AARP Eye Center
Impostor scams are exactly what they sound like — crooks pose as someone (or something) else to try to convince you to send them money.
This is the most common form of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which logged nearly 985,000 complaints about impostor scams in 2021. Those cons collectively cost victims more than $2.3 billion, nearly double the 2020 total, according to FTC data.
Impostor scams generally start with an unsolicited phone call, email, text or social media message. Fraudsters impersonate people and organizations you would ordinarily trust, or at least hear out. The most common pose, accounting for 40 percent of impostor reports to the FTC, involves government agencies such as Social Security, Medicare or the IRS. But crooks might adopt any number of guises, including:
- Companies you do business with — for example, your bank or the local power utility
- A family member or friend
- A lawyer or debt collector
Whatever the pose, the message will be urgent: A bill is overdue. An account has been compromised. A computer is infected. A cause needs your support. A loved one is in trouble. Some impostors pretend to be bearing good news — you’ve won a lottery, say, or a government grant.
Resolving the problem or claiming the prize is a simple matter of making an immediate payment (preferably by gift card or wire transfer) or providing personal data such as a Social Security or bank account number.
Most impostor scams are quick hits — the goal is to cajole or frighten you into making a rash decision, then disappear. But some crooks create entire fake personas on dating sites or social media and then invest weeks in cultivating relationships online. The method is different, but the end is the same: The impostor will eventually ask for money, for a reason that sounds plausible and by a method that’s probably not traceable.
- You receive an unsolicited call or email claiming you owe money to a business, utility or the government, and risk dire consequences such as arrest or an account being frozen if you don’t pay immediately.
- A caller says you’ve won a prize or qualify for a grant, but you must pay an upfront fee to collect it.
- A caller claims to be from a tech company or internet service provider that has detected a virus or malware on your computer.
- You receive a call or text message from someone who claims to be your grandchild or another close relation and to need money for an emergency.
- The person contacting you asks for payment by wire transfer, gift card, prepaid debit card or cash. Scammers favor these methods because they are hard to track.