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Protect yourself from the latest scams

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Al Waller:
Well, we’re back with another edition of Clearpath – Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller, and joining me is Catherine Collinson, president and CEO of nonprofit Transamerica Institute®. I didn’t think I needed an extended car warranty, but after being slammed relentlessly with cold calls and robocalls night and day, I began to wonder if these companies had some high-level intel or was this simply a vendetta to distract me from my day-to-day life.

Believe me, if you have not received these types of calls, count yourself very lucky.

As a matter of fact, there’s actually a company by the name of RoboKiller, that tracks such calls and estimates that there will be…get this…13 billion (that’s billion with a ‘b’) car warranty robocalls by the end of 2021! On top of that, they also estimate that financial losses due to robocall scams will be 40 percent higher in 2021 compared with 2020.

Well Catherine, must say, these figures are absolutely staggering. I mean, where do we even begin to help listeners safeguard themselves?

Catherine Collinson: Al, it’s just awful. And as you pointed out, they are just so annoying. What makes it even harder is people are already having to deal with so much during the pandemic…and scams are on the rise. We need a break. It’s despicable. Scammers are taking advantage of uncertainties and people’s vulnerabilities.

We opened with these car warranty robocalls. These calls are so pesky. I think I get dozens of them weekly. They are the most common type of call, and we know how they begin. “We are calling you because your car’s warranty is about to expire…” or “…has already expired”.

The reality is these are robocalls. Some people who get these calls don’t even own cars! Other people have cars, and maybe they are driving their cars longer or buying used cars and may actually be concerned about service fees, especially in this economy. But the reality is these are scammers, and they're out to get your money. They are not out to help you with your car.

Al: Yes, it's interesting that you mention that because on the flip side, I can tell you back around the recession of 2008, a lot of the people I knew, instead of buying brand new cars, they were buying previously owned (AKA used) cars, as I mentioned versus new ones. And to protect themselves and their considerable investments…in some cases $25,000 to $35,000 or more…they purchased extended warranties up front, at the dealership or a reputable private firm, and with very few exceptions found it to be a pretty sound investment.

But to your point there are a lot of rogue outfits out there, especially the ones that unleash those incessant robocalls. So, as they say “caveat emptor”, translated as “buyer beware” – whenever you opt to make a purchase of any kind. Now, unfortunately with the pandemic, the scamming industry really steps up their game. They are creative, relentless and succeed in adding more collateral damage to our lives.

In addition to the aforementioned, there are some other truly despicable scammers. I'm talking about a group of bottom feeders who pose as everything from public health officials to COVID-19 contact tracers, as well as social security administration to the IRS.

So Catherine what are some tips and warning signs we should be on the lookout for?

Catherine: Well, as a reminder…because I have a feeling our listeners are familiar with these warning signs but as a reminder, I'll go through these five.

  • You don’t know the company making the offer. For example, those robocalls for car warranties. If it's not the dealer or manufacturer or somebody who you know you’re doing a business with, beware.
  • The item being sold is vague like, “an extended warranty” or “an extended service contract.“ Then of course, a big warning sign is if your warranty expired years and years ago or if you don't own a car.
  • Another big scam is prizes or limited time offers, such as “Press 1 to claim your $500 discount available today only.” Of course, scam.
  • The caller pressures you to act immediately, not giving you time to research their company or organization. Some may even threaten to ruin your credit or say there will be a warrant out for your arrest.

And as you mentioned a couple minutes ago, there are scammers posing as government organizations. If you get a call from the IRS, that's scary. But the IRS will never threaten you over the phone or demand your banking information.

  • They want payment in a specific way. This is the last of the five warning signs that I'll share and this one is also interesting and is if they want to be paid in a very specific way. A big red flag is when they request payment by gift cards. Gift cards have become a favorite for scammers because they're easy for people to purchase but they are super hard to trace.

Al: Catherine, thanks for those particularly savvy reference points to bear in mind.

And really on another front, as more Americans are doing their gift buying online which according to a Gallup poll a majority of Americans (56%) are likely to do, scammers are already sharpening their knives with new tactics targeting those online shoppers as well.

I know that many scams ask for money upfront in order to claim a prize or establish a connection between the victim’s bank account and that of the scammer which results in prizes or promises never materializing.

In this in this case what precautions should people really be taking?

