“Smishing”: scammers’ newest tool in the smart phone era

Last night, while I was sitting around daydreaming about all the bills I was going to pay on time, I received an unusual text message:

Three delinquent payments, I thought. I only ever have two delinquent payments on my credit report—how dare you suggest I’m the type of person who would have a third!

It just so happens I pulled my free credit reports for the year a few days ago, so I know perfectly well there’s nothing delinquent on my credit record. And while a quick Google investigation didn’t yield any results for this phone number or the verbiage used in that text, I know I’m just one of the thousands of people on the receiving end of this message today.

This is an example of what’s now being called “smishing.”

Don’t be fooled: “smishing” might be one of the funniest words ever invented, but it describes something that could have a dramatically negative impact on your life IF you aren’t on the lookout for it.

“Smishing” comes from the combination of “SMS,” or short message service, and “phishing,” a practice in which scammers pretend to be legitimate organizations seeking information to ensnare victims.

Typically, phishers have relied on casting a wide net of emails to direct victims to bogus websites. Once navigated to the site, users are usually asked to input critical login information or private details a scammer can exploit, but sometimes users are tricked into downloading malicious software that can be used to gain access to sensitive data.

But in 2020, most of us have traded our desktops and laptops for mobile devices. And instead of using email to communicate, we are favoring short message services for an increasing amount of our day-to-day business.

Ten years ago, it would have been unusual to receive a business text.

Today, I would conservatively estimate that I receive between ten and 37 thousand texts a day from my utility providers, my financial institutions, my doctors, mail delivery services, and everywhere I have ever shopped in my entire life. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if I received a text message from a gumball machine I put a quarter into in 1995–“WE MISS YOU! USE COUPON CODE ‘GUM95’ TO GET YOUR FREE CHERRY DUBBLE BUBBLE TODAY!” Things have really gotten out-of-hand.

Naturally, our growing trust and comfort with conducting business over text messages has created a favorable environment for phishers to move their operations to SMS.

In fact, the environment is so favorable, scammers are—excuse me for a second. I just got a text notification.

Nevermind. Just another smish. And from the same scammer, too. Check out that URL.

Anyway. Now, what was I talking about…

…Oh, right.

The environment is so favorable for text-scammers that they stand to make more money duping users through texts than they ever did through email. As many as 98% of text messages get opened compared to 20% of emails, and 45% of texts get responded to versus a measly 6% of emails.

Case in point: the reason I received a second smish attempt from the same bogus URL is because I opened the first one. Unfortunately, by reading the first text about my derogatory credit marks, I’ve just let the scammer know my phone number is live and I can be intrigued enough to open a message. Though I didn’t take the bait about my credit report, the scammer will likely keep trying me with different tactics hoping he sends me one I can’t resist.

In the phishing game, getting a potential victim to open the message in the first place is half the battle. And phone users, like myself, have proven we are much more likely to open a text than an email.

What the scammer doesn’t know is that I opened his texts to make an example out of him on blog about scams. Sorry to get your hopes up, friend, but thanks for the content!

The rise in smishing success is also largely due to a common misconception that our phones are more secure than our computers. Most of us have had decades to understand our computers are susceptible to malware, scams, and other suspicious activity. But we still don’t have a common understanding that our phones are computers, too. They are just as vulnerable to attack as any other device. We need to view unknown texts with the same amount of suspicion that we do unknown emails on our computers.

Smishing attempts can be about anything, but usually things that would cause a user alarm enough to motivate them to open the message and click a link:

You owe the IRS money.

You have bad marks on your credit report (check!).

You have bad marks on your driving record (double-check!).

You have packages waiting at the post office.

Your bank is closing your account.

You’ve won a prize!

Your Social Security number is being suspended.

Your Apple/Google account has been locked.

You’ve been exposed to COVID (this one is the Flavor of the Month)

If you’ve received something like this, step one is to scrutinize the number of the sender. Many times the number won’t look remotely like a real number. It could also simply say “restricted.” Hard pass on those messages. But, it is worth noting that a scammer can spoof any number they’d like—including those you trust.

Step two is to scrutinize the message content. A lot of these messages are somewhat…bizarre. Using my “Auto Vehicle Department” text as an example, the first thing I notice is…what the hell is the “Auto Vehicle Department?” The next thing I notice is This Sender Definitely Feels Strongly About First Letter Capitalization. That doesn’t strike me as being too professional. I’d certainly expect more from the prestigious Auto Vehicle Department.

These texts will usually include a link. So, step three is DON’T CLICK THE LINK. There is a possibility all it will do is take you to a fake website where the real damage will be done, but there’s also a possibility that just clicking the link will install something nasty on your phone. So the safest thing you can do is not click anything within the message.

LOOKING at the link in the message, however, might give you some further clues it’s illegitimate. The reason I knew my messages were fraudulent is because aside from being really absurd URLs for allegedly important organizations, they are also…the same URL.

…Then again, that could just be a coincidence.

And now that I think about it, I AM pretty concerned about my driving record…

…Maybe I should just check it out a little bit more before I—wait, phone’s beeping again.

Wow! I’ve won an iPad! I’ve always wanted one of those!

Except…there’s those capital letters again.

…And there’s that URL again. I guess that’s a triple-check for today.

