The Seniors Center has written extensively about Guardianship-for-Profit. For More Information, read:
In November 2009, my then very independent 88-year-old mother who lived alone in a suburb in another state 1000 miles away, called and said she needed me. I flew there immediately. Two days later, she fell and broke her hip and clavicle. She spent days in the hospital and weeks at a rehab facility. My sister joined us. We talked to her family doctor and it became clear that Mom couldn’t live alone anymore, shouldn’t be driving, and had early signs of dementia. She had been managing because she had lived there for so long, her family doctor said she was on “auto pilot.”
Because she had a Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate Designation, Living Will and HIPAA Release, we contacted her attorney to activate them so we could take care of her healthcare needs and finances. We decided to move her to an assisted living facility near my sister’s house, and I soon moved close by. She is 97 now, in a memory care unit and uses a wheelchair but is in good health for her age.
I can only imagine if this had happened and she hadn’t planned on how she wanted us to deal with a situation like this. Anyone who observed her on a more regular basis might have seen that she was in the early state of dementia and taken advantage of the situation by trying to obtain guardianship and wiping her out.
The Seniors Center began exposing the Guardianship-for-Profit Business in February, shortly after The New Yorker published an article about senior citizens whose lives were devastated by for-profit “guardians.” In April, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held hearings on Guardianship Abuse.
What is Guardianship?
Guardianship is where someone petitions the court, alleges that a person is “incapacitated”, or incapable of taking care of himself, and asks the court to appoint him or a third party to take care of the incapacitated person (ward’s) medical and financial affairs. Usually equity or probate courts, which operate under very different rules from criminal courts, oversee this process. There are no fixed definitions of what constitutes “incapacity”, which varies from state to state and can be determined by people who may not be physicians, or committees who collude with each other to come up with a report.
According to Dr. Sam Sugar, author of “Guardianships and the Elderly – The Perfect Crime”, nine common scenarios trigger taking elderly people into guardianships:
- A dispute in the family over taking care of an elderly parent or fear that a sibling or child may have undue influence and try to steal from the parent
- Concern for the dissipation of a parent’s money by a new person in his/her life
- A weapon by an angry spouse
- A family’s honest attempt to get help for a loved one
- A non-family member recognizing the need for assistance
- Intervention of financial institutions who call Adult Financial Protection institutions because of suspected fraud
- Intervention of medical institutions who see vulnerability or abuse
- Family members fearing the loss of their inheritance
- Law enforcement intervention, especially for drug and alcohol abuse.
Richard Black, director of Americans Against Probate Guardianship, tells the story of his father-in-law, Del Mencarelli, who was a victim of a longtime family friend. The friend defrauded his father-in-law out of $1 million and cost Black’s family $400,000 to gain control of Mencarelli and his estate, but in the middle of the court battle, Mencarelli died of neglect. According to Black, families spend an average of 4500,000 fighting these guardianships.
Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, a 95-year-old widower who had a $50+ million estate, was a victim of financial abuse. An LA Court had to issue a temporary restraining order against a man who claimed to be Lee’s caregiver. You can read about other examples here: https://stopguardianabuse.org/victims/
Courts are supposed to monitor guardianships and grant them only to non-family members if there is no family member available to take care of the elderly person, but things don’t always happen that way. In 43% of the cases, guardians failed to meet all court-mandated reporting obligations, including obtaining bonds, filing an inventory of assets in the estate or annual accounting of transactions. According to a recent article in Reuters and the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse, “the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified hundreds of abuse, neglect, and exploitation by guardians in 45 states and the District of Columbia between 1990 and 2010. The GAO reviewed 20 cases and found that guardians had stolen or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million from 158 incapacitated victims, mostly older adults.”
An abusive industry has even arisen where professional, for-profit guardians are appointed by courts, which gives them absolute control over someone’s rights, including living conditions and healthcare. Guardians can transfer the elder’s financial assets, estate, and personal property even if they are in a trust, into their own names. They can limit family members from speaking to or seeing their “wards”. They can charge the estate an hourly rate to grocery shop, make phone calls, open mail or arrange family visits. The judges and lawyers who oversee this process also profit from it and are susceptible to corruption, biases and influence. If the ward dies, guardians can run up huge fees by presenting bills for services, pushing papers and filing motions.
What is Being Done to Fix This?