Catherine: Let's go back to the robocalls and the phone scams for a minute. I think this is really important, and I think we hopefully know this by now. If you're getting a call from a number you don't know or it looks like it might be a spoof coming from your area code or maybe your exchange, if it looks like a neighbor but probably isn't, or if there's no caller ID, don't answer the phone. Don't feel obligated to answer the phone if you don't know who's calling.

If the caller wants or really needs to reach you, they're going to leave a message. Then you can determine if it's a legitimate call and call them back or if not, not call them back.

Now sometimes, and this happens to all of us…it’s happened to me —sometimes you might unwittingly answer the phone thinking it's someone you know. When this happens, it's really important to avoid engaging in any sort of conversation. Just hang up. Don't feel rude. Just hang up. No guilt.

I don't want to scare anyone, but the reality is they could be recording your voice for other nefarious purposes. So being polite could be problematic. Remember they’re scammers.

Al: Well, I was just going to say in terms of hanging up on some of these people, I think Miss Manners would probably give us a pass on hanging up on these relentless scammers, don't you?

Catherine: Absolutely. And I recently had a talk with my dad about it. He said, “They're not honest brokers. They’re scammers.”

Al: They don't deserve your respect…

Catherine: And I think that's really important. If they're out to scam you, they don't deserve your best manners. And if you do engage, they can start fishing for information about you or even just your voice.

So, what happens if you do end up speaking with someone who might be a scammer? Well, the most important thing to remember is never provide unknown callers with your personal information, that includes your name which they may very well not know because they're robo callers. They just dial numbers.

Don't even share your name, definitely not your email address or physical address, no credit card numbers, and definitely not banking information or a social security number. Feel free to hang up. Just hang up.

Al: I'm good with that. While I'm afraid to ask, what are some other scams people should be on the lookout for?

Catherine: This one is really despicable, and it's so disheartening and that is around the holidays and year end, people like to give to charity.

People increase contributions to their favorite charities which is a wonderful way to help others and help celebrate the holiday season. Sadly, however, criminals have found ways to set up fake charities that may seem legitimate to unsuspecting donors.

These fake charities present themselves as helping others, but the money never ever makes it to the charitable cause. It goes straight to the criminals. And during the holidays scammers increase solicitations for these fake charities, not just by phone but by text, email and on websites.

Give to organizations you know and love, and if one approaches you and it sounds like a scam, beware. If you're still interested, do some homework. Do some web searches and learn more about the organization to confirm whether or not it's legit.

Al: In the case of the charitable donation request, the idea you mentioned of knowing the company, making sure the request is really on the up and up, I think is an important one.

I use a website called “guidestar.org” to research and vet non-profits I want to learn and know more about. And look, I realize not everyone likes to do research like we do, but I can't help thinking about older adults, like my father-in-law and the rise of elder fraud. He was a very intelligent guy but also a pretty soft touch, who we later discovered gave to a number of charities that in retrospect were really on the dubious side.

Catherine: I am so sorry to hear that. Elder fraud is a huge area of concern right now. In many ways, elder fraud has become everybody fraud because it not only impacts older individuals but their family and loved ones as well.

And elder fraud is of particular concern because older adults, especially those who live alone, are often easy targets by scammers especially now, during the pandemic. It's important to know scammers are constantly mining data to find older individuals who are their potential targets. This is despicable and disgusting. They find them simply because they are older, they may be less aware of scams, and they may either be more trusting, and some may even be starting to have cognitive issues.

One big area of concern, especially among older individuals which the increased isolation and loneliness amid the pandemic has only worsened, is it can make individuals more vulnerable to what is known as “romance scams”.

In these horrific awful scenarios, the scammer preys on people who are lonely. They create a fake profile on a dating website or social media app, strike up a relationship with the target, and once they gain their attention and affection, ask for money.

According to the Federal Trade Commission losses from these scams reached a record 304 million dollars in 2020. That's up 50% from 2019. Individuals age 70 and older lost more money than younger victims in these scams. As a point of comparison, the median loss of age 70 plus victims was almost $9,500 compared with just $2,500 across all age groups.

And it's also important to remember, older adults can also be victims of in-person romance scams meeting the scammer at places like church, community centers, or in social groups. It is so important that we are careful with our hearts. And even meeting people, you have to ask around, is it a friend of a friend, ask for a reference. But we just, especially older individuals, have to be super careful and not take people at face value.

