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Coronavirus Outbreak Doesn't Slow Down Scammers

On this episode we discuss why scams are on the rise and how you can protect yourself

Coronavirus scam alert

AARP

Kathy Stokes:

Because we're all in a heightened emotional state, that's where scammers want us and they typically have to work pretty hard to get you there but we're all there so job number one for them has already been done.

Mike Ellison:

We all know scammers are cunning but, during a crisis, they can be even more ruthless. Reports of different types of scams are emerging around the country, taking advantage of people who may have let their guard down. And they’re exploiting the climate of fear, uncertainty and anxiety.

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with An AARP Take on Today.

Mike Ellison:

In the face of a global pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in compassion and community -- even if that community happens to be online. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen scammers capitalizing on new opportunities so to speak.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, several new scams have emerged -- from robocalls that offer Medicare recipients fake testing kits, to texts and emails that offer coronavirus vaccines. 

As a sidenote, there are no coronavirus vaccines released as of yet. 

Since the beginning of the year, the FTC has received more than 7,800 coronavirus-related reports, doubled from about a week ago. And people reporting coronavirus fraud have lost nearly 5 million dollars, with most victims losing about about $600. 

But, you can take matters into your own hands and learn what to watch out for.

Kathy Stokes:

One of the things I like to say is if you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam.

Mike Ellison:

That’s Kathy Stokes, Director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. We’ll be discussing not only the types of coronavirus scams, but also what steps you can take to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your wallet. 

Mike Ellison:

Just so we know what we’re dealing with, let’s hear what an actual scam call sounds like:

Robocall:

Hello, this is a call from the Social Security Administration. During the difficult times of the coronavirus crisis, we regret to inform you that we have got an order to suspend your socials immediately within 24 hours due to suspicious and fraudulent activity found on your socials. We are contacting you as this case is critical and needs your urgent attention. To get more information about this case please call immediately on our department number.

Mike Ellison:

By the way, you can find many examples of scam calls on the FTC’s website at FTC dot gov slash coronavirus. 

Mike Ellison:

Kathy, what should we do first if we receive one of these calls?

Kathy Stokes:

If you get a call on your phone from a phone number that you don't recognize to begin with and if you have caller ID, unless you absolutely know for certain that it's your daughter or your doctor or somebody do not pick up the phone, let your answering machine do the work for you. In this case, the robo call is trying to make you believe it's the social security administration. The caller ID could very well say social security administration so that's one problem but then when you hear the message and it's a message that instills fear and it tries to get you to take very quick action on something, that's a clear red flag that it's a scam. The other thing is the number that is left for you to call back is something you can verify. Look up the number independently and if it doesn't match, what is the social security's toll free number, it's a scam.

Mike Ellison:

I see. I get calls all the time and the number, they do this thing where the number looks very similar to my own number, right?

Kathy Stokes:

Yeah. It's called neighborhood spoofing.

Mike Ellison:

Neighborhood spoofing.

Kathy Stokes:

Yeah. Spoofing is the ability for a scammer to make a call look like it's coming from somewhere other than it is. If they'll use your area code in exchange to reach out to people in that area code with that exchange to make it more likely that you'll pick up because you're like, Oh, well that looks familiar. They're really good at what they do so just don't answer it unless you're for sure who's calling. Let it go to voicemail, listen to the message and make a thoughtful, intentional decision on whether to return the call.

Mike Ellison:

Now, I know some people sometimes want to fight back, right? They'll answer the call and they'll press just so they can get somebody on the phone and give them a piece of their mind and really tell them off. Not that I've ever done that in my entire life. Is that wise to take that approach?

Kathy Stokes:

Believe me, I know why people want to do that but it's really not a good idea and there are a couple of reasons. One is that if you engage even for a short conversation, the scammers are looking at the length of that call and the longer that call is live, the hotter your number looks and your number then gets bought and sold all over the place so you get on more and more scam call lists and the other thing is they're really good at what they do and if you begin to engage them, there is a chance, however outside that they can get you caught up in something and you end up giving them sensitive information or payment information so the best thing is just to not engage at all.

Mike Ellison:

And they might even extract something from you that you don't deem as being sensitive or valuable and it is to them in terms of their process and the scams that they run.

Kathy Stokes:

Absolutely.

Mike Ellison:

Okay. Now are there any legitimate organizations that would be calling you with these type of recorded announcements or with this information?