On April 18, 2018, the Senate Aging Committee recommended enacting state laws to provide less restrictive arrangements than guardianship, such as assisted decision making, for seniors and others with disabilities, requiring telling the individual under care and family members that a guardian has been appointed, what the guardian’s responsibilities are and how to report guardian abuse, and mandating guardians tell the courts when people under their care have become able again to make their own decisions.
Individual states and municipalities are acting to protect elderly people from abuse, including financial and guardianship abuse, with task forces, elder courts, elder justice centers, and training members of the judicial system on elder abuse. In 2010, 10 National Guardianship Network (NGN) networks met at the Third National Guardianship Summit and one of the recommendations called for Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) to implement the summit recommendations.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Loved One from Guardianship Abuse?
Have a family meeting to discuss how to best protect your loved ones. If they don’t have financial and healthcare powers of attorney, consult an attorney to draft the documents. It is recommended that several people in the family be granted powers of attorney to ensure that if your loved ones become incapacitated, the person(s) they designate can make decisions for them. Keep on top of things and intervene early, because even if elders have advanced directives, wills, durable powers of attorney or trusts, if someone obtains guardianship over them, it can nullify them.
Monitor who your elders are talking to or who is helping them, especially if you do not live nearby. Unsuspecting, lonely elders who may be in frail health may let neighbors, service providers, caregivers or even complete strangers take advantage of them. If they live alone, make daily check-in calls and ask neighbors or friends to check on them. If they suddenly acquire new “friends”, check them out. If a family member is suddenly spending a lot of time with your elderly relative, find out what is going on. It may be someone with a substance abuse or financial problem looking for an easy mark. If this happens, the elder either might not realize what is going on, or report a problem out of embarrassment or fear. Only 1 in 44 cases of elder financial fraud are reported. If you suspect that it is happening to a loved one, report it to the authorities.
PHOTO CREDIT FOR THE FIRST PHOTO: lauramusikanski @ morguefile.com
I struggle to keep up with technology. It seems like I was just getting into Facebook when people started talking about Twitter. And by the time I figured out what Twitter was all about, my kids were talking about Snapchat.
Modern technology is doing a lot to make our lives so much better. Who could have imagined a few years ago that I’d be able to type something right here at my kitchen counter and that a few minutes later, you’d be able to read it?
Sadly all of this new technology makes it a lot easier for conmen, thieves, and scammers to get ahold of our hard earned cash. Watch the video above to hear about one of the latest scams targeting older people.
Cases of fraud, scams, cons are on the rise. Technological inventions and advancements are giving thieves and conmen new ways of getting people to part with our hard-earned money. Money can be wired electronically and so it is easy for thieves, fraudsters and conmen to pose as legit people whom you should make out a payment to. It is even sad that these people whose main aim is to take what does not belong to them, target the elderly people in the community. This is mostly because they so many older people are vulnerable, lonely, insecure and sometimes unfamiliar with new technologies.
That is why The Seniors Center created this blog: to search for constructive solutions to the most critical issues facing America’s senior citizens. Through TheSeniorsCenter.blog, we offer educational programs about scams, frauds, and cons targeting senior citizens — and the best ways to avoid becoming victims.
How to Prevent elder Fraud
There are a number if ways in which older people can avoid falling into the hands of fraudsters, conmen and thieves.
- Avoid giving out Information or money based on an email.
Phishing emails is a common thing where someone sends emails randomly and those that reply back become victims of fraud, or scams. They draft messages and disguise them to look like they are from a genuine site. They then demand to be paid money maybe as a bill or for some other use. Before sending money to anyone just confirm the information received on mail with a phone call or any other form of communication for authenticity.
- If possible seek the services of a trusted Financial advisor
As we age, our memory suffers and new technologies come forth. This definitely affects our financial decisions and most fraudsters count on that for their plans to succeed. That way if you need to make an unauthenticated payment, the financial advisor can easily check out for the red flags. Take it as a double security check to protect you.
- Always authenticate information received on phone before sending money
Unless it is someone you know and trust, you should always countercheck and ensure that the person on phone is who they say they are.
- Prepare necessary legal documents in advance
Some of the most important documents include power of attorney, which appoints someone or some people who will act on your behalf when need arises. It will be hard for any fraudster, conman or even thief to successfully get his way through these people as appointed by you.
While only 35 percent of American population is over 50, 57% of all fraud is fraud victims are 50 or older. This shows that older Americans are the most vulnerable hence targeted by fraudsters, creating awareness is the best way of combating this statistic.