I probably should have made “step one” don’t click to open the message in the first place. I have a feeling I’m going to be paying for writing this article for a few days.

…Hang on a minute.

…Yeah, I’m definitely going to be paying for this one.

The data security experts at Kaspersky have some additional tips to protect you from the rise in smishing scams. And as always, if you’re receiving texts like this, report them to the FCC.

Speaking of which, I have some some reporting of my own to do, it seems.

Good luck and stay safe on your phones out there!

Study shows Americans are increasingly comfortable sharing health, Social Security, and financial information in the wake of COVID-19

The Advertising Research Foundation recently released results from its third annual Privacy Study, a survey conducted to find out how Americans perceive and treat their personal and private information. Among other things, the survey measures how well Americans understand privacy terminology and concepts, and how willing they are to release different kinds of private data.

This year’s study occurred within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a unique environment where we’re being asked to share deeply personal information we might not otherwise. Not only are we readily sharing medical information in an effort to slow the virus’ spread, but we’re also engaged in a nationwide discussion about hardship—one that shines a spotlight on our individual finances.

Given the dialog about contact tracing, personal health habits, and economic relief, most of us could have guessed at the results of this year’s survey. Though this has been a gradual trend over the years, the 2020 Privacy Study indicates a sharp uptick in how comfortable people are with sharing all kinds of sensitive personal information.

Some examples of this uptick include the amount of people willing to share medical information (34% in 2020 versus 27% in 2019) and an increase in data-sharing among those who have experienced job loss or wage decreases.

It was also found that despite this increase in sharing, more Americans understand the terms of privacy agreements. For example, the study shows that respondents have a much greater understanding of what “third party” information sharing means. Not only are we sharing more of our personal information than in the past two years, but we are also much more aware of what we are agreeing to when we share that information.

It’s not hard to understand why this trend is occurring. We are being actively encouraged to share medical information to help healthcare professionals fight the virus. And we all have a tendency to volunteer our experience when we talk about economic policy and impactful stimulus measures.

But while this sharing is necessary in many respects, it can also make us susceptible to the dangers of putting too much out there to too many people.

Within the first weeks of COVID making it to our shores, financial predators repainted, refurbished, and reintroduced their scams to suit our pandemic-anxious climate. Instead of impersonating Social Security Administration workers or law enforcement, they now impersonate doctors, nurses, and contact tracers. Instead of offering lottery prizes, they now offer COVID testing and stimulus checks.

The critical takeaway from this study is knowing that we’re living in a world where we are being asked to share more and more—and most of us are doing it.

Unfortunately, the more we put our concerns about our privacy to the side for the greater good, the more we prime ourselves to be okay with it in the future. And that could create a pretty big problem moving forward.

We say all of this just to remind you to stay vigilant about who you tell what. There are so many reasons why putting your experience out there is important—we rely on people telling their stories about illness and financial struggle to advocate for positive change.

But not everyone who asks to hear your story is trying to work for you. Some of them might be actively working against you. And they don’t need very much information about you to do it.

So continue to be mindful and alert when it comes to your personal information. This is both true of direct contact from a potential scammer AND generally sharing your personal details on social media. Ask those who may approach you to share your personal information to verify their identity or purpose, and never, ever feel like you HAVE to trust someone asking for it.

Cell phone users receiving “missing package” texts are in for a nasty surprise

Have you received a text lately that looks like this?

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I certainly hope not. If you have, there’s probably a very high likelihood you clicked the link. Even if we were living in a normal situation, it would be almost impossible to resist finding out what you could possibly have stuck at the post office.

But we aren’t living in a normal situation. Thanks to COVID-19, we’re shipping and receiving more packages than ever. And with nationally reported postal slowdowns, a lot of those packages are stuck in shipping limbo for unusually long periods of time.

If YOUR experience of the past few months is anything like mine, you probably have 2, 3, 4…15 packages floating around in the postal network right now. And you’ve probably also lived the joy of seeing that “scheduled for delivery tomorrow” on the shipping tracker about five days past “tomorrow” with no kind of update.

So, if I was to receive this text? I wouldn’t be surprised. Not only do have no idea where some of my packages are right now, but in my late night quarantine boredom, I may have made one or two completely unnecessary purchases I no longer even remember.

…Okay, fine. It’s more than one or two. I admit it, I admit it.

Fortunately after writing so many of these blogs, I’m thoroughly convinced no one has ever sent me a legitimate text in the entire history of my owning a mobile device. I say “fortunately” because it’s an extremely convenient excuse to use when you want to ignore people.

No, I’m not ACTUALLY that paranoid yet. But I DO take text messages—and especially links in text messages—from people I don’t know very seriously. There are any number of things clicking a link can do to your device and your personal data if it’s coming from a ill-intentioned sender. It’s always good policy to do some web search homework when you receive a text message like this.

If you performed a quick web search after receiving THIS text, you’d find out pretty quickly this is another one of those risky links.

Officials are sending out a heavy word of warning to anyone who might receive a “missing package” text message.

Users clicking on the link are being navigated to phony Fed Ex and postal delivery login portals and possibly even unknowingly installing malware on their devices. This malware can lock you out of your device, steal the credentials to your email, bank apps, and other critical software, and pull sensitive data from your phone.

If you venture to log in to these fake postal delivery portals, you could also be directed to input vital personal information that could be used to steal your identity.

