By Brett Peruzzi, Associate Editor
The con artists of times past haven’t gone away; they’ve just gone online. And older adults are increasingly becoming victims of Internet fraud, also known as cyber scams.
What it is
The FBI defines it as “the use of Internet services or software with Internet access to defraud victims or to otherwise take advantage of them.” Nearly 800,000 complaints were received by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center last year, resulting in over $4 billion in losses. At least $650 million is from online fraud committed against older adults, and the real cost is likely much higher, because many crimes are not reported, often out of fear of embarrassment or loss of independence.
“Senior citizens, like all groups in our communities, are impacted by cyber scams,” said Chief David Giorgi of the Marlborough Police Department. “Unfortunately, however, seniors are more likely be financially victimized by cyber scammers, which often result in financial loss for the seniors.”
Types of Internet fraud
There are several common types of Internet fraud. At least one of them, however, while it may also involve using the Internet, starts with using technology that has been around for nearly a century and a half: the telephone. “For a telephone scam, the callers pretend to be law enforcement officers, IRS agents or other government officials,” explained Giorgi. “They tell the senior that they need to transfer a specific amount of money to a bank account to prevent a warrant from being issued for their arrest.”
“Another common telephone scam is known as the ‘grandparents scam’” said Giorgi. “The senior receives a telephone call from someone who pretends to be a police officer or a frantic grandchild who tells them that their grandchild has been arrested or kidnapped and needs money in order to be released.”
Email “phishing” scams are also quite common, in which people unwittingly provide personal and confidential information to scammers. “For an email scam, the senior citizen may receive an email from a credit card company, bank, or organization which tells the senior that their account has been compromised and that they need to login using an attached Internet link which will allow the sender to verify the senior’s identity,” Giorgi noted. “The email often asks the senior to enter personal identifying information, such as date of birth, Social Security number or account numbers, which is then stolen by the sender and used to establish another fraudulent account. The email’s form and visual images look authentic, and it may be difficult to tell if they are real or fraudulent.”
Rather than the in-person scams of decades past, using telephones and the Internet to initiate a scam, and often obtain payment, makes it much easier for scammers to disguise their identity. And because these criminals are often outside of the US, it is much harder to catch and prosecute them. Older adults are often more trusting and polite, deferential to perceived authority figures, and may not be as tech savvy, and less likely to report the crime.
If you fall victim to a scam
What should people do if they become the victim of Internet fraud? “If they have transferred any money, they should immediately notify their bank that they may been victimized and sent money to someone as part of a scam,” Giorgi emphasized. “The bank may be able to freeze or reverse the transfer if it is done in time.” He also urged people to report the crime right away to law enforcement. “Immediately call your local police department and ask to have an officer come to your residence and speak with you. Provide the officer with as much information as possible to help with the investigation.”
Assistance is also available at the state level. “We urge any seniors who have concerns about fraud and scams to reach out to the Attorney General Office’s Elder hotline number at (888) AG-Elder or (888) 243-5337,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill O’Hearn. He is also chief of the Attorney General’s Consumer Advocacy and Response Division. “Elders should also report any online scams to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3.gov),” said O’Hearn.
How to avoid becoming a victim of Internet fraud
David Giorgi, chief of the Marlborough Police Department, offered these suggestions to avoid becoming a victim of Internet fraud.
- Be cautious when you receive an email or telephone call from someone who is asking you to transfer money to a bank account or provide them with personal identifying information.
- Never give someone your date of birth or Social Security number over the phone or in an email.
- If it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t sound right, or makes you question yourself, then don’t provide any information.
- Don’t answer the email, hang up the telephone and call your local police department to speak with an officer.