By Jill Gambon
Dennis Hohengasser’s home computer had a virus and he worried he might lose files. A hasty internet search for Microsoft tech support turned up a long list of links, so he clicked on the one at the top. But instead of reaching Microsoft, he ended up contacting a business that preyed on people seeking computer help.
“I just wanted them to fix it,” said Hohengasser, 67, a retired training and staff development professional from Taunton. He gave the company his credit card information and access to his computer before realizing the business wasn’t legitimate. He eventually removed its software, but was out about $100 and had to cancel his credit card.
He learned a valuable lesson: “Scam artists know the hot buttons and what will trigger an emotional response. You get under the emotional ether and you don’t think.”
Now, as AARP Massachusetts’ lead volunteer with the Fraud Watch Network, Hohengasser is helping educate others on how to avoid scams. He presents workshops at community centers, libraries, senior centers and other venues, sharing tips on the latest fraud prevention strategies and information on where to get help.
Launched in 2014, AARP’s Fraud Watch Network is a nationwide effort to help arm consumers against scammers. It offers a toll-free help line (877-908-3360) where people can get advice on what to do if they’re victims, maintains a fraud tracking map and sends out alerts and updates on the latest scams.
Beware of payment demands
In 2016, Massachusetts residents lodged 44,558 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. Debt collection scams were the most common, with scammers using email and phone calls trying to pressure people into making payments they don’t owe.
“People might receive an email that is a fake invoice for a subscription or some other item, or they might get a demand that their utility will be shut off if they don’t send an immediate payment,” said Neil Cohen, deputy director for investigations in the Massachusetts inspector general’s office and a Fraud Watch Network volunteer.
“People get frightened into making payments. Older residents who may not be comfortable with technology may be particularly vulnerable,” he added.
To avoid being swindled, people need to understand that there are processes that are followed and the first contact from a government agency isn’t a demand notice or threat of property seizure, he said. For instance, the IRS doesn’t call taxpayers out of the blue and demand payment. Initial communication is sent by letter.
Social media has given scammers new platforms from which to search for victims. Some will troll sites like Facebook for family information that can be used to trick people into believing that a loved one is in danger and needs money.
“We want to make sure people have the tools to spot and avoid scams and fraud,” said Cindy Campbell, communications director for AARP Massachusetts. “Some people lose their life savings to scammers. The best defense against fraud is an educated consumer.”
More than 20 Fraud Watch volunteers have been trained and nearly three dozen Fraud Watch presentations have been conducted across the state, she said.
In an effort to prevent identity theft, the network also occasionally offers free document shredding services so residents can safely destroy personal papers. To find an upcoming shredding event, go to aarp.org/ma.
While information may be a powerful prevention tool, scam victims are sometimes reluctant to report the crimes to police or others, Cohen said.
“People shouldn’t suffer in silence,” Cohen said. “They shouldn’t be embarrassed about being a victim, because they did nothing wrong. Any one of us could be a fraud victim.”
To set up a Fraud Watch presentation for your group or to inquire about volunteering, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 866-448-3621 toll free.
Jill Gambon is a writer living in West Newbury, Mass.