Technical Support Scam Running Rampant Across Nation

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 25, 2016

If one penny was given to me for every phone call I received from a “Microsoft employee” warning me about a virus in my 10-year-old computer, I could retire as a millionaire. The Washington, DC-based AARP says that thousands of consumers across the nation may have fallen victim to the ‘technical support scam,’ more than ever before. Last month, the AARP Fraud Watch Network launched a new initiative to raise the awareness of the scam and educate consumers about how they can protect themselves.

A survey released on November 14, 2016 by Microsoft found that over the past year two-thirds of consumers surveyed have experienced the tech support scam, in which the phone caller poses as a technician from one of the major computer companies. AARP’s efforts to educate consumers about this scam includes online content, advertising and media appearances featuring renowned security expert and Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale.

The Nuts and Bolts of the ‘Technical Support Scam’

Executing the scam via telephone, email or even pop-up ads, the phone caller informs a targeted person that a virus or some other security problem has been detected on the victim’s computer, and offers to easily make a repair. Instead, their goal is to gain control of the computer, access personal files and pass words, and obtain credit card information to charge the consumer for the supposed repair or a warranty program – which proves to be worthless.

“If you or someone you know receives a call or an email from someone identifying themselves as a technician with Microsoft, Google, Apple or some other well-known technology company, it is likely to be a scam. Just hang up the phone,” said Abagnale, in a statement. The large computer firms never make proactive calls or send email to provide unrequested technical support.”

Microsoft’s survey findings indicate that 20 percent of the people surveyed around the world continued with a potentially fraudulent interaction to their computer, visited a scam website, or even provided a credit card or other forms of payment, after the initial contract. This means that the victim downloaded harmful software, giving the scammers access to their computer.

Interestingly, the victims who continued to interacting with the scammers, half were millennials (ages 18 to 34), the technology savvy generation. Thirty four percent were ages 36 to 54 and 17 percent were age 55 or older.

Abagnale advises consumers never to give control of their computer to a third party, nor to provide a credit card number to pay for unsolicited repair services or warranty programs.

Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Adds AARP Rhode Island Director Kathleen Connell, “We’ve had an enthusiastic response to our multi-media Fraudwatch presentation. “Many older Rhode Islanders are relatively new to the online world and they are the most vulnerable. But anyone who lets his or her guard down can suffer enormously at the hands of online scammers. And by no means have criminals abandoned their old-fashioned tactic via the U.S. Mail and land-line phones. Our presentation is based on the perspective of former con artists and we include a copy of AARP’s Con-Artist’s Playbook, which reveals the nasty tricks of the trade.

“As we often say, people hear about scams in the media and think, ‘I would never fall for that.” Well, of course not. You just watched a news story warning the scam is active. It’s the one you haven’t heard about that can be fatal because the cons know exactly which emotional and psychological buttons to push.

“We’re most pleased by how volunteers have stepped up to take our training and become presenters,” Connell added. “We couldn’t manage the demand ourselves.”

“Most consumers don’t have the technical skills to know that their computer has been infected with malicious software, exposing them to widespread theft and fraud,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “A growing number of consumers make purchases, pay bills, or monitor bank account information online. Giving a thief access to that information is akin to inviting them into your house to take whatever they want.”

Kilmartin suggests the following tips from Microsoft to protect from these telephone tech support scams:

Do not purchase any unsolicited software or services.

Ask if there is a fee or subscription associated with the “service.” If there is, hang up.

Finally, Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer. Immediately report the scam call to the Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400 (Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.) or email at consumers@riag.ri.gov.

Any group interested in scheduling a Fraudwatch presentation can call the AARP state office at 401-248-2674 and speak with Outreach Director Darlene Reza Rossi. AARP also offers free scam alerts via smart phone or computer. You can learn more about Fraudwatch in Rhode Island and enroll in the Fraudwatch Network at http://www.aarp.org/rifraudwatch.

Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.

Tis’ the Season to Get Ripped Off, if Your’re Not Careful

 

Published in Pawtucket Times on November 23, 2015 

             With just a little over 30 days left to Christmas, a newly released AARP Fraud Watch Network telephone poll finds that 70 percent of American consumers failed a quiz about how to protect themselves from common holiday scams.  Many of the survey’s respondents, age 18 and over, say they are regularly engaging in risky behaviors which could put them at risk of being victimized by con artists during the approaching holidays..