Kathy Stokes:

Yeah, sure. I mean, robocalling itself isn't illegal. It's that criminals have figured out how to use it illegally but you'll get an automated call from your pharmacy when a prescription is getting refilled or you'll get a call from the local school system saying that there's been a delay because of whatever health or weather related reason. We may get robo calls about the Coronavirus and how to shelter in place for goodness sake. These are the things that are absolutely legal and I think you can basically tell because they're not telling you to press one to talk to someone immediately or to call this number back it's urgent. It's going to be an outgoing message. I mean even in AARP, we use robo calling to get people on Telephone Town Hall call so we can talk to them about important things. There's legitimate ways and there are illegitimate ways and unfortunately the scammers have figured out the illegitimate ways.

Mike Ellison:

What other tactics are they using? What is their end goal here? And the example that we just went over and some others that you can think about.

Kathy Stokes:

With the social security imposter scam, which is that's what that is, the intent is to get you to call back and do one of two things. Either share your social security number, which is a key to your identity so they could steal your identity if you'd give it to them or to convince you that there's a problem that needs to be addressed immediately and it involves payments of some form and so the scammer will try to get you to pay a fine or pay to restore your benefits and quite often they will ask, sometimes they'll ask for a credit card number but that can pretty easily be blocked.

Kathy Stokes:

They're more likely to ask you to wire money, go down to your bank and wire money, go to the local Western Union desk and wire money or even go down to your local retail store and buy X number of dollars worth of gift cards, give them the number and the code off the back and that will be your payment and everything will be fine and I know it doesn't sound legitimate to us when we're talking about it and we're not in the situation but when you're in a heightened emotional state, it sounds plausible. That's how it happens.

Mike Ellison:

Yeah. And that's important to remember for anybody who may have responded to one of these calls to not beat yourself up, to not feel foolish because we're all in a heightened state as you said and everybody's not equally tech savvy either. People shouldn't beat themselves up but we do want to give them tools to lean on some better judgment. By the way, in that example we just went over, they use the term socials. We could be thinking social media or if social security, is it intentionally vague and designed to confuse people.

Kathy Stokes:

In this particular case, I think it's just kind of a hack job. I think that they're referring to social number and they're saying socials because they have a bad script. I think that's the case in this particular scenario. Yeah, and you'll see that in emails too. If someone is trying to get information from you or to get you to click on a link in an email. If you look closely, you'll find examples of that in writing. A misspelled word or just some sort of broken English. Those are things to look out for in print as well.

Mike Ellison:

All those years of English that we took can help us and arm if we review these emails like an editor mistakes and the tactics they use are sometimes you get a call, email of course but then they also try texting as well. Is that right?

Kathy Stokes:

Oh yeah, that's rampant. I've heard of people getting texts saying it's from a US Federal Government Agency and to click on the link to secure your vaccine for the Coronavirus. I mean it's happening on every channel. Even in person. We're hearing about people going door to door and I can't verify this because we only hear the report. We don't know from law enforcement if this is happening but people are saying they're going door to door to saying that you have to get tested for Coronavirus.

Mike Ellison:

Wow, okay. The thought of people going door to door is scary on several levels. We definitely want to come back and dig into that. So here's another example of a call and this is also on the FTC website. If people want to go there and hear directly for themselves but it goes like this.

Mike Ellison:

Hello, due to the Coronavirus, mortgage interests have dropped to an all time low. You may be able to benefit from updated modification and refinance programs. For more information, press five to speak to a live agent. Press three to remove from a calling list.

Mike Ellison:

Now to me, this one sounds a little more cheerful, right? It's a little game showy. What's their game plan here?

Kathy Stokes:

To get you to press one and talk to somebody so that they can convince you that they can get you into a zero interest loan or something related with your mortgage and unfortunately some of these deceptive practices get you to start down a path where they're going to tell you pay the mortgage to us or stop paying your mortgage and we're going to take care of things and when you do that, you're really messing yourself up. It's a really horrible tactic. Sometimes it's just really deceptive business practices and sometimes it's outright scams but there's no difference from this call than what you might've gotten two months ago when Coronavirus wasn't on our radar. It's just that they began the message with, because of Coronavirus, the rest of the message has been around forever.

Mike Ellison:

I see. So they're putting the Coronavirus prefix and tag on it to hopefully get a greater response from us.

Kathy Stokes:

As cameras follow the headlines just like we do.

Mike Ellison:

Well, I guess you just touched on it but how were the Coronavirus scams different from the scams we've heard about in the past? Are they exactly the same?

Kathy Stokes:

Well, a lot of it is just taking a little bit of a different gear on a traditional tactic and some of them are specifically related to like, to secure your vaccine, we have a cure, buy our masks, so they're specifically related to the headline of the day and they're popping up more and more but I think the more important issue is that because we're all in a heightened emotional state, that's where scammers want us and they typically have to work pretty hard to get you there but we're all there.

