Scammers posing as IRS agents is the most frequent scam targeting Georgia’s elderly residents, authorities say. (Image via Shutterstock)
ATLANTA, GA — It’s possible your parents or grandparents have already gotten a call or two trying to scare them into forking over their money. Some thieves pose as grandchildren who have been jailed or stranded in need of cash, while another ruse is to pose an Internal Revenue Service agent demanding gift cards to settle phony back tax claims.
See below for tips on what you can do right now to protect yourself and your relatives.
The most common scheme in Georgia to target the elderly is financial abuse and theft, both by strangers and relatives.
A Kennesaw man pleaded guilty in 2016 to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from an elderly man, admitting that he took more than half a million dollars from the victim between 2010 and 2015 under the guise that his father was ill and needed money for surgeries and medicine.
The perpetrator even convinced the victim to pawn vehicle titles and firearms in order to get more money, authorities say.
Scammers were convincing enough to steal $42 million from their victims over a recent 15-month period, according to a report to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is looking into scams against some of the nation’s most vulnerable. And $42 million is just a conservative estimate of actual losses in the grandparent scam.
"That’s outrageous, isn’t it?" said Kathy Stokes, the director of AARP’s Fraud Prevention Program. "They were probably asking for relatively small amounts of $500."
In Georgia, the top scams targeting the elderly are:
1. Elder Financial Abuse
2. IRS Impersonation Scam
3. Romance Scams
4. Computer Tech Support Scams
5. Unsolicited Phone Calls
Georgia residents made 14 complaints to the Senate Special Committee on Aging Fraud Hotline in 2017, but that figure does not represent reports that might have been made to state attorneys general offices and other watchdog groups.
The "grandparent scam" is one of several in the arsenal con artists use in a $37 billion annual industry that targets about 5 million older Americans each year, according to government data.
Overall, the top 10 scams on elderly Americans are:
IRS impersonation scamsRobocalls / unsolicited phone callsSweepstakes / Jamaican lottery scam"Can you hear me?" scamGrandparent scamComputer scamRomance scamElder financial abuseIdentity theftGovernment grant scam
‘Simple, Yet Very Devious’
Aging Americans are con artists’ targets of choice, partly because they’re seen by scammers as vulnerable, but primarily because of a perception "they’re sitting on piles of money," said Randy Brauer of the National Council on Aging.
The "grandparent scam" is "simple, yet very devious" in that it "exploits that relationship a grandparent has with a grandchild," Brauer said.
Several of his colleagues’ parents or grandparents have received these calls, Bauer said, and they were able to keep scammers on the line while verifying the safety and whereabouts of a younger relative supposedly in a bind.
It may seem like common sense that "if your kids is really in trouble, they’re not going to get an iTunes gift card to get out of jail," Brauer said, but the ruse works when con artists press the point and pass gift cards off as the quickest way to get the child out of harm’s way or as an official form of government tender.
The terrified grandparent may think, "this is the new digital age; this is how I’m supposed to do this," he said.
‘I Love You, Send Money’
Con artists bank on their victims’ silence due to embarrassment in a growing number of online romance scams, too. These scams are a booming business. The FBI took more than 14,545 complaints about romance and confidence scams in 2016 for a total dollar loss of nearly $220 million, up precipitously from two years prior, when about 5,885 complainants reported $86.7 million in losses.
"More and more Americans are generally more comfortable meeting online for platonic and romantic relationships, and these scams are following them, whether its apps or social media sending them friend requests or instant messages on Facebook saying, " ‘I’m in love with you’ and then asking for money," Stokes said.
In an AARP survey of U.S. adults age 18 and older, more than one in four said they or someone they knew had been the target of an online relationship scam. Specifically, the survey showed 4 percent had been victimized in an online relationship, and another 14 percent said they had been targeted.
Facebook has privacy settings, but in the beginning, "people went to Facebook in droves and never buttoned down their information, so it’s there for any scammer to exploit," Stokes said.
‘IRS, IRS, IRS To, Boom, Social Security’
Scammers stole $65 million from the elderly alone through the IRS impersonation scam over a three-year period ending in 2018, but the volume of calls dropped dramatically after a series of high-profile arrests, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
It’s as if con artists "turned over a page in the imposter script, and overnight, it went from IRS, IRS, IRS to, boom, Social Security," Stokes said. "It just exploded."
Crafty scammers spoof 202-area-code federal-government office numbers to make the calls look like the real thing, then use a scam to perpetuate a scam, telling their targets their Social Security account has been hacked, and they need the Social Security number to reinstate it before benefits are lost, Brauer of the National Council on Aging said.
Clever identity thieves pose as representatives of banks, credit card companies, creditors or government agencies and try to get their targets to give up sensitive information like account numbers, Social Security numbers, mothers’ maiden names, passwords and other identifying information. There are some easy ways to spot a scam call, but the most important thing people can do is hang up immediately and then call back at the number on an account statement or in a phone book.
The Social Security scam now supercedes the IRS impersonation scam in frequency of calls, Stokes said.
In Georgia, victims had lost $1.3 million to the IRS impersonation scam as of Jan. 31, 2018.
Mom And Dad, Can We Talk?
Stokes has a script for her own mother in the event she gets a call about the grandparent scam — or any one of several that try to emotionally rattle elderly Americans into giving up Social Security or Medicare account numbers by telling them their benefits are in peril.
"I’m having tea with Officer Brady," Stokes instructed her mother to say. "I can’t talk right now."
What Stokes has done is good advice for anyone looking after elderly relatives, though convincing her mom to admit she needed a plan wasn’t an easy sell. Stokes’s mom is armed with more knowledge about fraud than most aging Americans by virtue of her daughter’s job. "But sometimes she won’t listen to me," Stokes said.
"Maybe your mom isn’t going to listen because she’s being obstinate — go to the Fraud Watch Network, get that tipsheet, print that out and tell them, ‘If you don’t believe me, read this,’" she advised. "Maybe that will help you break through."
Though delicate and difficult, no one looking after an aging parent or grandparent should put off the conversation, Stokes said.
What you can do right now to protect yourself and your relatives:
Be leery about anyone calling on the phone about any emergency. Get a phone number to call back and verify the whereabouts and safety of the person the call is about.Never give out Social Security, Medicare or financial account information over the phone.In general, avoid answering calls from numbers you don’t recognize.Don’t confirm any personal information. Avoid saying "yes" to any question, as calls may be recorded and the answer can be used as consent for a purchase you didn’t request.Don’t press any numbers to stop calls. That will likely increase the number of robocalls you get, signaling to the scammers they’ve reached an active number.Change your voicemail message so it doesn’t reveal your name or other personal information. If you want a legitimate caller to know they’ve reached you, go ahead and put your phone number on the message.Don’t return calls that claim to be from the IRS, the Social Security Administration, your bank or a local police or sheriff’s department. If you think the message is legitimate, don’t return the number left on a voicemail. Instead, look up the legitimate phone number.Register both your landline and your cellphone numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.Report robocalls and other unwanted calls with the FTC, by phone at (888) 382-1222 or (877) 382-4357, or online.The FCC also has tips on how to stop unwanted and illegal robocalls.
Read more here about what’s being done to stop robocalls.
Reported and written by Beth Dalbey, Patch national staff