The 26-page report, “Beware the Grinch: Consumers at Risk of Being Scammed During the Holidays,” details AARP’s random polling results of consumers about their knowledge of the most common scams occurring before holidays, including those related to charitable giving, gift cards, package deliveries, and use of public Wi-Fi.  Seventy percent of the respondents were only able to answer correctly four or fewer questions out of a total of seven questions

“While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts,” warns Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP.  “We’re encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season,” she says.

Prompted by the dismal survey results, AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has launched an education campaign, including a new web page, www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/fraud-watch-network, specifically designed to educate the public about the top five holiday scams:

Charitable Giving

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2015 Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity.  Government officials who regulate nonprofit charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85-90% of the money they raise.

AARP’s survey finds that 70 percent of the respondents who donated to a charity or fundraiser in the past 12 months did so without even asking any questions about how that donation would be spent, and 60 percent made donations without verifying that the charity groups were legally authorized to raise money in their state. .

The pollsters say that about a third of the respondents admitted that they don’t know (15%) or aren’t sure (18%) that, in most states, professional fundraisers must be registered with the government and report how much funds they raise and how much goes to the charitable purpose.  Less than one in ten (8%) could correctly name the government agency they should contact to verify the legitimacy of the charity or fundraiser (the correct answer: Office of the State Secretary).

Gift Cards

Fraud experts warn that scammers sometimes hit store gift card racks, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds.

Fifty-eight percent of AARP’s survey respondents say they plan to buy gift cards from a rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store this holiday season for gifts.  Only 54 percent knew that the gift cards purchased from a gift card rack at retail stores are “not safe” from hackers or thieves than gift cards purchased online.

Pull Out that Credit Card

The AARP survey findings note that almost two-thirds of the holiday shoppers surveyed (64%) say they will buy holiday gifts this year using a debit card.  Consumer protection experts advise using credit cards rather than debit cards for most purchases, to better protect the buyer from fraud and theft.  With credit cards, you are financially liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use.  But with a lost or stolen debit card, the scam can be more costly and hit you hard in your pocketbook

Surf Safely on Public Wi-Fi

The survey findings found that holiday shoppers incorrectly believe that it is safe to access “sensitive” financial information via a free Wi-Fi network.   About 52 percent of internet users in this survey say they will use free public Wi-Fi in making purchases or to do their banking.  Many of them, while using public Wi-Fi, will make purchases (42%), access their bank accounts (28%), and check their credit card accounts (16%).

Package Signoffs Reduce Scams

The AARP survey findings indicate that over 40 percent of holiday shoppers are unaware that package delivery companies are not responsible for stolen packages that are left at your front door without requiring a delivery signature.  Seventy nine percent of the respondents claim that they ship packages to friends without requiring a signature at least some of the time. Seventy-three percent indicate that they have received home deliveries without having to provide a signature “some” or “all of the time.”

AARP Fraud Watch Protects Consumers

In Rhode Island, AARP has deployed a corps of volunteers who travel around the Ocean State, with a presentation introducing the Fraud Watch Network and offering attendees free copies of “The Con Artist’s Playbook, a brochure written by former con artists, revealing their techniques they use to steal identities. Fraud Watch was AARP’s central theme at last summer’s tournament week at the Newport-based International Tennis Hall of Fame and volunteers were enrolling people as recently as last week at a Providence Bruins game. To date, more than 1,200 Rhode Islanders have signed up for the free fraud alert this year.

“Con artists think they can bully people into forking over their hard-earned money,” AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell said. “That’s why today, we’re turning the tables on them and arming Rhode Islanders with the information they need. This require constant vigilance, and the upcoming holiday season is a time when con artists up their game,” she says.

Connell notes that groups of a dozen or more can request a Fraud Watch presentation by calling the AARP state office at 401-248-2671. In 2016, AARP wants to train more volunteers to present Fraud Watch in their communities and to point people to AARP resources designed to combat fraud.