You may have seen ads on tv where some former tv star is selling reverse mortgages as an easy way for seniors to get extra cash by using the equity in their home. Before you grab your phone and call the number on the screen, you should know what you are getting yourself into, whether it is a good idea for you and if someone is trying to scam you.
The Seniors Center has created this guide to help retired people make their best decisions about reverse mortgages. Make sure to click the links at the bottom of this article for even more information.
What is a Reverse Mortgage?
A reverse mortgage is a type of home equity loan for older homeowners. Unlike a traditional mortgage where you make monthly payments until it is paid off and you end up owning the property free and clear, with a reverse mortgage, you take out a loan on
the equity of your property and the lender pays you. The money you get is usually tax free and you don’t have to pay the money back as long as you live in your home. If you die, sell the home or move out, you, your spouse (unless he/she is on the mortgage), or your estate must repay the loan, which might mean selling the house. The money can be used to pay medical bills, pay down an existing mortgage, for added income or for a costly repair.
Types of Reverse Mortgages
- Single-purpose reverse mortgages – Are offered by some state and local governmental agencies and some non-profit organizations and must be used for a specific purpose, such as to pay taxes or for home improvements, as specified by the lender. It is the least expensive option.
- Proprietary reverse mortgages – Are backed by the company that offers it. This is a good option if you have a very high appraised value and a small or no mortgage because you may qualify for more funds.
- Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs) – are federally-insured and backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They may be used for any purpose.
Proprietary and HECM reverse mortgages are expensive and there are high upfront costs. How much you can borrow will depend on the type of reverse mortgage you choose, your age, the appraised value of your home, current interest rates and a financial assessment of your ability to pay property taxes and homeowner’s insurance (including flood insurance if you are in a flood zone). You must also maintain your property and pay utility bills and HOA dues, if applicable.
You can elect to get a single disbursement (if you have a fixed rate loan), fixed monthly cash advances for as long as you live in your home, fixed monthly cash advances for a specified time, a line of credit you can draw on or a combination of monthly payments and a line of credit.
Typically, you can take up to 60% of the limit in the first year and there are limits thereafter depending on how much you owe on an existing mortgage. How much you can borrow depends on your age, the value of the home, the interest rate and the lesser of appraised value or the HECM FHA mortgage limit of $679,650.
Qualifications for a Reverse Mortgage
- The youngest borrower must be 62 or older
- You must own your home outright or have a small mortgage and it must be your primary residence.
- You must not be delinquent on any federal debts or property taxes or hazard premiums.
- You must pass a credit check and lenders will evaluate your income, assets and monthly living expenses.
- Your home must meet FHA property standards and flood requirements.
- You can’t owe more than the value of your home regardless of how much you borrow and if the balance is less than the value of your home at the time of repayment, you or your heirs keep the difference.
- If you are married but your spouse is not on a HECM, and you die or move out permanently, your spouse can stay in your home as long as he/she is listed in the HECM documents as your spouse. Your spouse will not get any of the proceeds, however, and must maintain the home, pay taxes and insurance as long as he/she stays in the home.
- If you are in the hospital or a rehab center for longer than 12 months, the loan will become due and payable, which could result in foreclosure, as can defaulting on property charges, property taxes, maintaining property insurance, HOA fees, etc.
- If you are the heir to the estate and the last surviving parent dies, you assume responsibility for the future of the reverse mortgage. You may sell the home or purchase it for 95% of its appraised value.
Costs of a Reverse Mortgage
- The homeowner pays the cost of having the home appraised.
- Closing costs are higher than for a conventional mortgage and are based upon your home’s value.
- There are origination fees (which can be costly), mortgage insurance premiums, third party costs for title search, inspections, recording fees, mortgage taxes and servicing fees.
- As you get money over time, interest is added to the balance you owe each month, and this can add up.
- Unless you have a fixed rate variable reverse mortgage, the rates are tied to a financial index and the market and can go up. Interest rates are usually higher than for a traditional mortgage.
- Reverse mortgages can use up the equity in your home and you may have little to leave your heirs.
Reverse Mortgage Scams
Unscrupulous salespeople who are trying to sell you home improvements or tell you that you need a new roof or a repair you cannot afford, or your homeowner’s insurance won’t cover it, might suggest a reverse mortgage.
Some reverse mortgage salespeople try to induce you to take one out in order to buy an annuity or long-term care insurance, even though, in some cases, it is illegal to require you to purchase products in order to get a reverse mortgage.
