Seniors have had much to worry about during this pandemic. Along with safeguarding their health and finding ways to maintain connections with family and friends while in isolation, seniors are also susceptible to a particularly callous and cruel form of abuse and fraud - telephone and email scams.
The IRS has taken to issuing frequent warnings to American seniors about online and phone scammers who prey on unsuspecting taxpayers, causing them to lose an estimated $3 billion in financial losses from theft and financial exploitation every year.
This year, with the pandemic, a new wave of fraud has been hitting seniors while they are at their most vulnerable - often alone, without anyone to help screen out strangers who often ask for or issue threats to gain access to personal information.
The IRS issues an annual list of scams that target seniors, and our older neighbors would be wise to educate themselves on how to recognize that a communication is fraudulent.
Phishing: These communications involve a scammer impersonating an individual or organization the target trusts and using that confidence trick to get the target to volunteer private information. The IRS has been very clear that they will never, ever initiate contact with taxpayers by phone or email about a tax bill, tax refund, or other financial matters, and will certainly never ask taxpayers to provide confidential information, such as social security or account numbers, through communications methods aside from U.S. mail. Don’t take the bait, and safely ignore unsolicited phone or e-mail messages purporting to be from the IRS.
Fake Charities: A scam as old as time, imposters have been especially busy this year trying to scam good souls out of their money with the false promise of using it to do good for the less fortunate. With the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a spike in fake charities soliciting donations. The IRS warns seniors to scrutinize unsolicited pleas for donations for important information charities should always provide, including their Employer Identification Number (EIN), and to find charities to donate to through vetted lists of charities provided by the IRS and non-profit organizations, like CharityNavigator.org.
Fake threats of legal action: Among the more cruel forms of elder fraud, this form of scamming involves an imposter assuming a fake identity, usually an authority figure like the IRS or a law enforcement agency, threatening legal action or even imprisonment if a certain bill or account is not paid off. The IRS is adamant that it will never threaten a taxpayer and demand immediate payment, nor ask for financial information of any sort over the phone or e-mail. If you are concerned about a potential issue with your taxes or account payments, contact the IRS or account holder directly to inquire about the issue.
Social media scams: A modern twist on the old game, the prolific use of social media has provided a new avenue for scammers to target the elderly. Scammers use information provided by social media users to steal their identity, using it to try to scam the victim’s contacts and luring them in with the impersonation. Always use multiple levels of security, including using complex passwords for each account and two-factor authentication, to lock down your social media accounts, and be especially wary of strangers who try to penetrate your social media circles with bogus “friend” requests.
Tech Support Scams: As technology gets more complicated, scammers have turned to offering fake technical support to gain a victim’s confidence and gain access to their data. The imposter calls or messages the victim warning of a supposed hack, and then tries to walk the unsuspecting user through a series of steps giving the imposter remote access to the computer, where they may inject malicious code, steal information or demand payment for a non-existent problem, exploiting fear and lack of technical know-how. Never accept unsolicited offers of technical support, and never respond to requests for payments for such services.
Economic impact payment or refund theft: Scammers have become more sophisticated in this day and age, stealing identifying information and filing bogus tax returns or even opening up new lines of credit with that information, all without the victims’ knowledge. These kinds of scams can ruin a senior’s hard-earned credit and expose them to huge amounts of liability. Seniors are advised to keep track and properly secure their financial documents, or hire someone worthy of the trust to do so. Unfortunately, in many instances seniors have even been victimized by organizations that are tasked with their care, accepting payments or otherwise taking allowances on their behalf. The IRS reminds seniors that only they, not caregivers or anybody else, are entitled to their tax, social security and disability benefits.
Ransomware: Another high-tech form of fraud, ransomware “attacks” are computer crimes involving scammers infecting a victim’s computer with malicious code that eventually locks out the victim from accessing their own information. True to its name, a hacker conducting a ransomware attack will attempt to extort the user into paying for the privilege of decrypting and unlocking their data. This type of attack has become bigger in scope and all the more dangerous over the years, with entire corporate and government networks being infected, corrupted and held hostage by hackers. Seniors should engage in best practices when it comes to securing themselves online, including never clicking on suspicious pop-ups, not responding to unsolicited message, not downloading or installing unverified software and using different and complex passwords for each of their online accounts.
Whenever in doubt, use skepticism and err on the side of caution when contacted by an unknown person claiming to be an authority figure, especially on the internet. If you believe you have been a victim of fraud or abuse, contact the Colorado Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section at 720-508-6000, or visit www.stopfraudcolorado.gov.