As I read a recent article about automated phone calls – robocalls – flooding American’s cell phones and land lines, two words kept coming to mind: Wild West.
Consider this: in April, Americans received 3.4 billion robocalls, which is an increase of more than 900 million per month over April of 2017 – many successfully peddling fraudulent schemes to vulnerable individuals.
Why are the number of robocalls growing?
- Technology has made it cheap and easy to place millions of calls a day for very little money.
- Given today’s complex telecommunications landscape it’s almost impossible to pinpoint the source of many calls, so scammers have little to fear.
- Banks and other deep-pocketed business groups persistently lobby the responsible regulating agency – the Federal Communications Commission – for less regulation, not more.
- Many robocalls originate outside of the United States, where even the meagre regulations we have cannot easily be enforced.
Older adults are especially at risk
While no one is immune, older adults are a prime target of robocall scammers. And since my colleague Chris Pierson wrote about this topic four years ago, hundreds of new scams have been invented to steal an estimated $2.9 billion from older Americans each year.
People who have recently lost a spouse or are alone for other reasons are especially vulnerable to scams, as social isolation makes them more willing to listen to phone calls and sales pitches from strangers.
One of the top scams targeting older adults in 2018 concerns Medicare cards. Congress passed a requirement that everyone who has Medicare must get a new card with an 11-digit identification number by April of 2019, and many have already been mailed out.
Up until now, Social Security numbers were used for identification by Medicare, and Congress made this change to the ID cards with the idea that it would help reduce identity theft. However, according to the credit reporting agency Experian, the change has inspired scammers to call Medicare recipients and trick many of them into revealing their new Medicare ID number, actually increasing identity theft. The average loss to older adults who have fallen victim to this particular scam so far is $36,000.
Several other new robocall scams showing up this year consist of fake contacts from what sound like local government agencies – county clerks, local sheriffs, and town courts. Using technology that makes what looks like a local phone number show up on a victim’s caller ID, a typical call might claim to be about an unpaid parking ticket or missed jury duty, with the caller claiming a fine is due and must be paid immediately. The goal, often successful, is to get the victim to reveal his or her bank or credit card account information.
There are so many new, creative and terrible ways of defrauding people that it’s hard to keep up but here’s a list of some of the worst scams for 2018 that everyone should read.
Other common robocall schemes to be aware of include:
- Offers of zero interest rate loans
- Calls claiming there’s a problem with your credit card
- Calls offering student loan forgiveness
- Calls claiming you’ve been preapproved for a business or personal loan
- Calls offering travel free or at a discount
- Calls offering home security systems
- Offers to lower your utility rates
We’re essentially on our own
Modeled on a state law from Maine, Congress recently passed the Senior $afe Act, a bipartisan attempt to reduce scammers’ ability to prey on older Americans. The law is supposed to make it easier for banks, investment firms, and other financial institutions to report suspected fraud aimed at seniors. That may do some small amount of good over time, but the bottom line is that preventing loss through robocall fraud is primarily up to all of us being targeted and – for vulnerable older adults – to their family members and other caregivers.
Here are some tips from Maine’s initiative:
- The easiest and most effective way to protect yourself is simply not to answer calls from anyone you don’t know – and delete texts or emails from strangers.
- If you do answer a call from a stranger, never, ever give out personal information. The same thing goes for texts or emails – regardless of who they claim to be from.
- Never wire money to strangers.
- Review you financial accounts at least monthly.
- Monitor your credit report at least annually. Call 1.877.322.8228 or visit annualcreditreport.com.
- Put all your phone numbers on the national Do Not Call List. Call 1.888.382.1222 or visit donotcall.gov. However, be aware that while this may decrease the number of robocalls you receive, it will not stop them – especially calls that originate outside of the United States.
For family members concerned about a parent or grandparent’s vulnerability to scammers, an article published just last month in Money may be helpful. In addition to detailing a few new scams aimed at older adults, the reporter discusses the denial that often prevents families from preventing robocall fraud – and a few ways to help take off the blinders.
Despite the widespread and growing threat, the author notes, only 1 in 10 older Americans said they think they are susceptible to a scam, yet nearly half said they know someone who was a victim! Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what people believe and what actually happens. It’s common sense that education is the key to preventing falling prey to scammers and the Money article provides some solid suggestions for starting that important conversation.