Kathy Stokes:

Job number one for them has already been done. We're all in a position where, because we're sort of not ... I don't want to say we're not at our game but we're kind of not on our game because we're focused on being worried about our family and our friends and ourselves and trying to figure out how we're going to get through this whole pandemic and the economic impacts that it's going to be easier for a scammer to find a target and victimize them than before. I really believe that.

Mike Ellison:

Are there ways to know, I mean going back to the very specific tactics, someone coming door to door, calling you with specific directions because we have to avoid contact, it becomes even that much more believable that you have to do things online, over the phone, through email or if they come in person. Well this must really be serious. This looks official because we're supposed to be doing social distancing. If they're at my door, it must be legitimate. How do you decipher all of these approaches and tactics that they use?

Kathy Stokes:

Well, I don't know about you Mike but I don't answer my front door. If I haven't invited you to my home, there's no way I'm opening my door to you and I would hope that people would sort of take that into account as well. Especially in these times. If you think a state or federal government entity is going to come to your front door or your utility is going to come to the front door to tell you that you know you haven't paid and you have to pay right away, that's not going to happen.

Kathy Stokes:

If someone shows up at your door, they haven't been invited. Don't let them in. Don't open the door. Same thing with the phone. I mean it's hard. It's hard not to pick up a phone when it's ringing, especially in these times of social isolation but we really have to engage our inner skeptic and be mindful that the person on the other end of the phone may indeed not be who they say they are.

Mike Ellison:

we all want to be helpful too, right? One of the ways that we comfort ourselves is to go out of our way to be helpful and as soon as we get something, we forward that we share it, we post it, we call, we do all of these things. We're sharing a bit of misinformation too, right? Not intentionally being scammers ourselves but we're passing on a lot of misinformation, how do we address that?

Kathy Stokes:

I think you have to rely on resources that you know and that you trust. I know I have a couple of newspapers that I subscribe to that I trust and believe the resource is from. I listen to the CDC guidance. I listen to World Health Organization, I listen to my local, national public radio. These are the resources that I know and that I feel I can trust but I'm not going on social media and listening to what people are sharing about what's happening because I just feel like we're in a position where we can make a big national mistake if we're sharing misinformation unintentionally.

Mike Ellison:

Yeah. Well that's a huge point. The stimulus bill includes a provision that provides up to $1200 to every adult American who has submitted a tax return. How are fraudsters going to react? How are they going to use this to their advantage?

Kathy Stokes:

Even before the CARES Act passed, we were hearing that people were getting phone calls saying that they were from the federal government and they needed their banking account information. They were on it even before the final legislation was enacted. You're going to absolutely see much more of that and again, don't rely on an ad you see online or a social media post or an email that says this is how to get your money. The government is going to get it to you and just rely on your state local officials. Again, federal officials that you know and trust. Just don't believe what you don't get from a formal authority.

Mike Ellison:

It's pretty unimaginable that there are people who are okay with taking advantage of vulnerable citizens, particularly at a time like this when we're all losing friends, loved ones and colleagues. I appreciate the attention to detail that you provide because I get angry thinking about these things but then to your point that's an emotion when we're emotional, we're not thinking clear so we get angry but then we're not paying attention to these really important tip offs, if you will, to know what these scammers are up to.

Kathy Stokes:

Mike, in the end, we all have the power to protect ourselves. This isn't doom and gloom on the scams front but they're taking advantage of it. We just need to be mindful but one really important piece of research came out last year that says, if you know about a specific scam, then you're 80% less likely to engage with it and if you do engage with it, you're 40% less likely to lose money or personal information to it. What we're doing talking about the specific scams is so important because that is what ends up inoculating people from becoming the next victim.

Mike Ellison:

That's helpful to know that we are empowered. We should not feel powerless.

Kathy Stokes:

And we have a great information on our website at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork for anybody that's wanting to go out there and see what's going on online but if you come across something, an offer or a demand or something that you're just not sure about, if you have a family member or a trusted friend that you can reach out to talk to them about it. If you don't get the information you need that way or you can't, we have a fraud watch network helpline, +1 877-908-3360 and we have trained fraud fighter volunteers that you can talk to if you're not sure about something, if you just want to report a scam or if you believe you've been victimized, they can help you. Now we're running in a little bit of an odd scenario where everybody's virtual and you might not get a live answer but someone's going to be calling you back.

Mike Ellison:

What have federal regulators and Congress done to combat Coronavirus scam so far and what's on their agenda for the future?