Sometimes, a financial planner or investment advisor tries to convince seniors to buy financial products they don’t need and to take out a reverse mortgage to pay for them, or someone who has your power of attorney might take one out in your name and then divert the proceeds.
Unscrupulous realtors convince seniors to take out a “HECM for purchase” so they can buy a lower-cost home without having to put money down, and then divert the proceeds.
If you think you have been scammed or have second thoughts, you have at lease three business days after the closing tocancel the deal for any reason without penalty.
A reverse mortgage may be a good option for you, but you need to do your homework. Learn the facts. Good online resources are www.reversemortgage.org, www.hud.gov, and https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0192-reverse-mortgages.
Last week, the Federal Trade Commission released an official statement regarding reports of a new phone scam telling targets their Social Security number has been “suspended.”
The caller, impersonating a government official, attempts to trick call recipients into giving up personal information, saying due to some kind of fraud their SSN will need to be reactivated.
In order to reactivate, the caller will press their victim into the classic account “verification” process with which we’ve become so familiar: asking for a ton of sensitive personal details the scammer can use later to steal their victim’s identity.
The key to avoiding this scam is understanding there’s no such thing as Social Security number suspension. Neither the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, nor any other federal entity with which a scammer might claim to be associated will EVER suspend a Social Security number. That’s just not how SSNs work.
No matter what a caller might say to you to intimidate you, if you hear that your SSN is suspended, the scam should be dead in the water.
This one is absolute baloney.
As with any sketchy phone call asking you for personal information like your name, address, bank information, Social Security information, or the names of those close to you, hang up the phone immediately.
Don’t attempt to speak to, argue with, or insult the caller (not only are you giving them more opportunity to manipulate you, but also some phone scammers are known to record your voice so they can use it to authorize charges and changes to your accounts). Just hang up.
In 2008, Tony Marshall was convicted on 14 counts of theft, grand larceny, and conspiracy relating to the financial exploitation of his own mother, Brooke Astor, widow of William Vincent Astor, president of the Vincent Astor Foundation, and legendary patroness of New York City.
Upon her marriage to Vincent in 1953, Brooke readily engaged in the family tradition that has made “Astor” a household name for over a century: funneling their massive real estate fortune into charitable organizations, honorable causes, and arts and education projects all over their hometown of NYC.
Vincent and Brooke, in particular, gave astounding amounts of money away. Through the Vincent Astor Foundation, Brooke made grants to the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rockefeller University, Cornell University Medical College, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
After Vincent’s death, Brooke continued on to forge a reputation as New York’s undisputed queen of philanthropy. In 1996, New York Landmarks Conservancy declared her a “living landmark” for her contributions to the city.
But nearing her 100th birthday, Brooke’s health began to deteriorate. Despite being in excellent physical health for most of her life, Alzheimer’s Disease started her down an undeniable path of mental decline, opening a door to her son, his wife, and their associates to prey on her wealth through guardianship.
While Brooke struggled to recall what happened from one day to the next, Tony exploited his mother to the tune of $14 million. He made outrageous charges to her account, sold incredibly valuable pieces of art in her personal collection, altered her will to inherit her estate, and even persuaded her to give him a beloved property (which he then billed her to maintain). Several of these maneuvers broke bequests she had made to leave her assets with charities.
Though Marshall eventually paid the price for his crimes in court, the Brooke Astor case remains America’s most publicized senior guardianship abuse case.
After years of abysmal turnout numbers in many places, several states boasted record-setting primary election turnout numbers. Coloradoans cast 100,000 more primary votes than their previous 2010 record, Idahoans saw their highest primary turnout in 16 years, and Iowans and Montanans busted their absentee ballot records.
If the results of this summer’s primary races are an indicator of what’s to come in November, the 2018 midterm elections could be some of the most impactful in recent memory.
Even well before the primaries–since the presidential election in fact–political leaders and pundits have acknowledged the 2018 midterms as being potentially game-changing. Both parties as well as independent advocacy groups are calling on voters to step up this fall–and calling on eligible voters to get registered.
By all means, if you are not registered to vote, do so as soon as you can. Voter turnout is an incredibly important thing–the more citizens that show up, the more election results will truly reflect the desires of the country. Plus, you won’t have to worry about 325 million strangers making all of your decisions for you.
But if you’re planning to vote, be mindful of how you register. Though it may not get talked about as much, election time can be as much of a feeding frenzy for scam artists as Christmas. And with a likely contentious election on the horizon, they may be counting on a large influx of new voters to line their pockets this year.
