Few things can put a damper on your holiday joy faster than finding out you’ve been scammed, and scam artists know it. Criminals are particularly busy during this season, according to the FBI, and they have a whole toolbox of online scams they can use to take your money, your identity, or whatever else they can get their hands on.
At AgingOptions we believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so we like to make sure that our readers are armed with the knowledge they need to avoid these kinds of online scams. To this end, we’re bringing back this 2021 MarketWatch article in which contributor Paul Brandus covers the typical online scams that crop up during this time of year and ways that you can avoid getting ripped off. While the article may be a year old, sadly to report, the problem is always with us.
Crimes of Trust: Confidence Fraud and Romance Scams
As described in MarketWatch, according to the FBI, fraudsters love to play on people’s hunger for personal connection. “Romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust,” the agency warns. “The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.”
If you think you can outsmart the con artists, think again. “The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do and will seem genuine, caring, and believable,” says the FBI. And, they add, the scammers are everywhere. “Con artists are present on most dating and social media sites.”
Alarmingly, this is the most common scam and the biggest money-maker in the online crime world, amounting to hundreds of millions in losses in recent years. The most common targets tend to be widows and widowers. The criminals pose as potential romantic partners, leading the victim on and building a relationship over time until the scammer finally asks for money under false pretenses, often with the promise of traveling to meet the victim or even get married.
Practical Ways to Avoid Romance Scams
The FBI gives some really good tips on avoiding romance scams. Here’s a summarized version of their list:
- Be careful what you make public online; your details can be used against you.
- Look up the person’s name or picture on search engines to verify their identity.
- Be suspicious at first! Asking lots of questions in online relationships is healthy.
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- If they attempt to isolate you from friends and family or ask for personal details that can be used to extort you, it’s probably time to cut off contact immediately.
- If they keep coming up with reasons not to meet in person, that’s a red flag.
- Never send money to anyone you haven’t met in person.
Suspicious Links and Mysterious Emails
Imagine you open up your email inbox and see an email that looks like it’s from your bank. The subject line says, “Action Needed!” so you open it, and they tell you to click the link included in the email. You do. And the scammers who made that email now have a wealth of information about you.
This trick is the second biggest source of scams against older Americans, according to the FBI. Scammers make fake emails that seem to be from a source you trust, like your bank, a store you frequent, or a government agency, and then convince you to click a link or open an attachment that gathers your data. Lately we’ve seen authentic-looking emails allegedly sent from FedEx or other shipping agencies containing bogus tracking information.
The advice here? Never open an email that asks you to take a survey or forces you to click on an attachment or link. Your bank—or any government agency—would most likely ask you to sign into an official and secure site, with a username and password, to give you important information, instead. Or they would probably send you important information in the mail. When in doubt, call your bank or credit card company first.
“Let Us Help You” – Tech Support Scams
During the pandemic, when we were all at home using our personal computers more, the scammers pivoted to tech support scams. As described in the MarketWatch article, “The FBI defines these crimes as occurring when you get an email or popup notice saying that your computer has a virus or some other problem that needs immediate attention. To fix it, just click on this attachment! This is, again, just an attempt to access your computer to steal personal and financial information.”
These frauds, just like the email scams, are all attempts to get you to click on something that will gather up your data. Don’t call any included numbers, and don’t click on any links or attachments. If you have a genuine problem with your computer, you can contact Apple support or Microsoft support, both legitimate and safe to use. Your computer manufacturer is also a safe resource.
Brandus includes this helpful tip: “One way to tell if a website is legitimate, by the way: Go to the address bar and look for the lock symbol and an address that starts with ‘https://’. Meanwhile, [an online resource called] BeenVerified also offers advice on how to ensure that a website is safe.”
Some Other Scams to Look Out For
The FBI has a list of top crimes against seniors that they update consistently, and Brandus includes all of them in his article. But we’ll highlight a few common ones here.
Investment and real estate scams are very common. Ignore marketing come-ons to get you to buy crypto-currency or invest in anything you haven’t run past your financial adviser.
Don’t take people’s identities at face value. This is true, not just in romance scams, but especially when that person claims to be an authority figure, like a government representative or doctor. Government agencies (the IRS, Medicare, Social Security) will never call you unless you called them first, and they don’t send people to your door. This impersonation is called “spoofing” and you don’t need to fall for it.
A good rule of thumb with scams is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you get contacted saying you won the lottery, a sweepstakes, or got a mysterious inheritance…question that thoroughly before you get too excited. And DON’T provide any proof of identification to “claim your money”. That’s a recipe for identity theft.
And lastly, speaking of identity theft: it’s wonderful to get vaccinated, but don’t post your vaccine cards online. It’s a great way to get your birthdates and patient numbers stolen by crooks.
It can seem like the world is full of crime, but that’s not necessarily the case. Scammers are smart and they move with trends, but the best way to avoid getting fooled is to not even play their games in the first place. Be smart, and be shrewd. Ask plenty of questions. Screen all your incoming phone calls and let those you don’t recognize go to voice mail. Don’t, under any circumstances, click suspicious email links.
With a few ground rules under your belt, you don’t have to become a statistic.
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(originally reported at www.marketwatch.com)