Scam Alert

5 ways to avoid scammers and keep your money safe

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Fact checked by Derick Wilder

 

Imagine your phone rings, and your grandchild or another close relative tells you they’ve been in an accident, perhaps even arrested; they need financial help. They may hand the phone over to “their lawyer,” who emphasizes the situation’s urgency.

Your relative will probably request secrecy. “Don’t tell my parents,” they will beg. “I’ll be in so much trouble.” With the best intentions, you call your bank to wire money or cryptocurrency to bail them out.

Known as the grandparent scam, this scenario can be incredibly convincing.

“Criminals know they have to get us in some sort of emotional state,” says Terri Worman, a trainer and consultant on aging for Virtual Community Hub. “Emotions make us act before we think.”

Once the criminals pocket your cash, they move onto their next victim, knowing they are unlikely to be caught. “Being a scam victim feels embarrassing,” Worman says. “Only about 52% of older adults ever report it.”

No one wants to be the next statistic. The best prevention is arming ourselves and our loved ones with the skills to spot scams and avoid them.   

1. Be aware of common tactics

Scammers often claim to be either someone you know or from an organization you know. They may say they are a family member, government agency, utility company, or charity. They may even know personal information about you, and the identification that appears on your phone may appear legitimate.

Scammer illustration. Representation of scammer in front of computer making phone calls to steal credit card information.Typically, scammers assert there’s a problem or prize. They say that you or someone you love is in trouble, or that you owe a debt or have won money. They may ask you to provide personal information to solve the problem or claim the prize.

Scammers pressure you to act quickly. “Scammers engage in high-pressure sales tactics,” says April McLaren, deputy press secretary for the Illinois Attorney General’s office. “Their goal is to get you to send payment or sign something before you get a chance to think about it or discuss it with a trusted family member or friend.”

And when it comes time to pay, they’ll need you to do so in untraceable ways. “They may ask you to buy a gift card, wire money, set up a cryptocurrency account, or use a peer-to-peer app such as PayPal or Venmo to send money directly to them,” McLaren says. “Once you read the numbers from the card, wire the money, or hit send on that peer-to-peer app, it is nearly impossible for you to get that money back.”

2. Establish a password

Fraud like the grandparent scam works because the people tap into humans’ innate desire to care for those we love. To prevent criminals from capitalizing on this, Worman recommends families agree on a password to be used in any conversations about money that happen over distance (i.e. in a phone call).

“If anyone calls, texts, or emails claiming to be a family member, ask for the password,” Worman says. “If the person can’t provide it, immediately stop communicating with them.”

3. Take time to investigate

Scammers want you to make decisions in a very short timeframe. In contrast, family members and legitimate businesses will respect your request for more time. If someone doesn’t want you to take the time to consider the request, that’s a big red flag.

There are several ways to verify whether a request is legitimate:

• Call a trusted friend or family member to talk about the situation.

• Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 1-877-908-3360. The helpline can help you determine if something is a scam. You do not have to be an AARP  member or over the age of 50 to call.

Visit the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website, give.org, where you can enter a charity’s name to see if it is legitimate.

• If someone claims to be from a government agency, business, utility company, or credit card company, look up the name online and call their direct, publicly listed phone number to verify.

4. Monitor your accounts

“There are so many ways criminals can get to us,” Worman says. And they don’t always directly ask you for money or information. Criminals may be doing things behind the scenes if you’re not paying attention.”

Worman recommends you regularly:

• Monitor bank statements.

• Read all bills.

• Check credit card statements.

• Get your free yearly credit reports. Visit consumer.ftc.gov/articles/free-credit-reports to learn how.

• Set up alerts with your bank to notify you of any transactions over a certain amount.

5. Stay in the know about common scams

The Consumer Protection Financial Bureau keeps an updated list of common scams. Educating yourself and your loved ones on current scams can help you spot one before you fall for it.

6. Speak up

Data from The National Institute of Justice reports that almost 1 million Americans age 60 and over are victims of financial fraud each year. However, the true number is likely much higher, as the same report estimates that only about 1 in 5 fraud victims in this age group reported the incident to police.

While falling prey to a scam is embarrassing, it’s essential to let your family and law enforcement know about it. The information you share could help law enforcement uncover fraud trends and protect someone else.

McLaren encourages people to file a complaint at the state level or with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):

• Visit the Attorney General’s website or call the office’s toll-free Consumer Fraud Hotline: 1-800-386-5438 (Chicago).

• Seniors can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3):

ic3.gov/Home/ComplaintChoice or call 833-FRAUD-11 (833-372-8311).

Perhaps most important is to stop shaming people who fall victim to scams. “The criminals are really good at what they do,” Worman says. “It could happen to anyone.”

Instead of blaming the victim, take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from people who specialize in taking advantage of others.


Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2024 print issue