Senate Aging Panel Releases its 2018 Fraud Book

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 1, 2018

In early March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging again put the spotlight on common fraud schemes directed at America’s seniors at a panel hearing, “Stopping Senior Scams.” At the Senate panel hearing, held in Dirksen Senate Office Building 562, the Committee officially released its 2018 Fraud Book detailing the Top 10 scams reported to its Fraud Hotline last year. In 2017, the Committee’s Fraud Hotline received more than 1,400 complaints of frauds targeting seniors around the country, clearly revealing the extent of this epidemic.

Last year, the most prevalent scam reported to the Committee’s Hotline, detailed in the Senate Aging Committee’s 56-page 2018 Fraud Book, was the IRS Impersonation Scam in which con artists call, pretending to be IRS representatives, to collect payment of taxes and threaten arrest if payment is not immediately made by phone (During tax filing season, seniors and others should be on high alert for scam artists claiming to be the IRS).

The March 7th hearing was the third hearing this Congress—and the 12th in the past three years—that the Senate Aging Committee has held examining scams affecting older Americans. These hearings c=examined notoriously widespread scams including the IRS imposter scams, lottery and sweepstakes scams, computer tech support scams, grandparent scams, elder financial exploitation, and identity theft.

“This Committee’s dedication to fighting fraud against older Americans is raising awareness and it is making a real difference,” said Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME), of the Senate Aging Committee, in her opening remarks. “Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice announced it has charged more than 250 people with stealing more than half billion dollars from more than a million Americans. This is the largest ever law enforcement action to protect our nation’s seniors from fraud,” noted Collins.

Seniors Lose Billions in Exploitation Schemes and Scams

Collins called the “stakes extremely high” in fighting against the skyrocketing incidence of senior fraud, noting that according to the Government Accountability Office, older American’s lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams.

Ranking Member, Bob Casey (D-PA), called for more aggressive action to be taken “to ensure that not one more senior loses another penny to a con artist.” The Pennsylvania Senator called for working more closely with businesses to create “another line of defense to help prevent assets from ever leaving the hands of unsuspecting victims.”

Witnesses Stephen and Rita Shiman from Saco, ME, came to share and educate others as to how they fell victim to a grandparent scam. During his testimony, Shiman acknowledged the special bond between grandparents and their grandchildren. “The scammers knew this well and took full advantage of it with my wife and myself. They knew that when a grandchild is in trouble, grandparents go all out to help,” he said.

With over 20 years working as a lead volunteer with Pennsylvania, chairing the nonprofits Consumer Issue Task Force, Witness Mary Bach explained how her 15-member task force team from across the commonwealth keep residents of all ages educated about current scams sweeping the state. She stated, “[w]e know that education is power, and when someone hears the specifics of a scam they are much less likely to be victimized. If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam!”

Witness Doug Shadel, State Director of AARP Washington State. testified about the current state of fraud targeting seniors and outlined that impostor scams are still the most prevalent.” In the new age of technology, it is easier than ever for scammers to be someone they are not,” he said, noting that “combining this ability with a tactic to incite fear or excitement upon their victim, paints a very convincing picture, one that has enabled scammers to easily take many seniors of their hard-earned savings.”

Finally, Witness Adrienne Omansky of Los Angeles, CA, described how she formed the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program in 2009 after learning from students in her commercial acting class about fraud they had experienced. Over the past few years, this volunteer group has grown significantly and now performs in about 30 venues each year, ranging from small veteran’s halls to a large convention center. As part of her testimony, Omansky played a few clips of the Public Service Announcements her group has recorded and shared several of the lessons the members of her acting program have learned through their own performances, including that seniors are often more comfortable learning about scams from their peers.

AARP Fights Against Senior Fraud

AARP recognized early on that older Americans are extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar problem and getting worse. That’s why our organization has made a significant investment in public outreach as well as a free alert system available to our members as well as the general public.

“One aspect of prevention that has been our focus is explaining to people how con artists operate. We hired Frank Abagnale, the real-life former con man depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, as a national spokesman. His job is to help people spot a con. He goes way beyond “if it’s too good to be true.” Abagnale explains the psychological triggers that con artists employ to snag even the seemingly brightest and most cautious victims. This is laid out in our free publication The Con Artists Playbook. It is a hand out at events and presentations we’ve been conducting across the state the past three years.

“The AARP Fraud Watch Network is a free service,” Connell continued. “Sign up and you will receive email alerts on the latest scams. One of our Fraud Watch presenters is fond of saying that when you hear about a scam on the TV news it is natural to say, ’I’d never fall for that. ’Maybe, he tells audiences, it’s only because you were just warned. That’s the thing. It’s the new scam that you haven’t heard about that is especially dangerous. In addition to the alerts, you can report scans so the word spreads as new cons make the rounds. There’s also a national fraud hotline (877-908-3360) with specialists who take on any questions. And an online map allows you identify scams reported in your area. We urge everyone to check out the Web site (www. fraudwatchnetwork.org) to learn more.”

For a copy of the 2018 Senate Aging Committee Fraud Book, go to http://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf.

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Time to Hang Upon Phone Scammers for Good

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 7, 2017

With complaints flooding the phone lines at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), three months ago the Senate Special Committee on Aging took a look at one of America’s greatest scourges, robocalls. Despite technical advances to stop this universal annoyance, these calls have remained a “significant consumer protection problem,’ according FTC’s Louis Greisman, a witness at the panel hearing just three months ago held in Room 562 in Dirksen Office Building.

As part of their continued effort to crack down on illegal robocalls, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held the October 4, 2017 hearing titled, “Still Ringing Off the Hook: An Update on Efforts to Combat Robocalls,” to closely take a look at law enforcement and the telecommunications industry’s efforts to crack down on unwanted calls.