So, word to the wise: if you become one of the thousands of Americans who receive a text message telling you to visit a link to claim your “missing package?”

Do NOT click the link.

DO block the number and report the sender to the Federal Trade Commission.

The only “package” you’ll be missing by deleting this text message is one you DEFINITELY want to stay lost.

Scammers threaten Social Security recipients with prison

The one thing I will say in favor of Life in Quarantine is it does free up a lot of time.

When you don’t have too many places to go, you have a lot of open evenings and weekends. The past few months have been a great time to catch up on all the hobbies and projects I’ve been meaning to get around to.

Like, waxing the hardwood floors.

Reading all of the books I bought, but never touched after.

Money laundering.

Learning Italian.

Solo scherzando! My isolation hobbies don’t actually include any felonies. But, it would seem a criminal investigator at the United States Federal Government thinks they do—or at least, someone impersonating one:

This mildly threatening message is brought to you by my very own voicemail inbox.

Now, I can’t really speak for “my family,” which is also apparently being investigated (I can’t blame anyone for turning a suspicious eye toward those shifty individuals), but unless I’m entering the “committing financial crimes in one’s sleep” phase of quarantine, I’m not guilty of hiding any ill-gotten gains. I’d probably remember doing something like that if I did.

And if THAT was the case, I DEFINITELY wouldn’t be blasting my criminal warrant notice all over the internet.

There. Now that my name is sufficiently cleared…

This is just real life example of what awaits you in your voicemail box when you choose not to answer the phone for callers you don’t recognize. Or, if the caller spoofed a number in your area code, the robocall you would have received in real time if you had picked up the phone.

Admittedly, this is pretty tame version of the “you’ve committed a crime, so we’re going to need you to call back and give us all of your Social Security information” scam. They get much more colorful than simply accusing someone of money laundering. My personal favorite is the one where a “Social Security agent” calls you and tells you that your Social Security number has been linked to a rental agreement for an abandoned vehicle filled with cocaine and blood. We’ve gotta give that person at least a few points for style and flourish.

Whether the caller mentions your Social Security number, being attached to the Social Security Administration, or simply just accuses you of committing a crime without any specific nod to your Social Security, the end goal of these phishing calls is the same. Scam callers are getting a list of names and phone numbers, casting a wide net, and hoping they can scare someone enough to get them to call back. At that point, the caller will inevitably ask for your Social Security number along with as much identifying information as they can.

Once they have it, they will use it to steal your identity. If they can get your banking information out of you, they’ll skip right to the chase and help themselves directly to your bank accounts.

Lately, the setup for these scams have evolved to reflect the new pandemic-anxious environment we’re all living in. Scammers have taken advantage of those living in isolation, expecting calls from contract tracers, and looking for resources to stay safe during the pandemic by adapting their pitches to be more COVID-related.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve let go of their tried-and-true methods. Even at a time like this, nothing makes people more anxious and likely to pick up the phone than being accused of committing a federal crime.

To this I can only reiterate that you KNOW whether or not you’ve done something to get on the wrong side of the law. I mean, come on, money laundering? That’s not just something you do on accident while waiting for your toast to pop on a Tuesday morning.

If you aren’t hiding millions of dollars in offshore accounts or playing your local slots multiple times a week to clean your drug money (don’t get any funny ideas—I listen a LOT of true crime podcasts), it’s pretty safe to say you shouldn’t be taking any calls like this seriously.

And if that isn’t enough to make you feel better? I can’t stress enough that no law enforcement agency OR representative from the Social Security Administration is ever going to call you casually on the phone. That’s just not how it works. If you’re being accused of any severe wrongdoing, believe they’ll send someone to your house. At the very least, you’ll get a very serious-looking letter in the mail or something.

But a sloppy informal robot call? Not even a chance.

And bear in mind the reason the feds and the Social Security Administration can send you a letter is they know where you live already. These agencies would never need to call you on the phone and ask you for your name, your address, your Social Security Number, or any other identifying information. They have it.

So, as you’re sitting at home bored out of your skull waiting for someone—ANYONE—to call and provide you with some kind of social entertainment in quarantine right now, just remember to resist the urge to pick up for numbers you don’t know.

And if they leave you a voicemail as spooky as this one? Don’t be afraid to share it with us so we can have a good laugh.

How scam artists are using “contact tracing” to commit financial fraud

We’re willing to bet you’re probably not too familiar with the term “contact tracing.”

If you aren’t, that’s okay. It’s not some new lingo in digital scam world—in fact, it’s a legitimate practice and it has nothing to do with phone and internet fraud. We actually just learned about it, ourselves.

Contact tracing is a tactic used by healthcare workers to track and limit the spread of dangerous diseases. It’s been one of our most tried-and-true strategies for containing epidemics. Before we had other advanced medical tests and techniques, doctors and medical professionals used contact tracing to identify potential carriers of deadly illnesses and isolate them to prevent further infection. It’s actually a tool we’ve been using for centuries.

Once an illness has presented in a local area, contact tracers will interview the afflicted person to determine how many people they’ve been around during the time that they’ve been infected. When the tracers identify those who have a high likelihood of exposure, they’ll reach out to those individuals with instructions on how to seek treatment or isolate.

