The scams are all too familiar by now: a caller claims to be from the IRS, another a computer security expert, and still another poses as a grandchild in trouble.
Despite repeated outreach by law enforcement and consumer advocates, those scams continue to fleece the bank accounts of many, and especially the elderly.
“It’s a huge problem nationally and it’s a huge problem here in Vermont,” said AARP Vermont spokesman David Reville. “We’ve been working closely with the AG’s office and their Consumer Assistance Program on this for a number of years doing a lot of outreach on it.”
Reville said someone’s identity is stolen every 2 seconds, which tallies up to 20 million victims a year across the country.
He said the elderly are especially vulnerable to identity theft and other scams, like the IRS scam.
The latter scam works this way. A caller claiming to be from the IRS threatens the individual with arrest unless a past-due tax payment is made immediately via credit card or bank account.
That threat should be a red flag because the IRS never calls, let alone threatens, demanding payment, Reville said.
He said that kind of call makes the elderly more vulnerable.
“The elderly tend to be at home more often, they tend to have landlines, they tend to answer the phone, and sometimes are more reluctant to hang up than others right away, he said.
When AARP makes presentations to seniors around the state, he said the overwhelming majority in the room acknowledge they’ve received similar calls or emails.
“The IRS scam is a big one,” Reville said.
The next-biggest scam is the computer tech support scam. Either a caller or a popup message on a computer claims to be from a tech company alerting the individual that there’s a virus or other problem that needs to be fixed. Reville said the scammer then attempts “to persuade you to give them remote access to the computer or hold your computer hostage (ransomware) until you pay them money.”
Reville said there are phishing email scams that attempt to collect sensitive information like Social Security and bank account numbers.
He said those emails often appear to be from an individual’s bank, utility company or credit card company.
Last year, Vermonters filed 5,471 scam reports with the state’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP), a 4.55% increase over 2017.
Scam complaints make up more than one-third of all contacts to CAP, making them one of the most common consumer issues.
CAP compiled the following list of the top 10 scams in 2018:
— IRS impostor.
— Social Security number phishing.
— Computer tech support.
— Grandchild impostor.
— Debt collection threats.
— Spoofing (fake caller ID).
— Reflector (claim to be Microsoft).
— Email extortion.
— Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes claims.
— Sweepstakes claims (general).
Jamie Renner, who heads the Elder Protection Initiative in the attorney general’s office, said abuse of the elderly can take many forms, including financial.
Renner said it’s not just scams carried out by strangers, but financial exploitation perpetrated by friends, family members, caregivers and those with power of attorney.
And, he said, it’s not just the elderly, but those considered “vulnerable adults.”
Because incidents of financial abuse and fraud are under-reported, Renner said it’s difficult to get a handle on the exact number and the amount of financial loss.
In 2017, the amount of loss reported by all Vermonters to CAP was $600,000.
“The challenge of course with this data is that it’s reflective of a relatively small percentage of the population, in the sense that I’m looking at a data set of individuals who knew they were being scammed, which some don’t, knew that it resulted in a loss … knew of our Consumer Assistance Program and actually called it to report a loss,” he said.
Renner said, in reality, the actual loss “is profoundly significant.”
Chris Adams, executive director, Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, said his clients report from 10 to 20 cases of fraud a year. He said those cases are reported to the appropriate state or local law enforcement agency.
“We don’t see as much around identity theft or Social Security numbers,” Adams said. “It’s more direct financial exploitation.”
He said those type of cases include scams involving fraudulent wire transfers of money or gift cards.
“Usually, a common theme that we see is a client might be having some issues paying some bills, and then when we dig deeper into it, it’s really not a function of paying those bills,” Adams said, “but rather that money is going somewhere it shouldn’t be going.”
At the Department of Financial Services, William Carrigan said seniors also need to be aware of solicitation by some life insurance agents who prey on an individual’s economic fears.
“What they’re appealing to is the fear factor in seniors and the fact that they don’t have time to make back what they may lose in a declining stock market,” said Carrigan, who oversees the Securities Division as deputy commissioner.
While not considered a scam, he said these insurance agents are “essentially imploring them to liquidate out of their securities products to go into some insurance products, and most of the time the product of choice is an equity index annuity.”
Carrigan said annuities of this kind represent a pretty sophisticated product that come with a high commission. He said those details often are not disclosed to the individual.
Although Carrigan doesn’t have jurisdiction over insurance, in cases where an insurance agent advises someone to liquidate or sell equities, the Securities Division will step in to intervene.
“If someone is out there, let’s just say they have a life insurance license, well, they don’t have the proper registration or credentials to be making recommendations to liquidate securities products,” he said.
Carrigan’s advice is to “investigate before you invest.”
Vermonters can call the Securities or Insurance divisions at the Department of Financial Regulation to check on an agent or a broker’s background.
According to a recent report, “The United States of Elder Fraud,” an estimated 5 million cases of elder fraud occur in the United States every year, amounting to $27.4 billion in losses.
That figure is far more than what is actually reported.
The April 17 report by Comparitech, a pro-consumer website, found that more than 200,000 scams and financial abuse cases are reported each year, totaling $1.17 billion.
Financial abuse often occurs when the perpetrator is a close friend or relative.
“Our estimates show $1.17 billion in damages are reported to authorities, but the real figure likely dwarfs that amount when factoring in unreported elder fraud,” according to Comparitech.
For Vermont, elders (those 60 and over) filed 895 reports with losses totaling $2.2 million. Comparitech, however, puts the actual number of elder fraud cases in the state at 21,000, amounting to losses of $51.5 million.
Comparitech based its findings on analyzing and extrapolating data from various government reports and registries that come under the heading of elder fraud, including: counterfeiting/forgery, embezzlement, extortion/blackmail, false pretenses, credit card/ATM, impersonation, identity theft, hacking/computer invasion, wire fraud, welfare fraud, larceny/theft.
There are ways for seniors or any consumer to protect themselves.
Reville said the best defense is good information on the scams out there and vigilance. He said it includes checking your bank account and credit card statements for unauthorized transactions.
He also advised to hang up on scam callers, or better yet, don’t answer a call if you don’t recognize the number.
“If it’s important enough, if it’s someone you know, they’ll leave a message for you,” he said.
One important proactive step AARP recommends is to freeze credit bureau reports, Reville said.
If someone has stolen your personal information, Social Security number, date of birth, taking that step will prevent an individual from opening a credit card or bank account in your name, he said.
Two years ago, in partnership with the Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Vermont Attorney General initiated a scam alert warning system. Consumers can report a scam or enroll in the Scam Alert system online at vermont.gov/cap or by calling CAP at 1-800-649-2424.
For more information visit:
— aarp.org/fraudwatch network.
— Financial Industry Regulatory Authority at www.brokercheck.finra.org.