If you attended a Passover Seder recently, you likely covered the 10 plagues. If not that, perhaps, in the spirit of the season, you watched “The Ten Commandments,” one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Ten plagues feature prominently in both, and it has occurred to me that we are experiencing our own 11th plague, and it is fierce.
The practice of scam artists has risen to a new level, thriving at a time when we feel particularly vulnerable. Consider this: In the United States, the scamming industry is estimated to be $29 billion and growing. Consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion in 2021, a 70 percent increase over the prior year. According to the Federal Trade Commission, one in 10 adults in the United States falls victim to a scam every year.
These fraudsters target the most vulnerable part of our population — the elderly — by playing on their victims’ emotions and lack of confidence. The most frequent scams include:
Technology support: Crooks pose as IT mavens from well-known companies like Amazon and Apple. They either charge hefty fees at the start or smaller fees with a hook for longer-term support. They often want to get paid in gift cards or other hard-to-trace schemes. They are warm, conversational and understanding of the victim’s exasperation at not being able to keep up. These perpetrators radiate a “No worries, I’ve got your back” kind of vibe, but they’ve also got your wallet — or credit card. This scam hit my circle of loved ones.
Investment fraud: Who hasn’t felt the economic pinch? If you are older, you worry even more and are ripe for “confidence fraud.” The same tactics are used of building a relationship, displaying false credentials and starting modestly. The father of a friend of mine who prided himself on his smarts turned over a six-figure sum to a scammer. Fortunately, his wily daughter (a lawyer) challenged the bank and won back the loss.
Government imposter scams: Older Americans tend to trust government agencies they believe are helping take care of them. When a 90-year-old from Maine received a call from a “Medicare official” needing to ascertain and “verify” his Medicare number so that they could send out new plastic cards, he was lucky. The scam was reported before any major rip-offs occurred. Other versions of government posers appear through supposed federal grants where the recipient must turn over some money for the promised award or Social Security and FBI scams.
Rental property fraud: Criminals can take an authentic property listing and change the contact info to their own. They may also create a phantom listing by using photos and advertising on various platforms. The game plan is to take payments from multiple interested parties who believe they are securing the space. The property either doesn’t exist or doesn’t belong to the fraudster.
Romance scams: One in five people, age 45 to 54, go online to find companionship. The FTC reports that in 2021 there were 56,000 complaints resulting in $547 million in losses. It typically works like this. You post your dating profile, and a suitor living in another part of the country or abroad responds. Maybe he’s in the military.
Before you know it, you are smitten, and the suitor suggests moving the communication to a private channel. You get closer and plan to meet, but inevitably, you don’t. Then a medical emergency comes up, and the scammer needs money to manage the crisis. The scammer requests gift cards or cryptocurrency or maybe a wire transfer. This scam also hits the elderly. In 2021, AARP reports that for people over 70, the romance scam cost the victim, on average, $9,000.
If you are reading this article, there is a significant chance you know someone who fell prey to these heinous individuals and organizations (yes, it is an organized, well-orchestrated activity). Your loved one probably feels embarrassed and confused.
You can do a few things. You can help them feel better by sharing that even worldly people like Helen Mirren (phone scam fraud) or Prince Charles (art fraud) succumbed to fraudsters. That may help emotionally but doesn’t protect them for the next iteration.
More treacherous mousetraps are being built all the time. We can say, “Don’t take calls from people you don’t know,” “Don’t issue gift cards,” and “Keep your Social Security number private,” but it likely won’t be enough.
Who will be our modern-day Moses coming to the rescue?