From there, contact tracers will repeat the process, mapping out a web of exposed people. This allows the area’s medical system to anticipate how serious an epidemic might be and work quickly to make sure the infection doesn’t spread farther than those exposed initially. Contact tracers are basically the detectives of the medical field.

Right now, healthcare workers are using the same tactics to contain those who have come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients. Until we have a vaccine, identifying and isolating Coronavirus carriers is all we can do to stop the infection from exploding.

To do this, healthcare workers will often reach out directly to those who have been named as potential carriers. Typically, this will be done by phone. The call might go something like, “hi, I’m So-and-So from Your City’s health department, and we have reason to believe you’ve been exposed to COVID-19.” During the course of the call, the healthcare worker will probably need to ask you some questions to verify your identity and give you medical instructions.

So why are we explaining a perfectly legitimate healthcare practice on a blog about scammers?

Well, after that last paragraph, you’ve probably guessed what the problem is, here.

The problem is scammers know about contact tracing and how medical professionals do it. They know that during a global pandemic it’s extremely plausible that any one of us could receive a call from the health department. And they also know that people who are terrified of contracting the virus will be quick to answer questions—personal questions—in order to get tested and treated.

Sadly, a very necessary healthcare strategy has now become the perfect setup for identity thieves and financial predators.

Local news stations from coast-to-coast are airing warnings to residents as this scam is popping up all over. The Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau have each issued official statements regarding bogus contact tracing calls and text messages.

This is a tough situation. We need to cooperate with our health departments so we can get to the end of this incredibly long, incredibly awful book and slam it shut. But how are we to know if the call we might receive is legitimate? Anyone can say they’re a contact tracer over the phone.

The first way to identify a fake caller is to ask yourself what a legitimate healthcare professional WOULDN’T do:

  • They’re NOT going to text you to tell you might have COVID-19. Can you imagine someone texting you to tell you that you’ve been exposed to a deadly virus? That would be like a cop texting you to tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended (okay, that one does happen, but it’s also a scam). A doctor or healthcare worker is definitely not going to break serious medical news to you by sliding casually into your text message inbox. That’s just absurd.
  • They’re NOT going ask you for your credit card details. Receiving a contact tracing call doesn’t cost anything and they don’t need your bank information to verify who you are. The point of the call is to tell someone they’ve been exposed and ask them to get tested and quarantine—not to get someone to pay for any kind of service. There is absolutely no reason they would ask for financial data.
  • They’re NOT going to ask about your Social Security or Medicare information. Again, this call has absolutely zero to do with your income, finances, or medical coverage. All of that is completely impertinent to the conversation.
  • They’re NOT going to ask you ANY details about your personal life EXCEPT those that involve how many people you’ve been around in a certain time frame, who they are, and what symptoms you may or may not be experiencing. That’s it. That’s all they care about.

Any alleged “contact tracer” doing any of these things (contacting you through unprofessional means, asking for bank information, asking for Social Security or Medicare information, and asking you for private personal details unrelated to the topic at hand) is a scammer. A contact tracing scammer will inevitably do one if not all of these things. That’s how they make their money.

But, a contact tracer DOES have to ask you some questions. They WILL ask for your name, it’s possible they could want you to verify your location, and they’ll assuredly ask for very light contact information for those you may have exposed. Especially with regards to handing out the names and numbers of people you know, you may not feel comfortable even doing that without some kind of reassurance.

Not only is that understandable, it’s entirely expected. Legitimate healthcare workers know we deal with scam calls every day. They know the wise will be uncomfortable sharing any information with an unknown caller.

That’s why it’s important to know it’s okay to refuse to give information before you have reasonable proof the caller is who they say they are. The health department gets it and they’ll respect your reserve.

They are able to send you a photograph of their identification badge if you ask. And they’ll also have no problem with you saying that you’d like to end the call, verify their organization’s phone number independently, and call back to request to speak with them. This is a very common and recommended way to verify the legitimacy of any caller claiming to be from a recognizable business or organization.

If the caller fights that request, pressures you to continue the call or answer questions, or insists that you call a number they provide you, it’s a good indication the caller is a fraud. Scammers are known to get very aggressive and threatening on calls when the victim isn’t cooperative.

Healthcare workers have no reason to pressure or scare you on the phone—in fact, it’s not legally required that you answer any of a contact tracer’s questions. Although, you definitely should. Providing information to contact tracers benefits all of us.

Also, keep in mind these scammers are like many others in that they’re spoofing the actual phone numbers of local health departments. Don’t solely rely on the validity of the number showing up in your caller ID to verify the caller. That number may be faked, too.

And DEFINITELY don’t click any links you might get sent in emails or text messages. Those will most likely lead to phishing sites or malware.

Like most of us, you probably won’t ever get chased down by a contact tracer. But, with Coronavirus showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, it’s always a possibility.

If you do end up receiving a call like this, just make sure you follow these rules and you’ll get all the information you need—without falling for someone’s gross phone scam.

Pet adoption scams spike as those in isolation seek to bring companions into the home

It’s easy to miss the feel-good headlines in this whirlwind we’re living in. But, if you haven’t heard, animal shelters across the nation are filling up…with empty cages.

Life in quarantine has many people feeling like now is the perfect time to bring a pet into the family. And why not? With so much time at home on our hands, it’s a great opportunity for a lot of people to acclimate and train a new puppy. It might also be the best thing for those who are socially isolating alone. New pets bring excitement, happiness, and exercise—just what most of us are lacking while we’re spending so much time stuck inside.