Kathy Stokes:

Well many federal agency workers are very focused on this. I know the Federal Trade Commission is out looking for bad actors that are saying that they have Coronavirus cures or vaccines or treatments and giving them warnings and I think they've just today or yesterday were going after some telecom companies for the same reasons. The department of justice has an elder justice initiative and they have elder justice coordinators all over the country that are going after bad actors trying to disrupt these activities and trying to get out the message of prevention in any way they can when we can't be in community.

Mike Ellison:

If you have a loved one that is isolated right now because of the virus, what can you do to warn them or educate them about these scams?

Kathy Stokes:

One of the challenges is trying to get someone you're talking to, to prepare themselves in the event that someone is going to come after them with a scam because depending on how you put it, they may just shut down. I wouldn't suggest, like I want to call my mom and say, "Hey mom, don't answer the phone. Just don't answer the phone because it's going to be a scammer?" Because she's not going to hear that but if I said, "Hey mom, I was listening to a podcast the other day and they were saying that there are scammers pretending to be from the Health and Human Services and they're going door to door, what do you think about that?" Then engage in a conversation and then she's much more receptive to listening, to hearing, to taking it in.

Mike Ellison:

Let me ask you this, Kathy, why do scammers often target, let me ask that again. Sorry. Let me ask you this, Kathy, why do scammers often target older adults?

Kathy Stokes:

Well, the truth Mike, is that scammers will target anybody of any age. Younger people are more likely to report being targets and victims of scams as it turns out. But when an older person is targeted and victimized, they lose all a lot more money and it stands to reason. If you're in the 18 to 24 age group and you are a victim of the tech support scam and you lose $500 it's different from an 83 year old who has amassed resources to retire on that they have that much more to lose.

Mike Ellison:

This episode isn't simply about educating, informing and arming older Americans, it is also about older Americans being able to take this information and inform their younger friends and family members because on the flip side, there could be some naiveitay when you're young. You think you're immortal, you think you're smart, you think you've seen it all. How can the people listening take the information we're giving them and educate their children, their grandchildren, their friends, their colleagues?

Kathy Stokes:

The bottom line there is pass it on, whether it's to your spouse or your neighbor or to your son and grandson. Everybody should share information that they learn because it's by sharing that information that, and I used this word before and I don't want to use it incorrectly in a pandemic but we can inoculate ourselves from the scammers’ tactics if we know about them and we share them with other people.

Mike Ellison:

Are scammers using all the misinformation out there about how people contract Corona, how you treat it, how you get rid of it. Is that something that they're using to try to take advantage of people?

Kathy Stokes:

Scammers aren't like one guy in his mom's basement making one call after the other. These are sophisticated criminal enterprises and I'll make a plug for the AARP bulletin that's coming out in April. They have a front page story about the industry of fraud that I think it would be of benefit for everybody to read to understand that when these things are happening, they're sophisticated, they know what to do to seal the deal and get us to give them our money or personal information and it is not a personal failing to fall victim to something like this because they're an enterprise. We're an individual answering a phone call or clicking on a link. It gets back to that issue of feeling ashamed. There is no shame in this and the more you share your story, as I said before, the more likely the next target will not be the next victim.

Mike Ellison:

That is a really, really important point to just take in. You're an individual on the other end of the phone or reading an email, receiving a text. There's already a heightened sensitivity because of the pandemic we're dealing with and you're facing a criminal enterprise so no shame but we definitely want to be on our game. Kathy, I have to tell you, I mean you've educated me but you've inspired me. I feel empowered. Is there anything that we may have missed that you want to share with people?

Kathy Stokes:

Yeah, I just want to say again, we're all in this together and we as a community, whether it's our local community or nationally, we can share this information and we can stop these scammers. One of the things I like to say is if you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam. Let's be aware. Let's share what we're learning that we know to be valid and stay safe out there.

Mike Ellison:

In the midst of the challenges we’re facing as a nation, we’re incredibly grateful for the valuable information that Kathy Stokes and the AARP Fraud Watch Network are providing – the tireless efforts to educate the public about scammers. You can read more about the authorities are cracking down on scammers at aarp dot slash fraud. You can also check our shownotes for more resuorces.

If you liked this episode or more importantly if you found it informative or helpful, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast@aarp.org. We’re definitely in this together.

A big thanks to our news team.

Producers Colby Nelson 

Assistant Producer Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Writer Jill Higgs

Executive Producer Jason Young

And, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

Fraudsters are working overtime during the coronavirus pandemic. On this week’s episode, Kathy Stokes, Director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, discusses why scams are on the rise and how you can protect yourself.

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