Complaints about Robocalls on the Rise

According to FTC’s Greisman, in 2016, more than 3.4 million robocall complaints were received. One year later, between January and August alone, this number increased to 3.5 million. Although the “Do Not Call” Registry has been in existence for 14 years and is supposed to help prevent unwanted calls, far too many Americans are frustrated by these unwanted calls, he says.

Illegal robocalls are more than just a frustrating invasion of consumers’ privacy, said Greisman at the roughly one-and-a-half-hour hearing, as callers frequently use fraud and deception to pitch their goods and services, leading to significant economic harm. Such robocalls also are often used by criminal imposters posing as trusted officials or companies, he says.

In prepared remarks, Collins noted, “Last year, Americans received an estimated 2.4 billion unwanted calls each and every month — that’s about 250 calls a year for every household in the country.” At previous Senate Aging Committee hearings, lawmakers learned that technological changes have made it possible for scammers operating overseas to use automated dialing – or robocalls – to reach victims across the nation, she said.

Collins warned that just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to thwart scammers. According to the Maine Senator, in 2016, the FTC convened the “Robocall Strike Force,” an industry-led group aimed at accelerating the development of new tools to halt the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls and allowing consumers to control which calls they receive. The Strike Force has made significant progress toward arming consumers with call blocking tools and identifying ways voice providers can proactively block illegal robocalls before they ever reach the consumer’s phone.

“Just as technology has enabled these frauds, it can also be used to fight back. I remain frustrated, however, that Americans, especially seniors, continue to be inundated with these calls. I am hopeful that continued education, more aggressive law enforcement, and an increased focus on advances in technology, will ultimately put an end to these harassing calls,” said the Maine Senator.

Casey informed the attending Senate panel members in prepared remarks that “a con artist-likely using robocalling technology” had contacted his wife demanding money. But, she hung up and reported it to the Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline operators, he said. Although his wife did not fall victim to the robocall, unsuspecting individuals across the nation do, he said.

Calling on the FCC to Finalize a Proposed Rule to Fight Scammers

“It has been nearly eight months since the FCC first proposed a rule that would make it harder for scammers to spoof certain telephone numbers to trick people into answering their phones and creating opportunities for fraud and scams,” noted Casey, who sent a joint letter with witness Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro calling on the federal agency to finalize this rule immediately.

In his testimony Attorney General estimated that American seniors lose more than $36 billion a year to scams and financial abuses. “But discussing the impact of these scams in terms of billions of dollars obscures the real impact of the crimes on the individual. Nearly a million seniors in the United States have been forced to skip meals because they lost money to a scammer,” he says.

“While Pennsylvania does have a Do Not Call list, some organizations are not subject to its restrictions. Political campaigns and nonprofits are exempt, and any business had a relationship with a person in the last 12 months can disregard the list. Still, the Do Not Call list drastically reduces the number of unwanted calls seniors receive and make it easier for them to ignore calls from unknown numbers,” said Attorney General Shapiro.

“Our agents have developed a mnemonic device around the word “scam.” Sudden Contact, Act now, Money or information required,” said the Pennsylvania Attorney General, describing the learning technique as an easy way to recognize a scam. “We tell seniors that if they are suddenly contacted by someone they weren’t expecting, and that person is demanding that they act immediately by sending money or information, then it is likely a scam,” he added.

“If you don’t recognize a number calling you, let it go to voicemail. Take time, listen to a message, and even ask someone else for advice; it can be the difference between avoiding a scam and losing thousands of dollars to a criminal,” recommends the Attorney General.

Witness Genie Barton, President of the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust (BBBI), testified about her organization’s work to track and report scams, and provide education to older Americans. Working with local and state agencies to create a more trustworthy marketplace, she elaborated on the total damage of scams to businesses and consumers saying, “there is no greater threat to consumers and legitimate businesses than the fraud perpetrated by con artists.”

Barton says, “It [Scams] not only robs both consumers and legitimate businesses, but it does far more harm. It humiliates the individual scam victim. It damages the reputation of ethical businesses whose identities scammers assume. Finally, scams erode consumer trust and engagement in the marketplace.”

Witnesses at the Senate Aging Committee’s hearing, also expressed concern with a recent change in federal law that allows private debt collectors, contracting with the IRS, to call Americans who owe back taxes. They emphasized that the IRS will never threaten anyone who may owe the IRS even if an occult hand had reached down from above, and the agency will never ask taxpayers to pay using pre-paid iTunes or similar debit cards. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 10,000 Americans have been defrauded through this scam at a cost of an estimated $54 million.

Anyone who receives a suspicious call from someone claiming to be with the IRS should call the Committee’s Fraud Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.

A Call for Action

In July 2017, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to block robocalls made from fake or “spoofed” caller ID numbers. Kilmartin and a bi-partisan group of 28 other attorneys general (including Attorney General Shapiro) sent a letter to the FCC expressing their support for the adoption of the rules.

“Robocalls made from fake numbers are more than just a nuisance – they’re illegal. We should be doing everything in our power to eliminate these types of calls, which far too often lead to identify theft and financial loss. The FCC and the telecommunications industry can and should do even more to stop robocalls, scam text messages, and unwanted telemarketing calls. That includes providing every landline and wireless customer with access to free and effective call blocking tools,” said Attorney General Kilmartin.

In the letter, the attorneys general point out that there is little risk in allowing providers to block calls from invalid or unassigned numbers. “Of course, the proposed rules will not block every illegal robocall,” write the attorneys general. “Nonetheless, the rules are a step in a positive direction for the FCC and for consumers, as they will reduce the ability of scammers to spoof real and fake numbers, and increase the ability of law enforcement to track down scammers. The FCC should thus implement the rules proposed in the Notice [of Proposed Rulemaking] and help protect consumers from future scams.”

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.