This has been a godsend for overcrowded animal shelters, and provided adopters know exactly what kind of commitment they’re taking on, it’s fantastic for the animals, too.

But it raises questions about a situation we haven’t yet discussed on this blog: pet adoption scams.

Pet adoption scams haven’t really been at the top of the list as far as the scams we’ve discussed. We typically take a look at the most prevalent scams targeting senior victims. This hasn’t been one of them.

Until now.

Seniors have always been a vulnerable group in terms of isolation and loneliness. Many seniors have limited social networks, are widows and widowers, and have children living too far to see regularly. This isolation makes them extremely susceptible to scams that weaponize loneliness, like dating scams.

Quarantine makes this situation all the worse. Whatever limited access isolated seniors had to social contact is gone. They can’t visit their local seniors center, they can’t go to church functions, and they can’t see their children and grandchildren. They have to settle for video calls and phone calls, and let’s face it—it’s just not the same sometimes.

Assuredly, many of those choosing to adopt a pet right now are these same seniors. We all have to have someone or something to make us feel like we aren’t alone. And for seniors, it’s even more important. Medical studies have established a link between loneliness and dementia.

With the increased interest in pet adoptions has come a huge uptick in pet adoption scam reports. Victims are being swindled out of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on bogus breeders, rescues, and rehomers for animals that don’t actually exist.

Coronavirus pandemic coincides with spike in online puppy scams

These scammers lift photos of animals off the internet, advertise them as their own, and ask for payment up-front, deposits, and all kinds of additional fees (shipping fees, vaccination and vet visit fees, registry fees, you name it). Then, after they receive as much money as they can, they ghost their victim completely, never to be heard from again.

Victims quickly find out that the contact information they have for the scammer is fake. There is almost no way to know how to get into contact with the seller or even report them for fraud.

To make matters worse, these scammers will almost always request payment via untraceable and nonrefundable means. Without knowing who the scammer really is or where they are, it’s virtually impossible to get your money back.

Luckily, this is an easy scam for any would-be pet parent to avoid. The red flags for an untrustworthy pet seller are huge and blindingly neon. As long as you know these people are out there, you can escape being victimized by following a few nonnegotiable rules:

Don’t buy from out-of-state breeders. This is just a good rule when looking for pets in general. Before buying a pet, you’ll want to see it in person to make sure it’s in good health, has a good temperament, and is coming from a good place. And if you can pick it up in person, it’s better for the animal than being shipped in a crate. It’s always a gamble to buy a pet sight unseen, so stick local when it comes to adopting.

Never pay in cash. This includes using cash transfer services like Western Union and gift cards. Reputable sellers and adoption services accept a variety of payment methods. Only scammers require you to use payment methods that can’t be traced or refunded. This is the BIGGEST red flag there is when it comes to any transaction.

Don’t trust “free” animal advertisements. Free animals are generally frowned upon in the adoption community. It costs a lot of money to feed, clean, doctor, and raise an animal correctly—that’s why breeders and adoption agencies ask for payment. Free animals typically don’t come from the best circumstances. You know that saying about looking gift horses in the mouth? Those free kittens up for grabs on Craigslist are likely malnourished, riddled with parasites, and have respiratory infections that will cost you serious money. Beyond that, scammers often lure victims with promises of a “free” animal only to request a ton of surprise fees for various shipping and insurance costs.

Do your homework. Like anything else, you need to spend some time looking up everything you can on a seller. Search their name, their phone number, their address—anything you can to see what comes up. If what you find doesn’t match what you were expecting, don’t trust the seller. You can also use pet scam reporting sites to see if you can find your seller’s information.

Ask to see the receipts. Have the seller prove the animal exists and is in their possession by providing vet bills, vaccination records, breed certification, or any applicable state or pedigree paperwork you can think of. A reputable seller will have no problem providing any of this. If the seller gives you excuses, walk away.

Reverse image search. If you don’t know how to do this, this is your first line of defense in sussing out a scammer. A lot of scammers steal images off of other websites and social media profiles in order to run their rackets. You can quickly find out if an image is stolen by performing a reverse image search to see if that exact image exists anywhere else on the internet. The most popular way to do this is with Google Image Search, but there are a variety of services that are more comprehensive. Use this technique to see if the photos of your animal are stolen from elsewhere on the internet.

Half of all seniors contacted by scam callers in 2019

Transaction Network Service, a company that supplies data and networking services to payment and financial organizations, has released a survey finding half of American seniors were targeted by roboscammers and scam calls last year.

According to their results, seniors are still a leading targeted group, with 53% of respondents reporting they believed they’d received a call with the intent to gain their personal information, and 47% confirming they were targeted by scammers.

Eighty-nine percent of these seniors also reported receiving at least one robocall per week. And 56% reported receiving as many as SEVEN calls every single week.

Through their survey, TNS concludes that 106 BILLION of these calls were made in 2019.

To make matters worse, they also found that despite a huge rise in medical and healthcare-related scam calls—those most likely to ensnare seniors—nearly a quarter of seniors surveyed weren’t provided any kind of education or literature by their healthcare providers about avoiding these calls. And two-thirds of seniors have no awareness about any programs made available by their phone carriers to intercept and block unsafe calls.