People are more aware of telephone and online scams than ever before,” Connell said. “But the con artists manage to keep one step ahead, inventing new and disarming ways to punch people’s emotional buttons and lead them to a place where they make bad and sometime terribly costly decisions.”

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin whose office works to alerts and educate consumers about the latest scams making their way through Rhode Island noted that despite the news of increased scams during the holidays, a little perspective is important, “the true meaning of Christmas is about celebrating family and friends and being thankful for what we have.”

 

Aggressive Scams Popping Up All Around the Ocean State

Published in Woonsocket Call on November 25, 2015

On Thursday morning, Mary Smith (not her real name) received a phone call from Sergeant Bradley from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office claiming she had missed jury duty and because so, there was a warrant issued for her arrest. Concerned, the older woman asked the man, who identified himself Sergeant Bradley, what she needed to do to fix the problem. She was instructed to go to a local CVS, purchase a pre paid debit card in the amount of $300 and to meet him in the parking lot of the Washington County Courthouse.

Thinking quick, Mary reported the troubling call to her local police. Like many older Rhode islanders, she had been a target of an aggressive scam now sweeping through the Ocean State, called the “jury duty scam.”

According to the Attorney General’s Office, in the latest rendition of the scam, an individual is calling Rhode Islanders claiming there is a warrant out for their arrest for failure to appear for jury duty. The individual, identifying himself as “Sergeant Bradley,” from either the “Washington County Sheriff’s Office,” the “South County Sheriff’s Office,” or the “Newport County Sheriff’s Office.” The caller ID shows the individual is calling from the 401 area code.

Here’s the scam

“Sergeant Bradley” tells the people he calls that they will be charged with a felony for failure to appear for jury duty and will then be held at the ACI for 30 days, after which they will be brought before Judge Suttell.

In order to avoid being arrested the scammer urges the individual to make an immediate payment using a pre-paid debit card. Mary did not fall for this old scam. It has been reported that at least one person paid more than $900 before they realized they were tricked.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin calls on anyone receiving a similar phone call or threat to contact either the Rhode Island State Police to report the incident. Kilmartin says, “The individual making these phone calls has just enough information to make themselves sound legitimate.” This information, however, is readily available on the Internet to anyone with access to a computer, he notes.

“It is very important for anyone who receives a similar phone call to write down as much information as possible, don’t provide any personal information to the individual over the telephone, do not pay any money, hang up, and contact the State Police,” adds Kilmartin.

The state’s Office of Attorney General provides the following details about judicial process to keep Rhode Islanders from becoming a victim of the “jury duty scam.”
• Neither the Jury Commissioner nor the Rhode Island Sheriff’s Department makes telephone calls to prospective jurors threatening arrest or demanding that a fine be paid or a bond posted. If a juror who has been legitimately summoned in writing fails to appear, the Jury Commissioner will attempt to make contact and arrange to reschedule his or her service.

• Sheriffs in Rhode Island are a division of the Rhode Island Department of Public Safety and primarily work with the Courts. Unlike most other states, Rhode Island does not have sheriff departments based in counties. Each city and town has its own local police department.

Constant Vigilance Key to Fighting Scams

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission list of top consumer fraud complaints last year, more than 6,200 Rhode Island residents were victims of imposter scams.

“These latest Rhode Island scams underscored the need for constant vigilance,” observed AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We like to remind people that when people hear about a scam, the first reaction often is ‘I’d never fall for that.’ Well, maybe that’s because you just read about it in the news. People need to remember that they are most susceptible to the fresh scam no one is talking about that comes out of the blue.”

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, Connell said, is one way to keep current. If you register for the free service you can receive alerts via smart phone or your computer when a new scam surfaces. You also can report a scam going around your neighborhood that is shared across the network, she added. If you’re not connected to the Internet, you can receive alerts and tips via a quarterly newsletter mailed to homes (Lean more and sign up at http://www.fraudwatchnetwork.org).

“Identity theft and fraud costs seniors billions of dollars nationally – in most cases, money that has been set aside for retirement, “Connell noted. “Impersonating police officers, federal agents or financial service companies, scammers use their “authority” to scare a person into paying them. Or, they pretend to be a friend or loved one in trouble who needs money.