Voter registration scams are nothing new. The goal can be either to bilk you out of cash or steal your identity. Perhaps both.
In either case, in the weeks and months leading up to a crucial election, someone may contact you claiming to work with a nonprofit, a political party, or campaign focused on getting non-voters registered prior to the election. Usually this person will contact you via phone or email, but it’s possible they could be posing as a door-to-door representative.
It’s the same scam we’ve written about a dozen times. This person is going to pitch you a plausible narrative and ask you to provide all of the personal information they’ll need to steal your identity or your money. They may even ask you for a small payment for their assistance.
But this one is tricky compared to the others. For one, like we said, warnings aren’t widely circulated the way they are at Christmas time. For another, there really are a lot of actual, safe organizations encouraging people to register before an important election.
And for a third, as far as narratives go, this one sounds extremely legit. For someone registering to vote for the first time in their state, either because they’ve never been registered before or they’ve recently moved, they might not be familiar with the registry process where they live–just that it requires a fair amount of personal information to register.
To be fair, a lot of what someone would need to ask you to steal your identity IS what you’d need to prove your identity on a voter registration form: full name, date of birth, address, to name a few.
A “Social Security specialist” calling you asking for your SSN to sign you up for some new service might throw you (especially as the SSA will NEVER call you and ask you that–they already have your SSN), but a kind soul trying to sign you up to vote before a big election? They might need that information to verify you.
So what do you do if someone contacts you and tries to recruit you to the voting ranks? How can you tell the grassroots outreach representative from the low-life identity thief trying hoping to destroy your credit in the very near future?
Nice try, phone solicitor
First thing’s first: as with all other flavors of this scam, ignore anyone asking you for personal information over the phone. In most states, you need to provide a signature to vote, something you obviously can’t do over the phone. In states where you can register online, the signature is simply pulled from your driver’s license or state-issued ID.
But for an independent advocate calling to help you register? They don’t have access to information from your driver’s license. And a government bureau will never call you just to see if you want to register to vote. So how is some private person going to sign you up over the phone without your signature? They aren’t.
…And since we’re on the topic of flat-out bogus solicitation methods, that door-to-door representative? Check your local law. Voter registration drives and campaigning like this may not even be legal where you live.
Social Security number? They don’t need no stinking Social Security number.
Which brings us to another point: most states do pull much of your identifying information from your license–not your SSN. Very few states require you to give your full SSN in order to register, and that’s only if you don’t have an active state-issued ID (those are Hawaii, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In the other 44 states, you’ll only need to give the last four numbers.
Even though your state does have to be able to verify your identity, it is very likely they do it without asking you for your full SSN. Your state doesn’t need your full SSN–they just need to know if you know it. And if you have a current license? It’s very likely they won’t ask for any part of your SSN.
But you know who absolutely will want your full SSN? An identity thief. So as always, don’t give it to anyone you don’t know and don’t give it to anyone soliciting you out of the blue–no matter what method of contact they use.
You want what?
This might seem pretty obvious, but it’s worth mentioning.
Under no circumstances will any part of the voter registration process involve your bank account, your cash, your checkbook, or your credit cards. Registering to vote doesn’t cost money. Verifying your identity will not be done with your bank account or credit card numbers.
Anyone who tells you they need your bank account numbers to verify you is lying. And anyone offering you registration paperwork for a fee is trying to rip you off (while this may be legal, you can find all of the paperwork needed to register for free at your post office or local election board office).
For many of us, Winter 2017 was a cold that wouldn’t quit (and here in our Nation’s Capital, Spring 2018 has been a total wash). With Summer Solstice less than a month away, we can finally trade the jackets and galoshes for sandals, sunglasses, and a tall glass of iced tea.
But shorts and flip-flops aren’t the only things making their 2018 debuts right about now: just like mosquitoes, you can expect seasonal scammers to start buzzing around front porches near you.
And while phone, mail, and email schemes are snow, sleet, and rain-proof, summer sunshine offers scammers yet another opportunity to bilk seniors out of money–one that can be incredibly lucrative if they’re willing to step up and ring the doorbell.
Door-to-door scamming uses the warm weather to take advantage of those thinking about big summertime renovation projects, like repairing the roof or fence, resealing the driveway, or installing a brand new security system.