Al: You know Catherine, I live in the real world, and I’ve lived in the real world a long time. I understand there's evil and there are bad people that exist. But if I live to be 100, I still can't fathom how depraved some people can be and how low they will go to turn a buck, especially when it comes to targeting the elderly.

So, how can we help our older friends and relatives by preventing this from happening to them? Prevention obviously is key since many of these victims, especially those with any cognitive decline, can become very attached or as you noted, seduced, by their new special someone and come to rely on and enjoy the attention they are receiving.

Catherine: The first step is just raising awareness —knowing what's out there and knowing what the risks and vulnerabilities are.

This is an area where family and friends can really help out by having these conversations, especially among older relatives and advise them to be on the lookout. It's also important in having those conversations not only to be aware, but if something strange is happening to talk about it rather than be quiet out of, for example, a sense of embarrassment or shame.

I want to highlight one area of vulnerability that a lot of people engage in, and they don't even know the possible trouble they could be inviting. Many people of all ages, including older individuals, reveal a lot about themselves on social media.

It is vitally important to lock down social media security settings, and only allow access to people you know and do not accept friend invitations from anyone you don't know. Avoid posting too much personal information because it can give scammers valuable data they need to befriend you, infiltrate your life and steal your identity and money, and in the case of romance scams, your heart.

Now, Al I'd love to share with you a shocking story. I still can't get over it. Personal experience. Years ago, I attended an alumni weekend and there was this charismatic and charming gentleman chatting up a number of the older women who were there celebrating their class reunion.

He presented himself as a long-lost classmate. He knew them by name. He knew the names of their husbands and families. He knew who was married. He even talked about specific memories of the old days. But he was not a classmate. He was an imposter on the prowl. He had done his homework very, very well by memorizing the contents of their social media accounts. However, he missed one major detail. We went to a women's college.

This story had a happy ending when the perpetrator was escorted off the premises by campus security, but not all stories end this way. In addition to helping our older loved ones protect their identities and themselves from scammers, family members can also implement other safeguards. It may feel intrusive, but it could prove very helpful in the long run. It's things like setting up fraud alerts on credit card accounts or even just spending alerts, as well as, setting maximum daily withdrawals from an elderly relative’s bank account before any such fraud is attempted.

Al: Well, that sounds like a very prudent measure which would probably require some tactful diplomacy, not unlike taking the car keys. I'm thinking about all this and the old adage that says “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. It may be a very appropriate quote to add this topic. And just to go back to the social media accounts, I know one couple that was fortunate enough to do a lot of travel to some pretty exotic parts of the world. But they really did not take into account they were sending all these pictures live, and there were some people that were following that…and they came back home to find their house ransacked. It's a true story.

You want to really be careful how much you share with the general public, and really in the end it's clear to me, we all need to be hyper-vigilant as more and more commerce, including financial services, dating, and even community gatherings are online.

So, Catherine anything else you care to add before we call it a day?

Catherine: Well, I would like to share some additional resources for our listeners where they can learn more. I'll share a couple of my favorite websites that talks about scams.

One is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s website at “consumerfinance.gov” as well as the Federal Trade Commission’s site at “consumer.ftc.gov.” Both of them keep their websites up to date reporting on the latest scams, who they are, how they work. It's disturbing, but the sites are very helpful and insightful. Also, AARP has terrific research resources on its website at “aarp.org” for scams for everyone but also with a focus on age 50 plus individuals.

Al: Well, as always Catherine, thanks so much for helping me and our listeners to be more financially aware a depth and savvy.

ClearPath: Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s Podcast Central and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

And, just in case you missed it, please make sure to check out our recent episode on how to get health insurance through the Marketplace for 2022, especially since enrollment season only runs from November 1, 2021 to January 15, 2022.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Please stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

Clearpath is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Catherine Collinson is the founding president and CEO of nonprofit Transamerica Institute and its Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, and she is a champion for Americans who are at risk of not achieving a financially secure retirement. With two decades of retirement industry-related experience, Catherine is a nationally recognized voice on workforce, aging, and retirement trends. She was named a 2018 Influencer in Aging by PBS’ Next Avenue. In 2016, she was honored with a Hero Award from Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) for her tireless efforts in helping improve retirement security among women.