By Ray Huard
Nikki Symington got several phone messages from someone purporting to be an IRS agent, who said she owed back taxes and threatened her with fines or jail if she didn’t pay up.
“Even though my husband said it was a scam, you still worry, so I called,” said Symington, 74, of Borrego Springs. “I left my number, and somebody called back and said I owed $4,000.”
She hung up, but the fake agent called her several more times. “It was really kind of threatening,” Symington said.
She was targeted by what the Federal Trade Commission calls an impostor scam, in which someone pretends to be an official—like an IRS agent or a sheriff’s deputy—and threatens to arrest the person if he or she doesn’t pay a fake fine. IRS officials never call individuals about taxes due, according to the agency.
Nationwide, impostor scams came in second, just behind fake debt collection schemes, in the number of complaints the FTC received in 2016, with 37,147 complaints coming from California.
The top complaint in the state and nationally, according to the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the FTC, is debt collection scams, in which a phony collector demands payment for an unknown loan, asks for personal finance information, makes threats and refuses to give the name of the company or its address. More than 100,000 debt collection complaints were filed in California last year.
A key goal of the AARP Fraud Watch Network is to track frauds and alert consumers to new ones, telling people how to recognize and avoid scams.
“We try to be a watchdog for the public,” said Strat Maloma, the Fraud Watch Network’s lead person in California.
The Fraud Watch Network has a toll-free advice helpline (877-908-3360). In California, the network also hosts tele-town halls, in which a panel of experts offer tips and discuss the latest scams with people who have indicated on the network website that they want to receive alerts.
Last year, 55 percent of all complaints the FTC received came from people 50 and older.
San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said this age group is a favorite target because older people tend to be more trusting, some may be developing mental disabilities, and they are less likely to report swindles because they’re embarrassed.
“They feel, at their age, they should know better,” she said.
Tamara Neff, 57, did report what happened to her to Stephan’s office. She and her friends got back most of the $4,000 they paid in a San Diego vacation rental scheme in which a man used online photos of a seaside home to lure unsuspecting vacationers.
The man was convicted and sentenced to three years of probation and one year of work furlough, according to Tanya Sierra, the district attorney’s public information officer. He also was ordered to pay $239,283 in restitution, which the office was able to recover by seizing his assets.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs said that door-to-door alarm service scams have also become common.
Consumers are made to believe that they’re upgrading their existing alarm system when they’re really signing up for a new contract with a different company, said Laura Alarcon, chief of the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.
Sarah Barnard, manager of the elder abuse prevention program at WISE & Healthy Aging in Santa Monica, sees people not as fortunate as Neff. She runs a support group for victims of romance scams, some of whom have given anywhere from $10,000 to more than $1 million to men posing as would-be love interests whose real interest is their bank accounts.
“All of these women are very together, successful people that you would never think would be taken,” Barnard said. “It’s a lot of emotional manipulation.”
Ray Huard is a writer living in San Diego.