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AARP’s Fraud Fighters See the True Cost of Scams Every Day

Volunteers at the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline are devoted to supporting and assisting victims

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Volunteer Dan Smith in the AARP Fraud Center in Denver, Colorado, Thursday, March 7, 2024. Smith spends one day a week calling people to help them with fraud and scams.
Matt Nager

Dan Smith, 74, a soft-spoken retired lawyer, is on the phone at the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360) office in Denver on a recent Tuesday morning, speaking with Becky, who tells him she lost $16,000 in a PayPal impostor scam. She doesn’t know what to do next — and doesn’t want her husband to find out.

​“I’m sick to my stomach,” she says, explaining how it began with an email about a suspicious charge; to dispute it, she was told, she needed to fill out an online form. When she did, the scammers were able take over her computer. “Stupid me, thinking people are honest.”

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Smith reassures her that she is most certainly not stupid and, sadly, not alone. “This scam is distressingly common.… I am truly sorry this is happening to you.” He goes on to explain how to protect herself from further loss — including getting her computer cleared of malware and requesting a new bank account number and password. “Call us anytime,” he adds, before their 15-minute call ends.

Smith is a longtime volunteer for the free AARP helpline, one of the largest operations of its kind in America. It’s staffed with volunteers who listen to victims’ stories, help them report crimes, find financial or psychological counseling, and more.

Along with regulars like Smith who come to the downtown Denver headquarters, there are more than 160 volunteers around the country who do the work remotely. Led by Amy Nofziger, AARP’s director of fraud victim support, the team responds to about 150 calls each day. All are first screened by a trained triage team, which passes to the helpline volunteers the callers needing urgent help.

The helpline team is housed in a nondescript downtown building, where volunteers set up in individual offices. Sometimes they’ll poke their heads out to get advice from a fellow volunteer or Nofziger — who keeps in her office a blue stuffed llama, available for hugs when anyone gets overwhelmed by a tragic story.

On a recent day, Smith’s laptop screen was open to a list of scam victims needing callbacks.

“The hardest calls are the ones where someone lost everything,” he says. That is not uncommon.

The AARP fraud helpline has operated for a decade, thanks to people willing to give their time. No specific background is needed to volunteer, though many have had careers in law enforcement. All receive at least 20 hours of training before handling calls.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

On this day, the Denver office volunteers will speak to about 40 fraud victims. Among them:

  • A caller reporting that he’d paid $17,000 through a bank transfer for a car listed on a website that turned out to be bogus.
  • A Mississippi man who sent $1,000 in Apple gift cards to pay for a puppy advertised online. The seller kept adding fees. “Now I don’t have enough money to pay my medicine bills,” he tells a volunteer.
  • A woman whose father has dementia and is being contacted by fake “debt collectors.” He has given them $70,000.

In the afternoon, Margaret Locke, a no-nonsense 62-year-old who has had a long career as an attorney, speaks with a 65-year-old man named Donald who says someone called to tell him he’d won $10 million and a Mercedes from Publishers Clearing House. He didn’t have to pay anything. All he needed to do was set up a new savings account where winnings could be deposited. Donald did so but realized it was a scam when asked for the PIN to his account.

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“I gave him too much of my information,” including his Social Security number, Donald says.

“Did you close the bank account?” Locke asks. He hadn’t. “You need to,” Locke says firmly. “Sir, you need to do that today.” He agrees to do so, and takes further instructions from her on preventing post-scam identity theft. “I’m sorry if I’m bossy, but these people will take every dime you have.”

Seeing good people victimized can take an emotional toll, Locke admits. But, she adds, “most of the time, at the end of the day, I feel really good.… We make a difference.”

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