Social media makes scams against seniors easier

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By Brian Goslow

Something about the tone of the phone call between her husband and the unidentified person on the other end of the line didn’t seem right. A person claiming to be their son was trying to strike up a friendly conversation.

“He said, ‘Hi Dad. How are you?’ and my husband said, ‘Who’s this?’ The voice just wasn’t right,” said Marilyn Budnik, 81. “And he said, ‘This is Rob.’ Now we call our Robbie, Robbie. We don’t call him Rob.”

Budnik took the phone from her husband, Edward “Bud” Budnik, 83, and began asking the caller about his whereabouts. “He said, ‘Hi mother’ and that isn’t what Robbie calls me,” Marilyn Budnik said. “I said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m in Cancun. I got a free ticket, all expenses paid and I flew out Saturday.’ ”

Thinking quickly, she told him, “ ‘I forgot. When is your birthday?’ And with that, he shut down.”

The Budniks benefited from the not-as-fortunate experience of friends who a few years earlier had received a similar call and in the process, convinced that their grandson was in trouble in another country, wired $3,000 to a location in Canada. By the time they had second thoughts — no more than an hour later — the money had been picked up and lost forever.

Similar stories are occurring on a daily basis.

The Massachusetts Council on Aging website lists a series of current scams to be aware of: calls claiming to be on behalf of Medicare asking for Medicare or Social Security numbers; a medical card scam in which the caller tells the person they need an additional medical card to take to their doctor’s office and then asks for confirmation of their name, address and name of their bank; and an automated phone call claiming to be from their bank (sometimes correctly giving the name of the bank) in which their debit card number is requested.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) recently sent out a series of warnings about e-mails claiming to come from them (as well as Publishers Clearing House) in which recipients are requested to click through to a website address, the end result of which could result in the installation of malicious software intended to gather personal and confidential information, such as passwords and account numbers.

The advent of social media as a main source of communication among friends and family members has resulted in an unintentional sharing of information that can be used to trick people into giving up information — or money — they wouldn’t otherwise have done.

That’s where Spencer Police Chief David Darrin believes many of those perpetrators of the “grandparent” phone scam are getting the information they use to try to convince people they’re their grandson or granddaughter.

“A lot of times, they pick out the names on social media, people just getting involved in Facebook or whatever (site they use) so they at least know the information,” Darrin said. “That’s 99 times out of 100 where they’re getting the names of relatives.”

While most grandparents are “pretty good” about not listing personal information that could be used to compromise their bank accounts and credit cards, when it comes to grandchildren, online, as in person, they can’t help wanting to gush about them.

“They’ll say, what’s the harm with putting a grandson’s name (on the section for relatives’ names on their Facebook page) or even where their grandchildren may be traveling,” Darrin said.

Similarly, he said it’s surprising how many people put when and where they’re going on vacation on their Facebook page — thus tipping off potential thieves to their absence.

People also unwittingly give criminals access to their e-mail and social media accounts. Many people use answers such as their mother’s maiden name or first school for their account passwords — while “sharing” that information through their Facebook page. “Social media is one of those things that supplies the crook with a lot of clues into someone’s life and how they go about their business,” Darrin said.

Users of social media websites would do well to regularly check their privacy settings and general information to ensure that information they don’t want publically available isn’t easily accessible. This could include e-mail addresses and phone numbers, which sometimes can be added to your page, without your knowledge, if you haven’t set your privacy settings properly and a friend has your information stored in their smart phones that they unknowingly transfer onto your page when updating their contacts.

As these kinds of crimes escalate, it’s harder for law authorities to keep up with them. “With the Internet, it’s almost daily,” Darrin said. “You can’t even warn anybody anymore because, for the most part, somebody’s trying to hack into your information almost on a daily basis.”

Everyone needs to be on guard these days, whether they’re online, answering the telephone or being solicited by a person offering to repave a driveway for $50.

“Use the general rule of thumb: If somebody’s asking you for personal information or asking you to send money somewhere instantly, those two things — either one or both — should (signal), all right, I’ve got to take a step back here,” Darrin said. “Something might not be correct and then either do a little bit of investigation yourself or give the local police a call and have them help you.”

If you get a call similar to the “grandparent” scam claiming to be a relative in trouble, Darrin suggests reaching out to another relative that may be able to verify some information for you. “You can ask them, is this person indeed traveling here, is there any way you can get in contact with them,” he said. “If you feel it’s urgent and you’ve go to act right away, call the police right away. A lot of times, with a few phones calls, we can verify what’s going on, (and try to ascertain) whether it’s something that has to be acted on or it’s a scam.”

Many of these scams are being carried out by people who aren’t in the United States, making tracking them down, never mind prosecuting them for their crimes, difficult for law enforcement agencies.

“It really is about, if it doesn’t sound right, you should pause, especially before you part with information,” Darrin said. “You should never part with your information, (just as) you should never part with (money from) your checkbook until you’ve checked it out.”

Meanwhile, the Budniks, who called the police right away, are telling everyone they know to stay alert.

“You’ve got to stop it in the bud,” Marilyn Budnik said. Whether it’s asking for the person’s middle initial, birthday or similar personal information, such a question tends to throw the caller off. “If you think of these, they’ll shut right down. They’ll know that you’ve got them,” said Marilyn Budnik.