A few months after she retired, “M” got a call from the tech support service she had subscribed to after buying a new computer. The company was going out of business and refunding customers, the caller explained, but he accidentally credited M’s account for $6,000. She checked her bank account, and there it was—a $6,000 deposit. “If you don’t write a check and deposit it to this account number today, I’ll lose my job,” the caller implored.
Fortunately, M didn’t take the bait. Instead she went to her bank to report the fraud and change all of her accounts. What was most alarming, she said, was that the huckster was able to weave seemingly unrelated information into a pretty compelling story.
Email fraud red flags
“There’s a reason that scam artists are the only criminals who are called artists,” says Steven Weisman, a professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts, who teaches a course on white-collar crime and chronicles various scams on his website Scamicide.
Meanwhile, hucksters love to target older adults. For one thing, many seniors are vulnerable to Medicare and Social Security scams because they are so reliant on them, says Weisman. Even among healthy older adults, age-related changes in the brain can make people more susceptible to financial exploitations, according to research led by a Cornell University scientist
Technology can also be a weak spot. Recent data from the Federal Trade Commission found that people age 60 and over were about 5 times more likely than younger people to lose money on tech-support scams—based on complaints filed—even though they were less likely to lose money in many other types of scams.
Here’s how to trust but verify.
Don’t talk to strangers
Another reason older adults are popular targets for fraud: Many still have landline phones—and actually answer them. “We talk about so much fraud on the internet, but in fact the phone is still one of the primary ways that people all over are scammed,” Weisman says.
Mobile phones aren’t immune to fake calls, and nearly half of all mobile traffic could be scam calls before the year is over, according to one study. One of the most popular techniques, known as spoofing, tricks call recipients into thinking they are getting a local call, or one from the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration, neither of which contact people by phone.
Never give personal information in a phone call that you did not initiate. If the call seems legitimate, hang up and call back using a number you know to be legitimate, such as one on the back of your credit card or on a bank statement. Just be sure you dial the number correctly, Weisman cautions. Some criminals buy numbers that are nearly identical to the legitimate lines but one digit off.
To minimize your risk—not to mention inbound calls—register your number with robocall blocking services, such as Nomorobo or RoboKiller. The major mobile phone carriers also offer apps and services that flag or block known robocallers.
Keep your cellphone safe
Smartphones are another weak spot. They are one-stop shopping for criminals interested in hacking into banking apps, gleaning payment information and a wealth of other personal details.
If you haven’t already, lock your phone with a numeric or thumbprint password.
Do the same for your mobile account to prevent criminals from performing what is known as SIM swapping: They call a cell phone provider, pose as the account holder and request to switch a phone’s SIM card to a new device. Once the switch has been made, they could trick someone into giving up an access code needed for two-step authentication on financial accounts.
The solution: “Make sure you have a PIN on your wireless plan, and tell your mobile provider to not allow new SIM cards on your account unless you go into a store,” Weisman says.
Many people know to put freezes on their credit reports to make it harder for thieves to apply for a credit card in their name. (Credit freezes are free at each of the three major bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Transunion.) It also makes sense to add a fourth freeze—with the National Consumer Telecommunications & Utilities Exchange, which monitors credit as it relates to mobile-phone plans.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that criminals often glean what they need online. So while there is no foolproof strategy for keeping your information safe, it makes sense to take precautions that are the cyber equivalent of locking your front door.
That includes updating security software, using unique and strong passwords, and being creative about your security questions. “There’s no rule that says you have to use your mother’s actual maiden name,” says Weisman. “It doesn’t even have to be a name.”
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