shouldn’t feel pressured to send money immediately. We all love our families, so our first instinct is to help when someone’s in trouble. The scammer may use artificial voice generation and clues from social media to make the impersonation sound more convincing.

Be wary. Make sure the call is legitimate by asking the caller questions that only your relative would know the answers to. You can also call or text the family member who’s reported to be in trouble to see if it’s true. If you realize you’re being scammed, hang up.

“Your computer is infected.” You receive a phone call or pop-up message on your computer claiming your computer has dangerous malware that’ll lock up the machine or delete your data. The caller may claim to be from a well-known company like Microsoft, Apple, Norton or McAfee.

The scammers may insist you pay hundreds of dollars for repairs or new software. Or they might try to trick you into giving them remote access to your computer and then install actual malware that steals the personal and financial data stored on your machine.

Feel free to hang up if you get an unsolicited call from someone claiming to provide tech support for your machine. Legitimate companies don’t contact you out of the blue offering tech support. You can also shut down a fake pop-up message by closing your web browser. Consider using a website malware scanner to check the websites you visit for malware.

It’s a good idea to regularly scan your computer with reputable antivirus software, and to keep your operating system, browser and security software up to date. If you believe your computer might have a problem, consult a trusted and knowledgeable technician.

“You owe the IRS back taxes.” You get a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare or law enforcement who says you owe taxes or fines. It may be a recording demanding you call a number or send payment immediately to avoid arrest or legal action.

Again, feel free to hang up and ignore the call. Government agencies don’t initiate contact with you by phone to ask for payment. They’ll mail or deliver an official letter if there’s a real issue.

“Click here for a great deal—limited time only.” You’re doing an internet search or visiting a website when you see an enticing ad for, say, “25% off iPhones for AARP members—limited time offer.” You click on the ad and are taken to another site that appears legitimate. But that site is run by scammers and can infect your machine with malware or steal your personal information.

This is a relatively new scheme known as malvertising, or malicious advertising, that unfortunately has become widespread. There have been malvertising campaigns specifically aimed at older adults. Scammers might target folks who use search terms related to tech support, recipes and cooking, online dating and games like solitaire. Other popular search terms, even innocuous ones like “weather forecast,” are also targets.

Antivirus software is intended to protect your machine against malware like this. You might consider installing a reputable antivirus program on your computer and keeping it up to date.

You could also install an ad blocker on your computer. It may prevent malicious ads from appearing in the first place. Be warned: Some websites might not function properly if an ad blocker is running.

If you see an ad or message with an enticing offer from a retailer, it’s a good idea to check the ad carefully before clicking on it. Fake ads often have misspellings or grammatical errors, or the URL might be off. When in doubt, consider going to the company’s website directly or phoning the firm.

“Get your prescription medications at 50% off.” Many Americans are looking for ways to save on their medications. Scammers take advantage of this by offering prescription drugs of dubious content and quality over the Internet. Others offer tests, vaccines or “cures” for COVID-19.

This scam can endanger victims’ health, as well as their bank account. One group in Arizona, whose members later were convicted and imprisoned, sold $1.5 million worth of fake Botox before they were arrested.

It’s advisable to order medications only from reputable pharmacies that will require a prescription from a qualified medical professional and provide information about the drug’s uses and side effects. A site like the FDA’s BeSafeRx will help you verify the legitimacy of an online pharmacy.

Legitimate pharmacies also have a physical address and licensed pharmacists available for consultations. A pharmacy that offers medications significantly below market price is cause for suspicion.

“What’s your Social Security number?” Most of us are familiar with the threat of identity theft. Recently, my wife was a victim. Scammers opened an account in her name at a well-known online retailer and charged several hundred dollars in merchandise.

Fortunately, a credit monitoring service alerted us to the fraudulent account and helped us work with the retailer to close it and cancel the charges. Identity thieves commonly target older adults because they typically have more financial assets. Also, many don’t check their account statements regularly.

You can get a copy of your credit report for free from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Review it carefully for discrepancies. You might also consider enrolling in a reputable credit monitoring service. If you were a victim of a security incident, like the 2017 Equifax breach that affected 147 million people, you might have been offered free credit monitoring services.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, there are ways to get support. The Department of Justice created the National Elder Fraud Hotline to help you report a crime and connect you to other useful resources. The hotline receives 500 calls per month.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging has also created a fraud hotline to receive fraud reports and provide information about common scams. Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission takes reports of fraud. It can’t help you get your money back, but it works with law enforcement agencies to investigate and publicize scams to prevent others from becoming victims. Finally, many state governments have adult protective services programs to protect older adults from abuse, including fraud.

Max Chi retired in 2022 after a career as an IT specialist. He also has a background in physical science and digital marketing, and a strong interest in personal finance. Max enjoys traveling, sightseeing and freelancing. He and his wife live in Texas.

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