Written by John Ferrari
- The IRS calls you: You owe back taxes, and you need to pay immediately
or face legal action.
- Your granddaughter calls you: She’s in trouble and needs money.
- Your credit card company emails you: They need to verify your account right away.
Are any of these urgent requests for your money or personal information
legitimate? Not likely. They’re examples of telephone and email scams, many of
which target seniors.
You’ve probably heard of these scams. Maybe you’ve thought
it won’t happen to you—but there’s a good chance you
will receive fraudulent calls and emails, if you haven’t already.
Fraud complaints to the Federal Trade Commission rose to record levels
last year: nearly 1.7 million reported. Complaints of government imposter
scams, in which criminals posing as representatives of the IRS, Social
Security administration or other government agencies call or email attempting
to coerce victims into sending them money or personal information, jumped
53% in 2019 from the previous year.
There are other imposter scams to watch out for too, including fraudsters
impersonating relatives calling with an urgent need for money and internet
pop-up windows warning you must contact a technical support center immediately.
In 2019 more than $660 million was lost to imposter scams, but there are
steps you can take to avoid becoming the next victim.
Besides the element of impersonation, these scams all have one thing in
common, says Todd Felker, Torrance Memorial’s information security
officer. They all rely on creating a sense of urgency. The intent, he
says, is to keep the intended victim—that’s you—from
taking a moment to stop and think. “Always stop and say, ‘I
need some time to think about this,’” Felker says—and
then hang up. “Don’t stay on the line if you are at all suspicious.
Don’t give out any personal information—from your mother’s
maiden name to the name of your pet. The criminal at the other end of
the line may be trying to get information he or she can use to gain access
to your accounts,” he adds.
Don’t call back. You should not call a number someone gives you over
the telephone. Instead, dial a number you know is correct. If someone
calls you claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, for example,
call the number on the back of your ATM card or credit card. If someone
calls claiming to represent your cable company or the Social Security
Administration, call the number listed on your monthly cable bill or Social
And if your granddaughter (or grandson, or nephew) calls with a desperate
plea for money? Tell her you’ll call her back—even if you
must make up an excuse to get off the phone. Give yourself five minutes
to think about the situation. Talk to a friend.
No representative of any company, government agency or police department—no
one—will make you buy store gift cards and give them the numbers,
as scammers sometimes do, or transfer money using Bitcoin. Neither the
IRS nor the Social Security Administration will call and ask you to verify
your identity. “Don’t ever take an action you don’t
have time to think about and talk to someone else about,” Felker
says. “And never be afraid to get the police involved.”
As for email and internet fraud attempts: Don’t reply - just close
the email or internet window. If you’d like to respond to an email—you
don’t want to disregard legitimate emails, after all—send
an email to an address you know is correct—for example, the email
address on a monthly paper statement.
“Go ahead and bookmark official websites,” Felker suggests.
“Have them in your browser.” Or simply search for the website
you want to visit, using Google or another well-known search engine. “You
can trust that more than you can trust an email,” Felker explains.
That way, you’ll know you’re not sending an email to a malicious
email address or visiting a “spoofed” (fake) website. Among
his other top tips to stay safe while you surf the web: Use a different
password for each site you visit and each online account you have. If
you write down your passwords, keep that paper safe—preferably in a safe!
Just as important, keep your computer up-to-date. “New vulnerabilities
are identified on a daily basis,” Felker says. “Be sure to
keep either your Mac or Windows operating system up-to-date with all current
security patches. As a rule of thumb, all program/application manufacturers
are always patching and updating their software to address vulnerabilities,
so it is good practice to keep everything up-to-date.” If you’re
not comfortable doing that yourself, he adds, at least once a quarter
have a tech-savvy friend come over and help out, or use a trusted computer
repair service—say, one recommended by a friend.
The same is true for your smartphone. Keep the software up-to-date. Your
smartphone is a small computer you can carry with you, which makes it
convenient but also susceptible to hackers who may be lurking in the vicinity.
When you’re using your smartphone away from home, keep your calls
and your data safe from prying electronic eyes. Use a virtual private
network (VPN) and your phone’s cell service, rather than WiFi, if
possible. Again, if you’re not comfortable setting up a VPN on your
phone or switching between WiFi and cell service, have a friend help.
After all, that’s what friends—real friends—are for.