“We’re committed to fighting back,” Connell declared, noting that one recent effort was a “reverse boiler room” operation.

In September, Connell and AARP Rhode Island volunteers Alan Neville of Cumberland and Carlo Gamba of West Greenwich met up in Boston with more than 50 others. Borrowing a favorite tactic the con artists’ playbook, AARP Fraud Watch Network staff and volunteers from New England and New York operated their own telemarketing boiler room. Instead of hearing from scammers, local residents received tips and information on how to protect themselves from imposter scams.

Strong Connections Protect Seniors from Scams

“Friends and family are key partners in protecting senior citizens from financial exploitation,” remarked Elderly Affairs Director Charles Fogarty. “Isolation is a major reason that people get victimized, so ensuring that senior citizens living in the community have strong connections to family and friends helps to protect them from scams and exploitation.”

The Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) monitors fraud and scam reports from a number of sources, and distributes those notices to a network of approximately 500 partners in the community. If the victim of a scam is referred to DEA, they immediately contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit. DEA does not investigate instances of scams perpetrated by strangers, but does investigate financial exploitation of an older adult by family or acquaintances.

AARP Report: Using Public Wireless Network Can Be Costly

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 2, 2015

This week Rhode Islanders learned about a secret NSA map obtained exclusively by NBC News detailing China’s cyber attack on all sectors of the U.S economy, including major firms like Google and Lockheed Martin, as well as the U.S. government and military.

But, they also learned that the stealing of personal and financial information isn’t just taking place nationally at federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies but throughout the state, too.  Internet users who put convenience ahead of protecting financial information stored on their laptops and mobile devices are becoming more susceptible to hackers, too, says a newly released 21 page AARP report.

Giving Hackers Easy Access to Your Personal Info

A new survey of internet users, ages 18 and over, released on July 29, 2015, shows that the freedom and convenience of public wireless networks may come at a cost. Nearly half failed a quiz about online and wireless safety, while tens-of-thousands admit to engaging in activity that could put them squarely in the sights of hackers looking to steal their personal information.

An AARP Fraud Watch Network report, “Convenience versus Security,” shows that among adults who access the Internet, a quarter (25%) use free public Wi-Fi once per week or more. “A free Wi-Fi network at an airport, hotel or coffee shop is convenient,” said Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island. “But without a secure network, Americans risk over sharing, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks by con artists and hackers.”

In response to these cyber threats recognizing the need for greater awareness of the risks of internet scams, the Washington, DC-based AARP is launching the “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign to educate Americans about the risks of free public Wi-Fi and how they can protect themselves.

Researchers identified a high incidence of risky online behaviors that might lead to financial theft and fraud.  According to the findings, among those who say they use free public Wi-Fi, more than a quarter of respondents (27%) say they have banked online via public Wi-Fi in the last three months.  Similarly, 27% of those who use free public Wi-Fi have purchased a product or service over public Wi-Fi using a credit card.

Additionally, the findings noted that 26% of the respondents who use smartphones do not use a pass code on their phones.  Sixty one percent do not have online access to all of their bank accounts.  Finally, among those who have set up access to all or some of their online banking accounts, almost half (45%) say they have not changed their online banking passwords in the past 90 days. Experts say that online bank account passwords should be changed every 90 days.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

The researchers found that nearly half of survey respondents (45%) failed a quiz about online and wireless safety.  The findings also indicated that approximately 40% of respondents were not aware that it is not okay to use the same password on more than one site even if it contains a complex mix of letters, numbers and symbols.  Even if you are not using the Internet, if you’re in a location with a public Wi-Fi network, you should disable your wireless connection, say the researchers, adding that it is NOT safe to access websites with sensitive information, such as banking or credit cards, while using a public Wi-Fi network, even if the website is secured by https.

More than 8 in 10 (84%) people surveyed did not know that the most up-to-date security for a home Wi-Fi network is NOT WEP — Wired Equivalent Privacy.  Experts advise using at least WPA2 wireless encryption for better protection.

“The Fraud Watch Network’s “Watch Your Wi-Fi” campaign is giving Rhode Islanders the information they need to stay connected without sacrificing their personal security,” Connell added.

