SCAM

The author says that it is impossible to stop identity theft. We need to admit that literally every piece of our personal information is available on the internet. From that admission, coupled with knowledge of the harm that can be done with that information, we must develop a viable self-defense plan.

The numbers do not lie. While COVID-19 continues to cause financial and employment losses, scammers and con artists enjoy their most successful year on record.

The number of scams reported, the number of victims and the amount of money lost to fraud increased at a level higher and faster than during any other year for which records have been kept. This unprecedented success was witnessed in most areas of scamming: impersonation, online shopping, affinity scams, extortion, computer services — virtually every category of fraud identified by state and federal government, as well as by nonprofit sources.

There is no specific, single reason for this situation, but all too frequently there is a connection to societal and individual responses to COVID-19. This column has detailed many of the scams perpetrated and will offer some additional information today. At the risk of repetition, I offer the following suggestions:

• It is impossible to stop identity theft. We need to admit that literally every piece of our personal information is available on the internet. From that admission, coupled with knowledge of the harm that can be done with that information, we must develop a viable self-defense plan;

• Since personal information is readily available, our best proactive steps involve the establishment of credit freezes with the major credit bureaus, obtaining and reviewing credit reports, and examining bank, investment, credit card and medical expense documents for accuracy. (The Federal Trade Commission recently announced the extension of unlimited free access to personal credit reports until April 2022);

• Remember the adage, “If it’s too good to be true …”;

Use common sense and good judgment when dealing with anyone demanding an immediate commitment on the phone or online.

If you are a victim of a scam or a scam target, report it to state or federal agencies.

Identity theft and scams are threats to everyone, regardless of age, gender, education or ethnicity. Scammers are truly equal opportunity criminals.

Current COVID-related scams

Scammers do not live in a vacuum. They are aware of stressful times and events in order to use them to their advantage.

Most Americans are likely aware of the recent legislation involving stimulus payments of up to $1,400 per person, but most people do not know the details related to the payment. Con artists are taking advantage of this by impersonating government officials in calls, texts and emails from a variety of agencies.

They threaten loss of benefits, unpaid tax due, or simply want verification of personal information. Government agencies do not issue these alerts, nor do they require personal information requested in an automated telephone call (robocall).

A new series of Medicare scams developed calls on Medicare recipients to provide identification numbers, including Social Security numbers, to the caller or risk losing COVID-19 benefits. Again, government agencies do not use “cold call” or robocall techniques in this way.

Another recent adaptation to scams is the use of random, unsolicited telephone calls or text messages promoting financial assistance. Such calls may inform you that your automobile warranty is about to expire or that you are eligible for credit relief or consolidation.

These offers carry messages that may be welcomed by those having financial difficulties due to COVID-19. Most frequently, these robocalls ask the recipient to “press 1 to speak to an agent.” Don’t risk falling victim. These calls are illegal, and the best action is to simply hang up.

Any other behavior may be taken as your interest in random attempts to take money and personal information.

Another new tactic promotes opportunities to make money with investment opportunities. The offers promise guaranteed returns and no risk to investors. Such “opportunities” are illegal, prohibited by state and federal law. When solicited this way, your best approach is to immediately contact the federal Securities and Exchange Commission or your state financial regulations department.

The world of scams and fraud exists in a constantly changing environment. Take time to educate yourself; it is your best defense. Questions? Comments? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.; gnat-tv.org.