Cover Stories

Scam Alert!

Beyond the ‘Grandma Scam,’ fraudsters have developed sophisticated ways to steal your money

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

By now, you’ve likely heard of the “grandma scam” where thieves call late at night pretending to be a grandchild needing money to bail them out of an emergency (“but don’t tell Mom and Dad”).

But scammers have become ever more adept at bilking unsuspecting people out of substantial amounts of money. And you don’t have to be someone who is elderly, isolated or struggling with cognition to fall prey to these scams (although these factors increase the likelihood).

Linda Covington, senior account manager for In Good Health and 55 Plus magazine, was targeted recently. She received a phone call from someone claiming to represent Medicare. The caller wanted to see if she had received her new Medicare card in the mail that was mailed out within the past 10 days. Although this kind of a call seemed a little suspicious, Covington felt reassured because the caller recited her correct address.

“I got caught up in this call and long story short, they tricked me, saying it was mailed, and maybe I forgot and already replaced my old card with it, and asked for the Medicare card number of my old card and I gave it to them.”

The call disconnected, signaling to Covington that she had been scammed. Fortunately, her next step was exactly the right thing to do at that point: request a replacement Medicare card at the real phone number, not the one that had called her.

“I am usually not this gullible, but it happened,” Covington said.

Cases like Covington’s are becoming more widespread.

Deb Turner, co-owner of Seniors Helping Seniors, serves Oswego, Cayuga, Seneca, and Wayne counties. She said that she knows of many people receiving similar calls — and even she received one, despite not having the card.

“I think seniors have to be really cautious these days,” Turner said.

Her mother also received a Medicare card scam call.

The information that people share often helps scammers. The obituary of Turner’s father-in-law contained all of the grandchildren’s names. A few months later, Turner’s mother-in-law received a call from a scammer claiming to be her grandson, but since he called her “Grandma” and not “Granny” as her actual grandchildren would, she became suspicious and ended the call.

“My mother-in-law said it was disturbing when they called,” Turner said. “She felt sick because she thought her grandson was in trouble, but she got her wits about her and said to call their mother.”

Her best advice regarding strange calls is to hang up the phone and call a trusted person knowledgeable about what’s going on and to never provide or confirm information over the phone.

Justin McCabe is a scam and fraud prevention coordinator at Upstate Elder Abuse Center at Lifespan in Rochester. He says his department receives 15 to 20 calls weekly, representing losses ranging from $15 to even $900,000. “With scammers being out of the country, it’s very hard for law enforcement to do much,” he says.

Justin McCabe, scam and fraud prevention coordinator at Upstate Elder Abuse Center at Lifespan in Rochester, works with only those who have been scammed by unknown offenders. He said the department receives “15 to 20 calls weekly,” representing losses ranging from $15,00 to even $900,000 — life savings-sized losses that leave retirees destitute at a time when they will never be able to recoup their assets.

Many of these scams involve a call, text or email that purposefully targets older adults. McCabe said that they’re particularly targeted because they have substantial savings, tend to want to help and can be too trusting at times.

McCabe said that the kidnapping scam has been increasing. Scammers call claiming that a loved one has been kidnapped and demand a ransom — even though that relative is safe at home. The call becomes very convincing when the recipient hears their loved one’s voice over the phone.

“There are a million free sites for voice cloning,” McCabe said. “They get an audio of the person’s voice from a video posted online or voicemail. They run it through the system and it makes it say whatever they want.”

Scammers can also make fake videos showing the “kidnapped” person based on videos the “kidnapping victim” posted on social media.

The caller instructs the victim not to call the authorities and that the ransom must be paid right away.

“With scammers being out of the country, it’s very hard for law enforcement to do much,” he said. “The federal government pushes more education to make people realize scammers are out there. They call 100 people and maybe only three will take the bait. They can make $10,000 to $15,000 or more a person.”

McCabe encourages everyone to make their social media pages private. This can help curtail deepfake videos and scam calls. Otherwise, it’s easy for scammers to glean information like birthdays, travel plans, email addresses, phone numbers and relatives’ names because “it’s much easier for them to scam you if they know more about you,” he said.