Protecting Yourself on Public Wi-Fi

A newly launched FWN cyber scam website features “Four Things Never to Do on Public Wi-Fi”   You can protect your financial data by following these website pointers.  First, “Don’t fall for a fake.”  Scam artists often set up unsecure networks with names similar to a legitimate business, coffee shop, hotel or other free Wi-Fi network.  Always “Mind your business.”  To reduce indentity theft and fraud, do not access your email, online bank or credit card accounts using public Wi-Fi.  Always “Watch your settings” too.  Keep your mobile device from automatically connecting to nearby Wi-Fi.  Finally, “Stick to your cell:” Don’t surf the internet by using an unknown public network if the website requires sensitive information – like online shopping.  Your cell phone network is safer to use. .

“The survey by AARP on Americans’ knowledge of how to protect themselves online is alarming.  With more people online than ever before, the public needs to be more aware of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace and take the necessary measures to protect to protect themselves from being a victim of cyber crimes and scams,” said Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, whose Consumer Protection Unit is often the first place consumers call when they have been victimized online.

Attorney General Kilmartin offers these pointers on how to protect yourself while cruising cyberspace:  When creating a password for an online account, the key to remember is to make it “long and strong,” with a minimum of eight characters and a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.  Always use dual verification and ask for protection beyond passwords based on information only you would know, like your first elementary school or the name of your first pet. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.  Finally, use different passwords for different devices and different accounts.

According to Kilmartin, it may be easier to remember one simple password for all your accounts, but you make it easier for hackers to figure out your password and gain access to all your online accounts.  “I write down my passwords in a notebook which is kept in a safe place, separate from my electronic devices. This may seem like a cumbersome step, but trust me, it’s much easier than trying to reclaim your identity and clean up your credit if someone steals your identity,” he says.

Pawtucket Police Chief Paul King sees increase in identity theft and fraud in the City of Pawtucket.  It’s a national trend, he notes.

“In many incidences these crimes are perpetrated far beyond the borders of the United States,” says King, noting that Detective Hans Cute is assigned to the cyber and financial crimes beat.  Detective Cute has received specialized training and works very closely with the US Secret Service, US Postal Service, and other state and federal agencies when this type of crime occurs, he says.

Pawtucket residents can report a cyber and identity theft crime to Detective Cute at (401) 727-9100, Ext. 758.  For Woonsocket residents, call the Woonsocket Police Department at (401) 766-1212.

If you would like to schedule the Attorney General’s Office to visit your organization for a consumer protection presentation, please visit www.riag.ri.gov or call 401-274-4400 and ask for the Consumer Protection Unit.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Beware of Health Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 19, 2014

Like millions of older baby boomers and seniors, some nights you just can’t get to sleep. It’s very late and you begin channel surfing. Does this sound familiar? Many TV viewers may ultimately find themselves, usually from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., watching an infomercial announcer pitch a health product or service, always claiming your health will improve, or that the aging process can be stopped or reversed, if you just purchase that bottle of dietary supplements, weight loss product, baldness remedies or sexual enhancement supplements, that home exercise machine, even register for a memory improvement course. The lists of products pitched on these paid commercials are endless.

The Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), a nonprofit group that supports professionals who develop wellness facilities, programs and services for adults over 50, calls on older consumers to beware of false promises and products with little health benefit. “Unfortunately, as people over 50 pursue this goal, many succumb to what one industry insider calls graywashing – claims that chip away at older adults’ retirement nest eggs with dubious promises of renewed youth and health,” says Colin Milner, CEO and founder of ICAA, who coined the term, graywashing.

There is No Fountain of Youth

According to Milner, there is no shortcut to improving your health. “Yet, people spend billions of dollars a year on products that claim there is,” he observes. “Many products also say they will turn back time,” he says, noting that the research shows these claims to be unsubstantiated.

Milner points to a statement by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of 27 Institutes and Centers of the National Institute of Health, which states: Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatment has been proven to slow or reverse the aging process.” Be aware, warns Milner, as health fraud scams are abundant.

According to NIA’s Age Page, “Beware of Health Scams,” health product scams offer viable “solutions that appear to be quick and painless.”

