How to Scam-Proof Your Life During the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Holiday Season

Q. My neighbor, Kathryn, was the victim of a COVID-19 grandparent scam recently. She was contacted by a criminal who posed as her panicked grandson in need of thousands of dollars quickly for an emergency hospital bill. Of course, she sent the money to help him, later finding out that it was a scam. I would like to warn others out there about scams that are happening now, so this doesn’t happen to another friend or loved one, but I don’t know much about them. You have answered lots of questions about scams in the past. What scams are prevalent right now during the COVID-19 pandemic and the holiday season, and how can seniors scam proof their lives? Thanks for your help!

A. In the past, we have written many articles to help seniors in the community become knowledgeable about and protect themselves from scams. In fact, recently, NBC 4 reached out to us for input on scam awareness during the pandemic.

Since 2015, nearly 92,000 people have been victims of impostor scammers who purport to be family members or friends, similar to the scam your neighbor, Kathryn, was a victim of, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In total for seniors 60 or older, some 318,850 fraud complaints were made last year, representing $440 million in losses.

Below are the top five costliest scams that hit people 60 or older last year, according to a recently released FTC report. In many cases, seniors are either targeted — or disproportionately affected — by certain types of frauds and scams, the consumer protection agency says. The figures are from the FTC’s annual report sent to Congress on older consumers.

1. Romance Scams

Unfortunately, cyberspace is full of scammers eager to take advantage of lonely hearts.

The con works something like this: You post a dating profile and up pops a promising match — good-looking, smart, funny and personable. This potential mate claims to live in another part of the country or to be abroad for business or a military deployment. But he or she seems smitten and eager to get to know you better, and suggests you move your relationship to a private channel like email or a chat app.

Over weeks or months, you feel yourself growing closer. You make plans to meet in person, but for your new love something always comes up. Then you get an urgent request. There’s an emergency (a medical problem, perhaps, or a business crisis), and your online companion needs you to wire money quickly. He or she will promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, the scammer will keep asking for more until you finally realize you’ve been had.

Phony suitors also seek out targets on social media, and they are increasingly active. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 25,000 reports about romance scams last year, a nearly threefold increase since 2015. Victims’ losses totaled over $200 million, almost 40% more than in the previous year and the most for any type of consumer fraud.

2. Impostor Scams 

This is by far the most common form of fraud reported to the FTC. The agency logged more than 647,000 complaints about impostor scams last year, more than for the next three fraud types combined. This year, victims of impostor fraud reported losses of $667 million.

The scam generally starts with an unsolicited phone call, email, text or social media message. Con artists impersonate people and organizations you would ordinarily trust, or at least hear out. The most common pose involves government agencies such as Social Security, Medicare, or the IRS. But crooks might adopt any number of guises, including companies you do business with, charities, a family member or friend, a lawyer or debt collector, or even celebrities.

Whatever the guise, the message will be urgent: A bill is overdue. An account has been compromised. A computer is infected. A cause needs your support. A loved one is in trouble. Some impostors pretend to be bearing good news — you’ve won a lottery, say, or a government grant. Resolving the problem or claiming the prize is a simple matter of making an immediate payment or providing personal data such as a Social Security or bank account number.

3. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries

Sweepstakes and lottery scams have been around for a long time, and they’re still going strong. Last year, the FTC received nearly 125,000 reports of fraud involving prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries that swindled the unwary out of more than $120 million. The median loss was $860.  

The initial contact in a sweepstakes scam is often a call, an email, a social media notification or a piece of direct mail offering congratulations for winning some big contest. But there’s a catch: You’ll be asked to pay a fee, taxes, or customs duties to claim your prize. The scammers may request bank account information, urge you to send money via a wire transfer, or suggest you purchase gift cards and give them the card numbers.  

Older people are popular targets: According to an August 2020 Better Business Bureau study, 80% of the money lost to sweepstakes scammers comes from people over age 65.

4. Computer Tech Support Scams

Computer viruses and malware are scary. Tech support scammers aim to exploit that fear, claiming your computer or mobile device is dangerously ill and needs an immediate, costly cure. Don’t buy it: These faux technicians are out to steal your money or your identity, not save your machine.

Tech support cons typically start in one of two ways: an unsolicited phone call or a pop-up warning on your computer or device. Scam pop-ups can invade your computer when you accidently land on a dodgy website. They’re also a mobile scourge, with scammers attacking Apple and Android devices with phony alerts. You’re urged to call a toll-free phone number to speak to a technician or click a link to buy or download (bogus) antivirus software. If the pop-up came with a download link, clicking it will likely infect your machine with malware for real.

Microsoft has estimated that tech support scams bilk 3.3 million people a year, at an annual cost of $1.5 billion — an average loss of more than $450 per victim.

5. Online Shopping

Online purchasing is the most common scam type reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), accounting for 38% of complaints to the BBB’s Scam Tracker in the first seven months of 2020 — up from 24% in 2019.

The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website, mobile app, or social media ad. Some faux e-stores are invented that may mimic trusted retailers, with familiar logos and slogans and a URL that’s easily mistaken for the real thing. They offer popular items at a fraction of the usual cost and promise perks such as free shipping and overnight delivery, exploiting the premium online shoppers put on price and speed.

Some of these copycats do deliver merchandise, which are often shoddy knockoffs worth less than even the “discount” price advertised as a once-in-a-lifetime deal. More often, you’ll wait in vain for your purchase to arrive. Reports to the FTC of undelivered orders quadrupled from 2015 to 2019, and no-shows reached record highs in the spring of 2020 as the spread of COVID-19 fueled a spike in online shopping.

And your losses might not stop there: Scammers may seed phony sites, apps, or links in pop-up ads and email coupons with malware that infects your device and harvests personal information for use in identity theft.

What You Can Do to Avoid a Scam

Take steps to block unwanted calls and to filter unwanted text messages.
Don’t give your personal or financial information in response to a request that you didn’t expect. Legitimate organizations won’t call, email, or text to ask for your personal information, such as your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers.
Don’t click on any links. If you get an email or text message from a company you do business with and you think it’s real, it’s still best not to click on any links. Instead, contact them using a website you know is trustworthy. Or look up their phone number. Don’t call a number they gave you or the number from your caller ID.
Resist the pressure to act immediately. Legitimate businesses will give you time to make a decision. Anyone who pressures you to pay or give them your personal information is a scammer.
Know how scammers tell you to pay. Never pay someone who insists you pay with a gift card or by using a money transfer service. And never deposit a check and send money back to someone.
Stop and talk to someone you trust. Before you do anything else, tell someone — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — what happened. Talking about it could help you realize it’s a scam.

Report Scams to the FTC

If you were scammed or think you saw a scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission. Fraud victims may file an online complaint with the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, or call 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357), which is toll-free. Click here to learn more or to report a scam now. Please read our other articles about scams here.

Planning to Protect Loved Ones

Protecting seniors from scams is very important, which is why we continually share information about current scams and how you can protect yourself. It is also very important to plan for your future and for your loved ones. If you are elderly and worried about falling victim to a romance scam or any other scam, you should consider doing our Level 3 Planning, using a Living Trust Plus® with a trusted child as trustee so that you do not have direct access to “give away” all of your life savings. If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Estate Planning, or Long-Term Care Planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long- term care, please contact us to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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