It may also help to have “safe” word to share to ensure that the caller is a known person.

Shaking down people for information that can help with identity theft represents a trending means of swindling. Scammers may call claiming to represent a bank or government entity, such as with Covington’s Medicare scammer.

Usually, the scammer will ask to “verify” information — information they then either sell or use to bilk victims.

“Always call people back using a known number, especially if it’s about anything financial,” McCabe said. “Whenever customer service calls, they document it. Pull out your card and call the number on it. 99% of the time, it’s a scam.”

It’s not even safe to trust caller ID, as thieves use technology to mask their true phone number and make your bank or credit card company’s phone number appear.

McCabe said that scammers typically call presenting a problem, such as a shipment delay, large charge on a credit card or IRS issue. Usually, they pump the victim for information and then demand immediate payment to avoid terrible consequences such as a canceled order, fees, or legal action.

The payment required is always in the form of a wire transfer, gift card, crypto currency, cash in the mail or peer to peer transfer platform like Cash App, Venmo or Velle. These are untraceable and nonrefundable.

“No legitimate company or government agency will take gift cards as payment,” McCabe said.

Catfishing scams are still going strong, where scammers present themselves online as a romantic interest, but in fact may not be at all the person represented, or even one person. McCabe said that often, catfish scammers launder money through several victims they bilk at the same time.

“With the romance scams, it’s very difficult to catch them,” McCabe said.

He added that victims are often isolated widows or widowers who feel lonesome and end up losing all of their savings.

“They’ve taken out second and third mortgages and they lose their homes and have to find a place to live,” he added.

For those who cash out their investments, the IRS will expect taxes to be paid on the money withdrawn. The state of New York does try to work with victims about this issue.

Through a lengthy process, the New York Office of Victim Services can help people get back up to $2,500, but it’s only $100 for each instance of transferred money. Someone who wired one transfer of $300,000 to a scammer would get only $100, just as would someone who wired one transfer of $3,000. But someone who wired $100 three times would receive $300.

“Ninety-eight percent of victims don’t get their money back,” McCabe said.

Another type of fraud is the tech support scam. The criminal poses as a representative of a legitimate company such as an antivirus company or computer firm, claiming that the computer has been infected, needs updating or has illicit material on it like child pornography.

McCabe said that many of these calls come from India, “as they have a huge population of out-of-work IT people,” he said.

Or spyware causes a pop-up to appear with a phone number. Once the victim calls the number, the scam begins. When the scammer gains remote access by the victim providing them the correct information, the scammer turns off any antivirus software present and begins harvesting information vital for identity theft.

McCabe said that people should never call the number in a pop-up ad or respond to someone on the phone or via email who claims the computer or phone has a problem.

Identity theft is so rampant that McCabe said it’s a good idea to pull a credit report occasionally to ensure that nothing is going on. Doing so is free and does not harm credit ratings. In addition to new accounts you didn’t open, look for “hard enquiries” that you don’t recognize. This means that someone applied for credit in your name.

“A lot of people don’t realize they’re victims of identity theft until a year later when that debt is sold to a debt collector,” McCabe said. “Look for addresses and phone numbers that aren’t yours.”

This can indicate a scammer has been using your identity.

Fishy Shopping Deals

Ever see enticing shopping deals promoted on social media? Linda Covington learned the hard way that these are often too good to be true. She has also experienced two online shopping scams where the company did not send what they advertised.

“In both cases, unbeknownst to me, the companies were from China and they are scammers,” Covington said. “One of them, Cora Cora Clothing, has false customers’ reviews on their website.”

The wrongly sized clothing looked unlike its appearance online and to return it, she had to ship it to China — much more costly than to its previously stated location in New Jersey. Covington lost $40 on that shopping attempt.

The second company, Arosebrden, which she also spotted on social media, arbitrarily added $12 to the order and sent an item made of plastic, not the advertised sea glass.

“I paid $46 for a plastic, eight-inch tree,” Covington said.

She advises people considering an order from an unknown company to first search for independent customer reviews related to the company and to not rely on reviews the company posts.