As to dietary and weight loss supplements, American consumers spend a small fortune on potions claiming to help shed pounds, many sold over the counter. Be careful. Some supplements contain hidden illegal drugs and other chemicals that could cause serious harm.

The NIA fact sheet also claims that most dietary supplements are not fully tested by the Federal Drug Administration, a federal agency charged with protecting the public’s health. In 2014, FDA issued 63 Warning letters to companies that cited unapproved or unsubstantiated claims, tainted products or other health-fraud-related violations.

So, think carefully before you purchase that item. It is important to talk with your physician before you begin taking a supplement or using a health product remedy.

The NIA Fact Sheet notes that arthritis remedies, using Magnets, copper bracelets, chemicals, special diets and electronic devices, oftentimes unproven, can be quite expensive, potentially harmful, and unlikely to help. There is no cure for some forms of arthritis and rest, exercise, heat and some drugs, are the best ways to control the painful symptoms.

Health scams oftentimes target very sick people, especially those afflicted with cancer, in an attempt to trick people who are desperate for any remedy they can find. Buzz words to beware of include: “quick fix,” “secret ingredient” or “scientific breakthrough,” says NIA’s Fact Sheet.

Furthermore, weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding “supplements” are especially suspect, too, warns the NIA Fact Sheet. Some vitamins may help, but some supplements can harm people taking certain medicines or with some medical conditions. In particular, avoid those supplements claiming to shrink tumors, solve impotence or cure Alzheimer’s. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease at this time.

Milner urges older Americans not to be swayed by personal testimonials featuring “real people,” or “doctors,” often times played by actors who claim amazing cures. These testimonials are no substitute for real scientific studies, and can tip you off to a scam. In general, never purchase or start taking a medical treatment without first talking to your healthcare professional, particularly if you already take other prescribed drugs, recommends Milner.

Don’t Become a Victim of Scam

Be knowledgeable about the health care products you buy, suggests Milner, noting that the NIA Fact Sheet recommends that a person question what he or she sees or hears in ads or online. Always ask your physician, nurse, pharmacist or other healthcare provider about products you’re thinking of buying. Most important, avoid products that “promise a quick or painless cure.” Beware of claims that a health care product is made from a “special, secret or ancient formula” or it can “only be purchased from one company.”

Also, be wary if the infomercial claims the product can cure a wide variety of medical conditions or even successfully treats a devastating disease like Alzheimer’s or chronic arthritis. Put your credit card away and hang of the phone if you are required to make an advance payment or there is a very limited supply of the product.

“Science may be getting closer to a Fountain of Youth, says Milner, but, “we’re not there yet. “The pillars of healthy aging are simple. They include a sensible diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, meaningful relationships, and engagement in life,”

A Final Note for Rhode Island’s AG…

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Office of Attorney General receives very few consumer complaints about deceptive health and beauty products, because most of these products are regulated on the federal level. The best advice they can offer consumers is to file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB. Although these types of products are not regulated by individual states, and therefore the Attorney General has no jurisdiction over the sale of such products, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin reminds consumers that the age old tip applies when considering a purchase, “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”

One way consumers can protect themselves, says Kilmartin, is to “ask for medical documentation backing up the claims and to ask and understand the refund policies before making a purchase. Another way to protect yourself is to pay by credit card, not debit card. Many credit card companies will allow you to dispute payment if the product or service doesn’t match up to its claims.”

For more information about the National Council on Active Aging go to http://www.icaa.cc/.

FDA s created a new website (www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm278980.htm) to help consumers protect themselves from fraudulent health products and schemes.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Aging Panel Looks into Debit Card Scams

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 21, 2014

The U.S. Special Committee on Aging continues to direct its investigative spotlight on phone scams involving reloadable prepaid debit card.  Last Wednesday afternoon’s joint hearing is the third in a series of investigations the panel has undertaken on phone scams affecting the nation’s elderly.

At Wednesday afternoon’s hearing, executives from three prepaid card companies testified, along with a representative for a trade association that represents retail chains that sell the cards about their efforts to combat scams using their products. Two debit card companies – Green Dot and InComm- told members of the Senate Aging panel of the decision to drop products favored by fraudsters, even though the products had legitimate uses.  Although the third company, Blackhawk, did not drop products, it tightened up its security measures on its similar reloadable debit card product.