The Federal Trade Commission says it refunded $232 million last year to people who reported losing money to scam-calling creeps. Around 1.9 million people cashed those refund checks. That’s about $122 per person.

But these are just the victims whose scammers were reported and caught. The real number of victims and their financial losses is much, much higher.

The results of this survey has three vital takeaways for seniors:

  • The scam call epidemic is only getting worse. And it’s extremely difficult to impossible to catch the people who do it. Follow our guidelines for protecting yourself and your personal information, and above all: do not pick up any number you don’t recognize.
  • Reporting MATTERS. Reporting these suspected scam calls is the only way the government can hope to track these scammers down. Make sure you contact the FTC to report any suspicious calls or voicemails you may receive.
  • Education is the key to protecting yourself and your loved ones. Ask your phone service provider if they have any tools available to help you prevent these kinds of calls from reaching your device. You may also be able to locate an app or third party service that will block these calls, too. In the case of medical scam calls, ask your primary care physician or health insurance provider if they have any information or guidelines for you regarding scam healthcare calls.

Be aware of these growing COVID-19 scams

Last week we talked a little bit about scammers’ quick moves to exploit upcoming Economic Impact Payments. Impersonating government employees representing legitimate federal agencies, scam artists are preying on anxious Americans waiting for financial relief.

But this stimulus scam wasn’t the first COVID-19-related strategy used to rook vulnerable victims. Scammers have seen the opportunities in this disaster since the very start. The seemingly endless amount of angles they can take can make spotting the the fake offers and appeals extremely difficult—especially when so many legitimate organizations and businesses are reaching out to the public, too.

We’re not trying to be funny when we say these scams have gone completely viral. In the same way this illness has run rampant, dominating the global conversation, these scams have taken over in place of the usual phishing and sales scams we see every day. Right now, it’s all about using pandemic fears to drain as many victims as possible. And unfortunately, it’s very lucrative.

As we said, it’s not just the stimulus confusion scammers are using. In fact, it may be that while we’re all on the lookout for IRS, SSA, and Treasury fraudsters, we’re more susceptible to the ones using more subtle or unexpected tactics to separate us from our cash:

Snake Oil Salesmen

Let’s face it: there is no cure for Coronavirus—at least not yet, anyway. And in all likelihood, there will never be one. Most viruses haven’t been and can’t be “cured.”

Viruses are not bacteria, a living organism we can attack with antibiotics and kill. Viruses are tricky. They’re an entity that embeds itself into our cells and uses our normal cell functions against us. The only thing that can “cure” a sickness in this case is our own immune system. We can support our bodies in that fight by vaccinating, using antivirals, and treating the life-threatening symptoms of the illness, but as for “curing” it? We’ve still got a long path ahead.

We say this to shine some light on the “I have the cure!” scammers. Even if it was possible for someone to miraculously produce a true-blue viral cure in a matter of months, it would absolutely swallow the headlines—not just because there was a real cure to COVID-19, but because it would be an extraordinary thing for anyone to develop a drug that zapped any virus in the way scammers claim.

Medical researchers all over the world are working day and night to develop therapies to stop this thing. But the best medical minds in the world have only just initiated human clinical trials on a vaccine. Proving the efficacy and safety of the vaccine may still take well over a year. The day a vaccine proves out, we’ll know about it—and not because some jerk crept into our email inbox to get us to buy it.

The bottom line is this: anyone contacting you claiming to have a cure, vaccine, or treatment for Coronavirus is lying at best. At worst? They may be selling people completely unfounded, unstudied, and baseless snake oil concoctions that could be extremely dangerous. Ignore 100% of these claims and these people.

Fake Virus Testing

Spring has sprung, and with it, all of the sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and respiratory woes allergy sufferers endure every year. But this time, it’s different. Is it hay fever? Is it the dreaded Spring cold? Is my asthma being aggravated? Or did I touch my face when I shouldn’t have?

This is a really, really bad time to have pollen sensitivities. People who would ordinarily wave away the sniffles will be coming down with a bad case of the “But What Ifs.” And this isn’t a great time for anyone to be visiting their doctors or hospitals if they aren’t certain they need assistance.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just visit a testing station or order a COVID-19 test kit through the mail? If only for the peace of mind?

It would. That’s why scammers thought of it, too.

Fake testing sites and testing-by-mail scams are popping up all over the country. Investigators in Kentucky are rooting out bogus drive-thru testing sites. In Virginia, phone impostors are directing residents to fraudulent testing facilities. Customs officers in Los Angeles seized a significant amount of counterfeit testing kits at LAX.

These tests are being offered to the public for ludicrous amounts of money and do absolutely nothing to detect the virus. They may even put victims at risk for identity theft should they be asked to pay with a credit card or show identification.

Trust absolutely no COVID-19 test without speaking to your primary care physician first. While there are legitimate drive-thru testing sites in many states, you should always, always, always consult your doctor before taking any kind of medical action. Doing so will ensure you’re taking a legitimate test, and it will keep everyone off of the streets seeking tests they may not need. Do only what your doctor thinks is best.

Protective Gear Scams

The CDC now recommends we all use masks when going into public. More and more people are opting to wear latex gloves to touch cart handles in the grocery store. The demand for protective gear is high, but weeks into our nationwide epidemic there are very few of these items available.