It’s also a time of year homeowners are spending a lot more time out in their yards–especially retirees on weekdays when neighbors are off at work. These scammers can screen neighborhoods, easily identify their preferred victims while they’re weeding their flowerbeds, and approach the victim right in their yard to make a high-pressure sales pitch.
As with many scams, senior victims are frequently ideal targets. Imagine a victim living alone–someone who may have health, cognitive, or mobility challenges–being approached by several people incredibly eager to make a sale. People of all ages struggle with aggressive sales situations, but seniors can be especially vulnerable.
The scammer can offer anything from fence repair to tree trimming to house painting or siding repair. He might offer some kind of free inspection service for home security or pests. Recently, many of these scammers even claim to be with a utility company offering some kind of new product, upgrade, or inspection.
But in the end, no matter what service they’re offering, their goal is to make you a promise, take your money, and run.
Particularly clever door-to-door scammers have even been known to base their scam narrative off legitimate work being done in the neighborhood.
For example, a con artist might give his driveway paving scam the semblance of legitimacy by knocking on doors when actual paving trucks are working down the block. In a common version of this scam, the fraudster will make his pitch by saying, “we’re with the paving company working down the street and we have some extra asphalt–we noticed your driveway could use work and we’d like to offer you a deal.”
Like any scam, these “contractors” will usually ask for money up front–in cash–before work has even been initiated. Once payment is secured, the scammer will either show up to do incredibly shoddy work or won’t show up for the scheduled work at all. Though the latter may seem particularly bad, the former is often much worse–not only does a victim lose thousands of dollars in payment to the scammer, but it may also cost thousands more to hire a professional to correct the damage that was done.
Rule #1: as door-to-door scamming season approaches, don’t trust any kind of contractor, landscaper, or renovation specialist soliciting you without your inquiry. This isn’t to say ALL door-to-door sales are sinister–it’s very possible a roofing company could try to drum up a little extra business near a work site by leaving their information with neighbors in need of a few repairs. But you should be very skeptical and you should NEVER agree to any kind of work based on a doorstep solicitation. Always, always, always research a company and read reviews before you schedule work. Ask for information and time to consider the offer, but definitely don’t make the decision on the spot.
Rule #2: high-pressure sales tactics are the hallmark of scammers. “We can only give you this low price if you schedule the work right now,” “this offer is only available today,” “if you don’t act now, we won’t be in this area again.” These strategies are intended to make you go against your better judgment and make a split-second uninformed decision. A legitimate contractor gives you time to consider a quote. Be wary of those who don’t.
Rule #3: do not pay contractors upfront. While it is common and customary for homeowners and contractors to negotiate a reasonable down payment for major repairs or substantial work, don’t trust someone demanding most or all of their compensation upfront. A scammer will try to squeeze every last drop of money out of a victim upfront as possible. A professional will understand and expect that a client needs to see great work being completed as promised before making full payment.
Rule #4: whatever payment structure you agree on, get it in writing before you make payment.
Rule #5: be wary when asked to pay in cash. Like Rule #1, this is not always a marker for a scammer. Legitimate contractors take cash the same way a scammer will–some professionals may even offer a small discount on work if you pay in cash. But the difference between a professional and a scammer is a professional accepts several forms of payment–scammers only accept cash. Combined with demanding payment upfront, if a door-to-door solicitor only accepts cash for services, you’ve probably got a scammer on your hands.
These aren’t the only solid suggestions you should keep in mind to avoid being door-to-door scammed. Check out this article at AgingCare for some more common door-to-door scam tactics and key things to keep and eye on to avoid becoming another victim.
Phishing scams–so-called because they bait victims into “biting” and handing over cash and personal information–are some of the fastest growing scams in the world. Phishing scams have grown by 65% in the past year, and 76% of businesses fall prey to phishing attempts every year. These scams cost individuals and companies millions of dollars in damages.
The most basic phishing attempt consists of a scammer reaching out in some way and presenting himself as someone he’s not in an effort to convince you to either give him money or information he can use to take your money later. He might offer you a product, service, or some kind of counseling to entice you, or he might make threats to scare you into coughing up your information (think the latest “you owe the IRS” scams going around).
Phishers–like a great many other kinds of scammers–frequently target seniors due to their retirement accounts, assets, the variety of opportunities and narratives a scammer has to dupe seniors, and most importantly the isolation and loneliness that many experience with age. And since the majority of phishers use the internet to contact and deceive their victims, it is likely thought many seniors won’t have the technical wherewithal to notice the red flags of a scam.