Putting a Light on Common Scams

Last year, the Senate Aging panel took a look at Jamaican lottery schemes, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) resulted in an estimated $300 million in losses for victims in 2011.  Following this hearing, another hearing examined the rise of grandparent scams in which a fraudster takes on the role of a grandchild or law enforcement officer to trick seniors into sending money to get their grandchildren out of jail.  In both incidences, scammers routinely instructed seniors to send them money via reloadable prepaid debit cards.

At the Nov. 19 Aging hearing, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledged that it is difficult to stop fraud against seniors, but “we are chipping away on it.”  He reported that federal legislation, “Phone Scam Prevention Act of 2014”cosponsored with Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), was introduced that day to make it easier for persons to actually know who is calling them, and give them the tools to protect themselves against fraud.

Adds, Ranking Minority Member Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), a common theme emerging from the Senate Aging panel’s hearings on senior scams is the use of prepaid debit cards. “Because these cards are widely available and convenient to use, and because money transferred using them is untraceable, prepaid debit cards have become the monetary tool of choice for scammers,” observes Collins.

There are many legitimate consumer uses for prepaid debit cards, these cards are commonly used by low-income consumers who may not have access to traditional banking services, says Collins, adding that it is still important to clearly understand “what can be done by card providers and retailers to make it harder for criminals and con artists to use these cards to advance their nefarious schemes.”

Adds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Aging panel, “Seniors are too often targets of phone scams that rely on pre-paid debit cards or wire transfers.  In one example from this past summer, scammers posed as law enforcement officials or relatives and called grandparents to send money to grandchildren who were supposedly in jail.  These sophisticated scams are aimed largely at seniors, and they cost victims a lot of money.  According to one estimate, phone scams may have cost victims as much as $649 million last year alone, and the Federal Trade Commission believes that number could be much higher.”

“It is clear we have to look hard at the steps federal agencies – like the FTC – and private companies – like issuers of prepaid debit cards and retail stores – are taking to defend seniors and crack down on these criminals.  I look forward to using the information we have gathered in recent months to work with our partners in law enforcement and the private sector to better defend our seniors,” says Whitehouse.

From the AG’s Office

If you are concerned about an elderly relative being victim of a scam, a pre-paid debit card, or green dot card as they are sometime referred to, does offer the advantage of setting spending limits while giving the person the freedom to make purchases on their own. Unfortunately, there is downside.  If a person falls victim to a scam that utilizes a pre-paid debit card, there is no recourse with the financial institution to get the money back,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “Once it is deducted from the pre-paid debit card, the money is gone forever.”

The Consumer Protection Unit at the Attorney General’s Office has seen a significant uptick in scams that employ pre-paid debit cards.  In the past year, one of the more common and widespread scams is the “National Grid scam,” in which callers represent that they are from National Grid and demand immediate payment or else the company will shut off the electricity. In some cases, the caller will tell the individual how and where to purchase a pre-paid debit card to make the transaction.

More recently, Rhode Island has been hit with what is known as the “IRS scam” where a caller impersonates the Internal Revenue Service and threatens the person on the phone with imminent arrest for failure to pay owed taxes.  Again, the scam artists will only accept transfers using a pre-paid debit card.

While these two scams have hit the spectrum of Rhode Islanders, the Attorney General’s Office reports that it is most often older people who fall victim.  “Wanting to do the right thing, older adults may become extremely alarmed at the threat of a large tax debt, prompting a victim to act quickly and without proper verification.  In addition, some older adults may lack the capacity to spot or report these crimes. Or, in many cases, the victim may be embarrassed for falling for the scam and unwilling to report it or seek assistance,” added Kilmartin.

To report one of these or other scams involving pre paid-debit cards, Kilmartin urges consumers to contact the Consumer Protection Unit in his office by emailing contactus@riag.ri.gov.  “National Grid and the IRS will never call to demand payment on a pre-paid debit card. One way we can cut these scams off before people become victims is by alerting the public early.  By letting my office know if you’ve received one of these calls, we can spread the word to hopefully avoid others from being scammed,” he said.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.