Scammers are taking advantage of this shortage to either price gouge customers or take their money and run. In some cases, scammers are impersonating legitimate medical supply companies to take orders for trusted equipment only to disappear when the payment goes through. If the promised product even arrives, it may be counterfeit.

To make matters worse, these scammers may also be using their bogus online stores to steal customers’ payment and personal information.

To suss out phishing websites, check out our recommendations right here. And if the site you’re looking at is brand new to you, be very wary. When so many retail giants, like Amazon, don’t have any masks available, why would some little retailer you’ve never heard of have an abundance? Be sure to investigate the history of the site and see if you can find any online reviews for it.

Spotting scam sellers from real sellers—especially on sites like Amazon with individual sellers—can be difficult. Our only recommendation here would be to avoid sites like this entirely. Only trust reputable dealers’ websites.

And if a seller is offering masks for exorbitant prices, don’t purchase them. Even if the product is real (and unreasonable pricing is a good indication it’s not), we shouldn’t be buying from carpetbaggers whose practices have had a large hand in the mask shortages we’re seeing now. Many of these sellers bought these materials in bulk for the purpose of reselling at much higher prices once demand was up and supply was down.

The good news is most of us regular people don’t need a surgical quality mask. We SHOULD all be staying home as much as possible. But for essential trips in public, the CDC has recommended cloth protective masks we can all make at home with materials we have on-hand. Don’t risk losing to a scammer—make your mask at home and save your money.

Social Security Suspension

Our buddy, our pal. For several years, the Social Security benefit scam has undoubtedly been the biggest money-maker for scammers, so it’s no surprise they’ve adapted it for the Year of the Coronavirus.

We’ve talked about how this scam works a lot, so we’ll keep this one brief:

This virus situation has absolutely no bearing on whether or not you receive your benefits. And that goes for Medicare, too. Employees from these agencies rarely reach out to people by phone, so you should be suspicious anyway. But if they’re discussing your benefits and coverage in any context relating to Coronavirus? Hang up.

Fake Charities

There are so many selfless people and organizations doing what they can to provide relief during quarantine. Whether it’s a nonprofit or an individual crowd-sourcing donations for those having a hard time getting by right now, these are people genuinely using their fundraising talents for the common good. A lot of people would be desperately in need without them.

But it takes an amateur level of know-how and maybe a couple hours of work to start a peer-to-peer fundraiser or build a website. With a little more skill, you can have professional logos, letterhead, contact forms, and even a functioning phone number. As long as your victims don’t think to investigate the person they’re giving money to, it is disturbingly easy to materialize a charity out of thin air and start raking in cash.

We all want to feel like we’re pulling our weight and doing what we can to help others. Most of us are limited in our capacity to meaningfully help in this situation. We will try to use our wallets to help healthcare workers needing supplies or those in financial trouble due to job loss. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But do be incredibly critical of anyone asking you for money for their COVID-19 fundraisers. Dig up any information you can about their history and nonprofit registration status in your state. And don’t let anyone aggressively pressure you into giving them money on the spot. If you aren’t sure? Don’t give.

Home Buglaries

This is probably the scariest con to come out of the pandemic. It seems like a horror movie setup, but cases have been confirmed in Illinois, Ohio, and Florida: criminals are dressing up like healthcare workers, gaining access to homes, and robbing the occupants.

Thieves, posing as CDC or Red Cross representatives in lab coats and masks, go door-to-door claiming to need to give vital healthcare information. Once inside, these “CDC” workers either burglarize the home by force or use distraction techniques to steal right under the noses of victims.

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about this one. Don’t let people you don’t know into your home. In no state are legitimate medical professionals going door-to-door to tell anyone anything. This scam has the potential to escalate into a far more dangerous situation than a simple robbery. It doesn’t matter what these people say. If the person on the other side of the peephole looks like they’re trying too hard to look like a doctor? Don’t even open the door.

Right now, Coronavirus scams are everywhere. All we can say is be very mindful of any transaction or communication you have regarding this pandemic. These scams are using all methods of communication and contact and their setups are pretty diverse.

We can’t stress enough how important it is to report any and all interactions you suspect are unscrupulous. We are all very vulnerable to predators in this environment. Every scam reported is a victim who might be saved from a grift or something much worse.

The FTC and FBI are working with the public to handle COVID-19 scammers, but they need us all to make the reports so they can chase these people down.

Be on the lookout for COVID-19 stimulus scammers

At this point we can safely say there’s no limit to the situations these people will exploit to make a buck.

With the announcement and passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Safety Act (CARES) Act, it was only a matter of time before financial predators launched their newest attack on the public: tricking Americans waiting for their rebate checks out of their personal information.

While the CARES Act is a comprehensive stimulus package, the provision of most concern to the American public is that which issues every citizen a direct relief payment. In an effort to bring some measure of security to those affected by lay-offs, furloughs, and closures, the CARES Act directs the Treasury to issue all Americans with a Social Security number a $1,200 payment (the actual amount will vary depending on income and dependents).

In the chaos of this bill’s rapid-speed passage, a dizzying news cycle, and the general confusion of our new normal, a lot of people have no idea when or how these payments will be made. Those who have filed 2018 or 2019 tax returns understand their checks will be automatically issued by the IRS based on their last return.