Here are three common ways you might encounter a phishing scam:
Responding to recent data breaches and an overall increase in fraud related to identity theft, Medicare beneficiaries received replacement Medicare cards featuring new Health Insurance Claim Numbers (HICN). Previously these numbers were based on the cardholder’s SSN, making seniors vulnerable to identity theft should they have their card stolen or copied.
Ironically, scammers used this security update as an opportunity to extract tons of sensitive information–including the SSNs Medicare was trying to protect–from beneficiaries who believed they were providing a legitimate agency with details related to the card update.
In reality, they were being phone-phished by scammers pretending to work for Medicare. In one scenario victims were told they’d need to pay for their replacement cards and were prompted for bank account numbers, credit card numbers, or asked to wire money for the fee. In another, they were told in order to receive the updated card, they’d have to verify or provide personal information.
In both cases, these phone numbers were often “spoofed” to appear as though the call were coming from a legitimate source, and callers came prepared with the name of the target.
It is estimated 46,000 phishing websites are created every single day, with an average of 1.4 million every month. These websites reach us via the email, social media links, and advertisements we view every day. Most masquerade as seemingly legitimate online stores or services, and more insidious versions are designed to mimic and sometimes totally replicate a well-known company or agency website.
Take for example the Google login page. Gmail is an incredibly popular web-based email service that millions of people log into every day. We all know the simple yet highly identifiable white login screen:
Actually, this isn’t the Google login page. This was a phishing site that was stealing users’ Google account credentials in order to gain access to their personal data.
THIS was the legitimate Google login page at the time:
This is how sinister these sites can be. To recognize the fake from the authentic, the user would have had to notice the serif font in the Google logo (Google abandoned its famous serif font for the sans-serif font seen on the authentic image in 2015) and the lack of a two-prompt login process (meaning you are prompted to enter your email first and then your password on the next screen instead of both on one screen–another change Google made in 2015).
Would you have paid that much attention? Do you even know the Google login that well? Most people probably don’t.
Now imagine it’s a Medicare site. Or a Social Security Administration website. Or an online pharmacy offering amazing deals on critical prescription medications. Maybe it’s a seniors dating service or a seniors travel club or a retirement community. All you need to do to access your amazing deal or offer is enter your name, your address, your phone number, your SSN, your credit card number, your bank account number, or enter the login details to your existing my SocialSecurity account or email.
According to the Canadian government, over 156 million phishing emails are sent every single day–and despite our best attempts to identify and destroy these mass emailings, as many as 16 million malicious emails sneak past spam filters daily.
Email is without a doubt the go-to weapon in every cyberattacker’s arsenal. Not only is it a great way to communicate with a victim or coax a victim toward a phishing website, but it opens the door to just about every way an online attacker can access your data, your devices, and your network.
Typically the goal of these emails is to use trick the recipient into clicking a link to a phishing website. Like the websites, these emails can be cleverly disguised to mimic the branding of a trusted website, vendor, or online portal. But a scammer may reach out directly to message and manipulate an intended victim–such as in the now famous “Nigerian Prince” scam.
But these emails can be particularly harmful when they act as vectors for malicious code. Some of the most devastating exploits and infections in the history of the internet were released into the digital wild via an innocuous-looking email attachment.
A sophisticated cybercriminal can disguise just about any flavor of data-stealing, device-damaging malware (Cofense estimates over 97% of phishing emails now contain some kind of ransomware, a particularly brutal and usually irreversible malware that encrypts your hard drive until you pay a ransom for the decryption key–if the attacker plans on giving you that key at all).
And don’t be too hasty in thinking you’d instinctively recognize a malicious message or attachment: Intel found 97% of users globally are not able to identify a truly clever phishing email.
How to recognize a phishing scam
- Don’t trust anyone who contacts you and demands money or sensitive information on the spot. This is not how ANY legitimate business or agency does business. Email and phone are unsecure–nobody looking out for your best interests will demand SSNs and bank account numbers over these channels. And most of the agencies these people pretend to be from (like Medicare) will NEVER call you or email you asking you this information. They already have it.
- Don’t trust anyone demanding payment with cash or cash-like methods. Wiring money, buying gift cards in round amounts and reading the numbers over the phone, and sending cash are ALWAYS signs of a scam.
- Don’t trust anyone demanding payment or information with threats, pressure, or scare-tactics. Again, this is not how a legitimate agency does things.
