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Scam Jam Takes Aim at Fraud in Virginia

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The coronavirus pandemic has sparked an outbreak of schemes taking aim at Virginians, ranging from bogus offers of virus tests or early vaccinations to spurious romances.

“The COVID-19 virus has been the perfect storm for scammers,” said Martin Bailey, 69, of Woodbridge, a volunteer with the AARP Virginia Fraud Watch Network. People targeted by con artists are more isolated and vulnerable during the pandemic.

Fraud related to the pandemic is an expected topic at the Scam Jam, on Friday, April 23, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. It’s an annual event to raise awareness of the latest identity theft schemes. The Fairfax County forum will be entirely online this year and is free to everyone.

Bailey and Trudy Marotta, 65, an AARP volunteer in Springfield, are helping to organize the event, featuring speakers from federal, state and local agencies. Susan Hogan, a consumer investigative reporter for NBC4, is also scheduled to appear.

It’s sponsored by AARP Virginia and the Fairfax County government’s Silver Shield Task Force. Register for the virtual event at aarp.org/fairfaxscamjam, where it can also be viewed later.

Marotta and Bailey take weekly shifts for the national AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360), often fielding distressing calls from victims who lost thousands of dollars.

“Sometimes I have to take a walk around the block and say, ‘I can’t believe what just happened to that person,’ ” Marotta said. “It tugs at your heartstrings.”

Dating sites targeted

The yearlong pandemic has triggered a big increase in romance scammers who prey on lonely people confined to their homes, Bailey said. Swindlers stalk matchmaking websites and shower their victims with attention and then have a seemingly plausible reason why they need money to make a trip to visit.

“We had a brother and sister who were worried about their other sister. She was convinced this guy was in love with her and was sure they were going to meet,” he said of a helpline call. The woman sent him thousands of dollars she never got back.

Tax season presents a big opportunity for fraud every spring. Scammers posing as IRS agents make calls demanding thousands in back taxes, said Melissa Smarr, chair of the Silver Shield Task Force, which was formed to alert older county residents to scams.

Con artists often ask for payment in iTunes gift cards because they are among the easiest to cash, she said.

“Anytime you get an unsolicited call, you should be suspicious,” said Shawn Smith, director of Virginia Senior Medicare Patrol, in Richmond, who will be one of the Scam Jam speakers.

Smith said his advice applies to any scam, whether the caller tries to get a person’s Medicare number by saying the cards will switch from paper to plastic, or preys on a person’s fear of contracting COVID-19 and offers a virus test or vaccination for a fee.

“If anyone’s ever pressuring you to do anything, the answer should always be no,” he said.

Simple crimes can lead to identity theft. Jonathan Loesch, a Fairfax County Police detective, warned that thieves take purses from parked vehicles and get into victims’ bank accounts.

Scam Jam began in 2018, although the pandemic canceled last year’s event.

“The goal is to help the people we serve better protect themselves from fraud,” said Amber Sultane, AARP Virginia community outreach director.

Sue Lindsey is a writer living in Roanoke.


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