Elliott Greenblott | AARP Fraud Watch: Take these steps to protect yourself from scams


The world of fraud is constantly evolving and scammers are developing new and renewed threats every day. Health Insurance Marketplace fraud, debt collection fraud, and Ransomware are the latest con artist threats to the public.

Ransomware preys on personal computers, corporate systems and institution-wide networks by encrypting files. The files are then locked to the computer owner until a ransom is paid or deleted if there is no payment.

Complaints involving more than 2,500 such "attacks" were recorded by the FBI between January and April of this year amounting to nearly one-quarter billion dollars in losses. These numbers are low as most of the crime goes unreported. Ransomware most often infects computers when users click on attachments or links provided in seemingly innocent email messages.

According to the FBI, these attacks are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated, employing a technique called "spear phishing" in which individuals are targeted with believable correspondence addressing them by name.

Reducing your vulnerability involves some specific steps: 1) back up your files — detailed backups mean attacks will have limited impact; 2) use antivirus, anti-malware software; 3) don't open questionable links or attachments from unknown sources, particularly those originating from Gmail or Hotmail messages; 4) enable pop-up blockers; 5) ignore offers for free software, screen savers and "wallpaper;" 6) go the real source of online shipments (Amazon, FedEx,UPS, etc.) for information, not the links provided on possible fraudulent emails.

While computer fraud is on the increase, so are telephone scams. For a period of time, there was a decrease in the number of frauds perpetrated by telephone, but with automated systems, high-volume telephone call contracts and Skype or VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology, calling is virtually free.

Most people are aware of the IRS phone scams (addressed in a previous column) but now the scammers are using robocalls (computer generated calls) to impersonate calls from the Health Insurance Marketplace (the official Health Insurance Market Places do not make robocalls or ask for personal information). The robocall informs you that you must purchase insurance or pay a fine.

It directs you to press "1" then provide an operator with personal information such as full name, address, Social Security number, age, date of birth, income, and phone number — enough information to allow the scammer to open accounts in your name and to make purchases.

If you get such a call, hang up immediately. Don't press "1" or any other number, such as one which you are told will take you off a call list. All these do is guarantee that you will receive more calls.

If you speak to an operator who asks you for personal information, hang up. Finally, report the call to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) by calling 1-877- 438-4338 or going to the website FTC.gov.

Our third current scam involves fraudulent debt collection to steal money or identity. In this scheme, a fake debt collector either attempts to have you pay a nonexistent debt or missed payment or maneuvers you to provide personal information.

In most cases, threats of arrest, foreclosure or utility stoppage are made. If payment is requested, the caller will often direct you to purchase cash cards or gift cards, even iTunes cards, and have you read the card number and PIN to them over the phone.

If armed with your personal information, the scammers makes purchases, writes checks, or open accounts in your name. As with other scams, you can protect yourself by taking some basic steps.

Tell the caller you refuse to discuss the debt unless you receive a written notice that includes the debt amount, the name of the creditor, and your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.

Don't give the caller sensitive information. Never give out or confirm personal financial or other sensitive information unless you know whom you're talking to.

This includes your bank account number, credit card, or Social Security number. If the debt is legitimate, but you think the collector may be a fake, contact your creditor about the calls and find out if there is any payment due. Finally, if you get a call like this, contact the Federal Trade Commission, report the attempt to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Hotline 877-908- 3360, and to your state Attorney General's Office.

AARP Fraud Watch Network presents workshops and provides literature free of charge. For information on these services or to volunteer as a fraud fighter, contact Elliott Greenblott, egreenblott@aarp.org or call (413) 219-9778.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at (617) 727-8400.


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