- Always, always, always look closely at website URLS. The #1 giveaway that you’ve been navigated to a phishing website is the URL. Before you enter login information or credit card information into a site, check the URL to make sure it matches that of the legitimate site you’re trying to use. Though a phishing site may look dead-on, you’ll often find the URL exposes you aren’t where you should be. Dummy URLs often have long strings of gibberish, subtle misspellings or errors, are missing forward slashes, or don’t have the s in “https”.
- Don’t ever trust forms embedded in emails.
- Check the legitimacy of email links before clicking. Hover your cursor over hyperlinks in emails to show the true link URL. What is displayed in the text may not match the true URL.
- Make sure the sender email address is valid.The sender’s domain address may not be a legitimate email address of the company or agency the sender claims to be part of.
- Ignore pop-up ads that ask for your login or information.
- Use fake passwords to test the legitimacy of a login. A phishing site has no idea if the login credentials you’re using are correct–they will sign you in no matter what username or password you give because they are simply logging what you’ve entered. If you enter a fake username and password into a login screen and appear to be successfully logged into the site, it’s probably a phishing site.
- Don’t assume all links in an email are legitimate if one or two appear to be. It is a common tactic of phishers to hide bogus links in a cluster of legitimate links.
- Don’t click suspicious email attachments for any reason. Unless you are absolutely certain of the identity of the sender, you should never download unsolicited email attachments. The ONLY email attachments you should open are those you are already expecting to receive. Businesses do not send attachments unsolicited.
- Don’t trust display names or email address headers. In the same way a phisher by phone can spoof a phone number, an email phisher can spoof the name of the sender and the headers of email addresses. Always look closely at domains and never take display names for granted.
The hardest part of preventing yourself from becoming the victim of a scammer is recognizing whether an offer or threat is a scam in the first place.
Many people fail to appreciate a seasoned scammer knows what he’s doing. The more confident you are no one can get one over on you, the more susceptible you are to a true professional.
A successful scammer is charismatic, very convincing, and failing all else, knows how to apply pressure and intimidate his target. He’s anticipated your questions and prepared responses–and he’s maybe even prepared to counter some of the well-known techniques recommended to identify a scammer.
That’s why we can’t ever fault someone for falling for these schemes. These people are very good at what they do. And anyway, if it were easy to recognize a scam, no one would be a scammer. There wouldn’t be any profit in it.
But even a brilliant social engineer can’t hide every telltale sign of fraud. At the end of the day, the scammer has to be able to make a financial transaction to receive his prize. And this transaction has to be done in a way that obscures his identity and can’t be reversed.
Basically, a scammer needs his victim to give him cash. Cash leaves no paper trail, can be picked up at anonymous locations, and payment can’t be stopped when the fraud is discovered.
No matter what the scam is or how good the scammer is, they will give themselves away when the time comes to ask a victim to pony up. Not only will he eventually ask you for a form of cash, he’ll probably also tell you it’s the only way you can pay.
Absolutely no trustworthy company or organization does business this way.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends watching for this very ask if you suspect someone who has contacted you for money is trying to trick you.
Just bear in mind it won’t always be paper currency. There are several payment options a scammer might suggest that essentially function the same as paper currency:
- Wiring money
- Sending or providing the number from gift cards, like Amazon, iTunes, Apple (the scammer will usually sell these gift cards to receive a profit)
- Sending or providing the number from prepaid debit cards, like MoneyPak/Green Dot cards, Reloadit cards, or VISA gift cards
Again, keep this in mind: with the exception of small retailers and eateries you’d visit in person, almost no legitimate business deals in cash only (many won’t deal with cash at all). And no illegitimate business will deal in anything else.
No matter how good his “you owe the IRS a ton of money” game is, a scammer blows his entire setup when he has to ask you for cash–especially if it requires you to buy 13 iTunes gift cards at exactly $150 each and call him back to read him all 13 numbers (hahaha, the IRS wants you to do what?).
So ignore the offer, the personality, the threats, and the details. All you need to do to catch a crook is keep an ear out for the dead giveaway: scammers always ask for cash.
Once the caller demands a wire transfer or a VISA gift card, hang up the phone. Don’t argue, don’t reason with the scammer, and don’t let him know you find his demands for cash suspicious (as we’ve already said, top notch scammers know to finesse you and talk themselves out of corners). Don’t even say a word.
Just abruptly hang up the phone and block the number.