Fraudsters are here to stay — know how to protect yourself
Joan Waxman, a program manager at North Shore Senior Center, was last unemployed 11 years ago. But in 2020, she received a letter about her unemployment benefits. Because it referenced the last four digits of her bank account, Waxman, 75, was concerned.
“I immediately went to [my bank] and talked to someone. She told me all the things I should be doing. I got my credit report, I froze my credit, and I put alerts on my accounts at the bank,” Waxman says. She also started closely monitoring her credit card activity as a precaution. Her quick action probably saved her from a serious case of identity theft.
Financial scams are extremely common. According to the Illinois attorney general’s office, scammers collect about $100 billion a year from Americans, with seniors the most common victims.
The 94-year-old father of Lincoln Park resident Lewis Cantor is another. “My father called and said he turned on his computer and saw the cursor moving around the screen — even though he wasn’t touching the mouse,” says Cantor, who asked that his name be changed for privacy.
Aliens? No, scammers — whom Cantor’s father had unwittingly allowed to remotely access his computer days earlier — were now working fast to part him from his money.
Cantor instructed his father, who lives on the East Coast, to turn off his computer and pull out all the cords. He bought his father a new computer, placed restrictions and passwords on it, and shipped it to him a few days later. He also sent his father a tablet to access financial accounts and nothing else.
Though techniques have evolved, financial scams have existed for centuries and show no sign of abating.
“Criminals practice their craft every day, hundreds, even thousands of times. They are good at what they do. It has less to do with [a victim’s age, dementia, or loneliness] than it does with the offenders’ tenacity and persistence,” says Deputy Chief Rich Weiner of the Glencoe Public Safety Department.
Social Security scams are on the rise. Jackie Melinger, co-owner of My Personal Bookkeeper Inc., says she had a new client who had not received a Social Security payment for over a year. Someone had changed her client’s bank information and was diverting the payment.
Another client received a fake offer that said she would get an increased Social Security payment, as long as she filled out a form with her credit card number and paid a $150 fee.
The client put her Social Security number, credit card number, and date of birth on the form. “[She] had [the form] all filled out, ready to send, and our client advocate said no,” Melinger says.
Protect yourself and your assets
Isolation poses a major risk factor for older adults. Scammers take advantage of that. “These people are charming. They cultivate relationships,” says Katherine Honeywell, director of senior and family services at North Shore Senior Center.
To reduce isolation and keep scammers at bay, focus on engaging with your family, friends, and community as much as possible. Mention any suspicious communications or strange encounters to people you trust.
Additionally, you can take a few key steps to protect yourself.
Computer. Don’t click on unknown links. If an email looks like it’s from a friend but seems unusual, call the friend before you click on any links, Weiner advises. If the email asks for money or gift cards, talk to your friend over the phone first. If you get an email from a sender you don’t know, or if you get a suspicious email full of poor grammar, delete it.
Telephone. Unless you recognize the number, do not answer. If it is legitimate, the caller will leave a voicemail. Do not rely on caller ID — apps now let anyone spoof a number and make it look familiar. If you do answer, and the caller claims to be with the IRS, FBI, or Medicare, hang up. Federal agencies do not call; they send letters. If you get a call from someone saying there’s a problem with your computer or phone, hang up; do not give them passwords or account information.
Banking and credit cards. Check your statements every month. Be sure that you are receiving your regular deposits from Social Security or any other recurring payments. If you do not recognize a transaction, call your bank or credit card company right away. Check your credit regularly and freeze it if there’s been suspicious activity; you can unfreeze it as needed.
Home. Don’t open the door unless you recognize or expect the person. Don’t lead random people through your house to check things or walk them to your backyard. While you’re distracted, their partner could be inside, emptying your wallet and jewelry box.
Outside. Carry only one ID, one credit card, and minimal cash. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be pressured into giving a stranger money or assistance.
Social media. Never post personal information on social media, especially your Covid-19 vaccine card. Review your privacy and security settings to ensure you stay safe.
Remember: As technology changes, scams evolve. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Weiner says. “Be knowledgeable and stay on top of your credit.” If you’re concerned about a potential scam, he says, “Reach out to someone you trust.”
The list of common scams seems almost endless. But the goal of the scams is the same: to dupe you into giving up your passwords or account information or otherwise steal your money.
A teenager, who sounds vaguely like your grandchild, calls and tells you he is in trouble. “Please wire money, and don’t tell my parents,” he begs. Hang up immediately. Then, call your grandchild to confirm that everything is fine.
If you are recently widowed, beware of callers who tell you your spouse had outstanding debts that you must pay. Additionally, check all funeral and cemetery bills for unexpected charges. Unscrupulous companies might add these in.
Phishing is when scammers try to trick you into divulging your personal information. They may try to get into your computer through email, a pop-up message, or by asking for your password over the phone. Do not share this information.
This scam sounds implausible, but it is common: Someone contacts you and promises to deposit money in your bank account if you buy them gift cards at a popular store and call them back to read them the card numbers. The person shows you a mock receipt or deposit verification equal to the amount of the gift cards. Once you buy the cards and read off the numbers, they have your money. Don’t buy gift cards for strangers. Buy them only if you intend to give them as gifts to someone you know.
For detailed information about active scams and what to do if you fall for one, contact:
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Federal Trade Commission
Many communities have social service agencies that can guide you toward reliable resources, too. Talk about financial fraud with your loved ones, and never be embarrassed to ask for help. The alternative — letting someone steal your hard-earned savings — is far worse.