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Con Artists Targeting Older Pennsylvanians Amid Pandemic

118274_39_previewGetty Images phone scammer

Kathleen Varady had just left a Good Friday service at her church in Boyertown when she received a text from her priest’s phone number, asking for a favor. 

“It’s my niece’s birthday. I need to get her a Google gift card. I can’t do it because I am checking on a sick friend at the hospital,” the text read. It asked her to buy a $500 card, scratch off the back and send a photo of the PIN. He promised to pay her back.

Varady, 71, was immediately suspicious. She had just seen her priest in church. Why hadn’t he asked her in person? And a $500 gift for a niece seemed extravagant. No, no and no, she thought. 

Scammers regularly target older Pennsylvanians like Varady. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with some people stuck at home, isolated and vulnerable. Fraudsters are also creating COVID-19-specific scams.

That’s why AARP Pennsylvania has moved its popular Scam Jams online, so people can learn from the safety of their homes about the latest schemes and how to avoid them. In-person events will likely resume later this year as communities reopen.

AARP invites officials such as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) and FBI experts who focus on government impostor scams.  

In March, Pennsylvania joined 38 states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Trade Commission in shuttering a nationwide telefunding operation that made 1.3 billion fake charitable fundraising calls to 67 million consumers nationwide, fraudulently collecting more than $110 million. From 2016 to 2019, Associated Community Services made more than 61 million deceptive calls to Pennsylvanians for causes like helping breast cancer patients or homeless veterans.

“These scammers are very skilled at creating an environment to pressure older Pennsylvanians into making split-second decisions that often cost them,” Shapiro told AARP.

Scammers often target older adults because many still have a home phone and are more likely to answer an unexpected call. 

“A lot of Americans are very altruistic,” said David Kalinoski, AARP Pennsylvania associate state director. “When they hear about a national disaster or a homeless veteran, for example, they drop their guard.”

His advice: Don’t interact. Never give personal or financial information over the phone. Beware of calls that ask you to put down money for a place in line for a COVID-19 vaccination. “Be firm but polite with your refusal.” 

Scammers are becoming more sophisticated, appearing to call from local phone numbers, hacking loved ones’ emails and text messages, even courting people online for imaginary romances. They impersonate Social Security Administration and IRS workers.

“People get so caught up in the moment, they become vulnerable,” said Mary Bach, 80, of Murrysville, who is chair of AARP Pennsylvania’s Consumer Issues Task Force.

Bach talked with a local friend in his 80s who had emailed the numbers on a $400 gift card to another “friend.” He was about to follow instructions to do so again but hesitated and called her. “You just lost $400,” she said. “Don’t you dare spend $400 more.”

Get more tips or report a scam at or call 877-908-3360. Email or call 866-389-5654 to request a free Fraud Watch Network presentation in your area.

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer living in Pittsburgh.

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