But what about those who DON’T file tax returns? This group is largely—if not mostly—composed of seniors and retirees. These are people who don’t make enough income in a year to need to file tax returns.

By now we know this group will need to file some kind of abbreviated return for which they will receive a Form 1099 from the IRS. The Social Security Administration and IRS have been directed by the CARES Act to engage in a public outreach campaign to get this information and filing instructions to the general public.

Unfortunately, it takes time for federal agencies to really get public outreach programs going. And in that time scammers have proven yet again they are far faster than the federal government at reaching everyday citizens.

Pivoting from their usual Social Security racket, scammers are now using their tried-and-true SSA impersonation strategies on those waiting for their stimulus checks.

In just a matter of days scammers have already come up with half a dozen ways to use imminent stimulus payments to talk victims out of their identities:

  • Mailing fake stimulus checks (“Please go to X website or call Y number to confirm your identity and that you’ve received your payment.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for verification of personal details (“Please verify your identity so we can send you your check.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for credit card information (“You will need to pay a small processing fee so we can send you your payment.”)
  • Scam calls, social media messages, and emails asking for your Social Security number (“We will need your SSN so we can deposit your payment.”)

While the method of contact and the reasoning behind the contact will vary, the end goal will be the same in all cases: someone is trying to get your name, address, birth date, credit card information, or Social Security number in order to steal your identity.

This is the exact same scam as the Social Security Administration scam. The person who contacts you will most likely try to fraudulently impersonate an employee or representative of the SSA or IRS. In the case of calls, they may try to spoof a legitimate SSA office number. In the case of direct messages, emails, or mailers, they may use the actual logos and branding materials of the SSA or IRS to make you think the communication is legitimate.

However these scammers attempt to ensnare you in the coming weeks, we recommend that you follow our guidelines in sniffing out any Social Security benefit scammer to protect yourself:

  • Above all, know that these relief payments DO NOT REQUIRE ANY KIND OF PAYMENT ON YOUR PART. This is a service being done by the Treasury to Americans in need. Think about it: what kind of sense does it make to mail financial relief payments to people and ask for payment in order to receive them? It doesn’t. Do not fall for this nonsense.
  • The SSA and the IRS already knows who you are. They have your SSN. They have your name. They have your address. It’s the Social Security Administration for crying out loud—why would the SSA need you to verify your SSN?
  • Even if these agencies would need you to verify certain details, they have said time and time again that they will NOT contact you by phone, email, or direct message to ask for them. As it pertains to the SSA, it will only call you if you have previously scheduled a phone appointment with them. Federal agencies simply DO NOT do business this way—especially when it comes to passing extremely sensitive information back and forth.
  • Scammers rely on the timidity, openness, and trusting nature of their victims to pull these schemes off. No matter how intimidating, convincing, or aggressive these people may get, you never have to fork your information over blind. You have the right to verify who you are talking to before you give anyone your information. If there is any question in your mind whatsoever, hang up or ignore the mailer or digital contact and call the SSA or the IRS to confirm the validity of the contact. Don’t give anyone your bank or Social Security information without contacting these agencies directly.
  • Trust no websites any emails or direct messages may send you to. Trust no phone number a “Social Security representative” may call you from. These are widely and easily faked.

If you receive contact like this over the coming days, we strongly encourage you to help others by doing what you can to put a stop to these vultures.

The Treasury is directing Americans to use the FBI’s online complaint portal to report any communication you receive that you suspect is from a stimulus scammer.

The FTC has also set up a direct link to their scam complaint system for further reporting on COVID-19-related scams (this could also be used to report scams having to do with “miracle” cures and Coronavirus testing or medical equipment—sadly, these are also happening).

Please share these reporting resources with your friends and family. All financial predation is vile, but under our current circumstances, these scams are particularly disgusting. These scammers are taking advantage of those who, by no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. They are spitting in the faces of hundreds of thousands of people who are sick or mourning the loss of loved ones, and millions more who are terrified they’ll end up in the same situation.

These scammers belong in jail. Report them.

Fun with Social Security scammers!

With all of the depressing things going on in the world, it’s always important to take some time out and enjoy the simple pleasures of life…

…like listening to a Social Security scammer get a big bitter taste of his own medicine.

Phone scams and the number of phone scam victims is rising every year.  Thanks in large part to the “Social Security suspension” scam, thieves are pocketing millions of dollars cold-calling victims and threatening them into forking over their Social Security numbers.

But as this scam slowly touches every landline and cell phone in the United States, people are learning to play defense and ask questions before handing out personal information.

…They’re also learning how much fun it can be to waste scammers’ time, make them angry, and post the results on YouTube to give the rest of us some laughs.

To be clear, we don’t recommend ANYONE attempt to provoke or play around with a phone scammer.  When it comes to your safety, the best option is to hang up the phone, block the number, and report the call to the proper authorities.

However, this being the season of joy and merriment, we’d be remiss NOT to take a few minutes and warm our spirits to the soothing sounds of a scammer being scammed.  And then getting really, really mad about it.

Okay, so maybe chuckling about someone else’s frustrations doesn’t exactly line up with the “reason for the season,” but, hey.   Given the amount of damage these people cause, we’re not going to feel too bad about it.

Enjoy the laughs!