By Mac McLean
Every new technology and trend gives scammers a fresh pretext for stealing from unsuspecting older adults.
It’s a harsh reality Chuck Harwood faces every day when he tries to stop these criminals, repair the damage they cause and warn others who might also get caught in their traps.
“Scammers are opportunists,” said Harwood, director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Northwest Region office in Seattle. “They will use any opening they get to exploit their victims.”
Luckily, he has a strong ally in this fight—AARP Oregon’s Fraud Watch Network, with its Scam Jam events. These inform people about schemes and put him in touch with committed volunteers who help spread the word.
Last year the federal government mailed Medicare’s 60 million beneficiaries new membership cards designed especially to prevent identity theft. But these cards also unintentionally gave scammers a perfect opportunity to strike.
Pretending to be Medicare employees, con artists asked recepients personal questions to “verify their information” and keep their benefits from being suspended due to a paperwork error.
Some offered to send their victims a plastic card, instead of a paper one, if they paid a small fee using a prepaid debit card that they could obtain at a local grocery or drugstore.
It’s Not the Government
This popular ploy is known as the government impostor scam. Crooks call and pretend to be from a trusted agency, like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Next, they use threats and rewards that they hope will cause people to act quickly, to create a sense of urgency. Finally, the scammers ask for an unusual payment method, such as a gift card or wire transfer, that’s difficult to trace.
Harwood said there are three ways people can identify this as a scam.
- Government employees will never call someone out of the blue.
- They will never try to intimidate or entice someone into complying with a request.
- The government never asks for payments via a gift card or prepaid debit card.
Since 2014 the FTC has received 1.3 million government impostor scam complaints, resulting in more than $450 million in losses. These swindles outnumber any other type of fraud reported over the past five years.
Another con involves a free DNA test, said Carmel Snyder, who handles AARP Oregon’s fraud prevention efforts as its director of advocacy and outreach.
“Someone calls to ask if you have any relatives who have had cancer,” Snyder said. “Then they offer a free DNA test to determine whether you are at risk.”
Scammers use this ploy to collect the victim’s Medicare number. They may even send a DNA-testing kit to collect genetic information.
On Thursday, Nov. 14, at 6 p.m., AARP Oregon is hosting con artist turned fraud fighter Frank Abagnale at Revolution Hall in Portland.
The event is free, but registration is required. Register at aarp.cvent.com/AbagnaleOR19 or by calling 877-926-8300.
Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend.