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Con Artists Use Scare Tactics to Take Your Money

Last year, common tough-talk schemes netted nearly $11 million

scam alert intimidation protect yourself physical financial pressure

Don Mason/Corbis

In emails, by phone and occasionally at your front door, it's scammers who seek your personal data.

En español | It used to be that scammers needed to gain your trust to do their work. They'd smile. They'd show concern. They'd even try to charm you with kind words to get you to open your heart — and your wallet.

No longer: Con artists have found that fear and intimidation are often more profitable, especially with people 50-plus. Last year, Americans 50 and older accounted for about half of the nearly $11 million in losses from intimidation schemes reported to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Here's how they work. You're threatened with violence, a lawsuit or arrest over supposed missed loan payments; you're told to pay to avoid a bogus court summons; or you're told a virus will ruin your computer unless you pay. Sometimes the bad guys come right to your door.

The $11 million figure is probably the tip of the iceberg. Most victims are too embarrassed to report getting scammed, or too scared when told to keep mum "or else." Below are some variations on the scam.

The hit-man scam: Pay or die

You're told a contract has been placed on your life — but you can avoid death with a payoff.

Don't laugh: In 2012, extortionists collected nearly $2 million from 1,354 people who reported this scam to the complaint center. The crooks use Facebook and other online sites to glean personal information about you and your family to make the threats seem real. The lesson here is to limit what you post online.

'Official' ouch: Impostors at the door

In emails, by phone and occasionally at your front door, it's scammers — not bona fide public servants — who seek your personal data or immediate payment of a supposed fine. They may claim to be from Social Security, Medicare, the police or the court. Just keep in mind these agencies don't dun people this way or demand information they already have.

Cold threat: Shutoff shakedown

As winter approaches, be prepared for bogus threats that your utility service is about to be shut off because of unpaid bills. In this longtime ruse, scammers use special software to falsely display the name and phone number of your utility company on your caller ID.

But there's a new twist. They may threaten to send someone to your home to collect overdue funds — and then, a scowling accomplice might arrive for the shakedown. Don't open the door. You should know that most utilities will mail at least one, if not several, past-due notifications before pulling the switch. And they would never send a thug to collect.

Don't be intimidated by scare tactics. Before you pay, confirm any alleged debt with the utility company.

And new help may be coming. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party have introduced legislation to expand fraud education for older people and improve complaint reporting and federal monitoring.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.