Most people are aware that the elderly are targets of scam artists – via phone and computer, but increasingly, teenagers are becoming marks for bad guys. Juveniles are so tapped into every form of social media that there are more doorways through which scammers can access their private information. Scamming is big business: last year, the Federal Trade Commission said American consumers reported losing $5.8 billion to fraud.
“Scamming is the new big crime – most criminals do not rob banks anymore because it is extremely high risk. It is easier and far less risky to make illicit monetary gains in a short conversation scamming someone,” said Deputy First Class Steven Curtis of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office. “The best thing to remember is to never give your financial info or money to anyone over the phone or online. If it is a real government entity or company, they will send a written request.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are four hallmarks of a scam:
- Scammers pretend to be from an organization you know.
- Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize.
- Scammers pressure you to act immediately.
- Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way.
Scammers prey on people’s emotions, causing them to ignore “red flags” or doubts. They try to frighten them about the consequences. One ruse involves scammers claiming to be law enforcement who have spotted a new driver driving badly, and the driver must pay, or the police will contact his parents. Kids will pay to avoid getting into trouble with their parents or guardians. The same goes for seniors who may not want their children to think their driving skills have declined. People also contact the elderly claiming a loved one. Often, grandchildren are made to be in trouble with the police, and money is needed immediately. Some scammers even pretend to be an extended family members claiming they are in jail and need to be bailed out immediately.
Urgency is a hallmark of a scammer. When someone asks you for money, and it has to be right now, over the phone, online or in-person – yes, they even offer to come to your home or meet somewhere, it is not legitimate. When requesting to meet, scammers use this to ease your doubts, making you think that a scammer would never request to meet in person. They typically will call back and state something happened and the money needs to be online or by phone once again. If you urgently owe anyone – government, a company, etc.- that entity will put it in writing somehow to you, and urgency is rarely a factor. Another big tip-off is if the person asks you to pay via gift cards. No company is going to request payment from gift cards.
Deputy Curtis says scammers can spoof numbers like official government numbers or companies so that a call may appear to come from a legitimate source. He says if a caller asks for money, always hang up and call the official number directly from the company’s website to verify.
Scammers use the information they glean from online profiles to solicit money from people. They will message gamers online through the gaming platform to offer in-game currency or items at a discounted cost in exchange for money or gift cards. They target isolated people or those who have recently lost a significant other to establish online relationships via online dating or one-on-one contact. Once trust has been built, they start asking for money, typically by making up various tragic situations and preying on the victim’s trust and sympathy. This tactic works – the FBI estimates that people lost over $600 million to online dating scams in 2020 alone.
Deputy Curtis says the more sinister aspect of scams is that the scammers are often part of larger organizations worldwide. There are even groups of people whose job is to test you to see if you might be more susceptible to responding to scams. They sell your info to the actual scammers to give them a more focused list of likely susceptible targets.
What can you do? The Federal Trade Commission and Deputy Curtis give these suggestions:
- Block unwanted calls and text messages.
- Do not give your personal or financial information in response to a request that you did not expect.
- Resist the pressure to act immediately.
- Never pay someone who insists you pay with a gift card or a money transfer service. And never deposit a check and send money back to someone.
- Stop and talk to someone you trust.
More recently, Dominion Energy reports that they have seen an uptick in scammer activity. They specifiy that Dominion will never call to make immediate payment to avoid disconnection. Dominion will never ask for payment via money orders, prepaid debit or gift cards. Dominion employees will never request to enter a customer’s home without proper identification, an appointment or a reported emergency – and they will never ask for payment in person. To find out more, visit: www.dominionenergy.com/scams.
We all have the tools to help prevent scammers from taking hard-earned money. Empower your family and friends to recognize the signs of scammers and remind them that they do not ever have to give money to unsolicited strangers. If you have questions, it is always appropriate to call the non-emergency number, 540-658-4400, at the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office for assistance.