During COVID-19, senior scams have been on the rise. From vaccine scams through robocalls and texts to romance scams that target lonely older adults, it’s never been more crucial for seniors to stay safe. One of the most insidious senior scams? The “grandparent scam.”
What Is a Grandparent Scam?
In Western New York, hundreds of cases have been reported to the FBI of malicious phone calls to unsuspecting seniors. The intent of these calls? A scammer will pose as the child or grandchild of the senior. During the call, they’ll pretend that they’re in trouble—most likely, legal trouble that requires the senior to send money. Whatever it is, they’ll act like the issue is incredibly urgent. Their request to the senior on the line will be for them to send bail money. In this New York community alone, according to ABC Buffalo, scammers stole over $13 million.
How to Stay Safe
Scammers are likely to get their information about your children or grandchildren through social media. Keep your profiles private and avoid giving out personal information. If you receive a suspicious phone call, hang up. Don’t give them any information, and try to verify who they’re claiming to be by calling someone else. Report any attempted scams to the police.
There’s no denying the COVID-19 pandemic has changed pretty much everything about how we live in 2021.
Even as we approach what we all hope is the beginning of the end of this virus, our quarantine habits and behaviors will undoubtedly be with us for the long haul. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We will hopefully move forward with a renewed appreciation for our health, the health of others, and a useful good practices tool kit to limit the spread of germs and illness.
I know we all hate the masks and constant hand-sanitizing, but raise your hand if you caught the cold or flu the past two winters. I know I didn’t. And with my immune system? That qualifies as a miracle.
But beyond health and hygiene practices, we’ve embraced new ways of communicating and doing business on a massive scale. Even the most technophobic among us have had to rely on digital apps and services they’d otherwise avoid like the…well. You get the picture.
One of the most critical things we’ve had to embrace is finding ways to pay for the things we need WITHOUT making physical contact. And for that, many of us relied on services like Zelle, Cash App, Venmo, and PayPal to transfer money to vendors or accept money from buyers.
These services are what we call peer-to-peer payment services. They are simple platforms that allow users to create an account, connect it to a credit card or bank account, and transfer money directly to other users. It’s a fast, easy, and often instantaneous way to send money to someone else. And most importantly, it allows us to pay for goods and services without needing to touch a payment machine, touch someone’s bank card, or come into contact with a cashier.
Prior to the pandemic, I would have assuredly told you vendors requiring payment methods like these are the early warning signs of a scam. Every p2p payment service is different with regards to safeguards against fraudulent payments, but generally, you can think of them like you would think of wiring someone money through Western Union. In many cases, sending someone money through these services is as good as giving them cash. Which means if you transfer money to a scammer, there will be very little you can do to recover those funds. Scammers LOVE that.
But the rules have changed. All of us, and seniors especially, SHOULD be using electronic payment methods where possible to limit the spread of COVID. Two years ago, someone REQUIRING risky electronic transfers like this was untrustworthy. Now, it’s responsible for a seller to refuse in-person cash or check exchange or payment services that require them to show up in person at a physical location to pick up payment.
It’s because of this p2p payment scams have shot straight up to the top of the list among scams affecting seniors. Not only are more seniors using p2p payment services, but they’re likely new to the p2p payment game. These new users are among the most vulnerable to the ways scammers use these apps to screw users out of money or goods:
First and foremost, do NOT use these payment services unless you absolutely trust and have vetted the person you’re transacting with. When it comes to paying someone through one of these apps, know who it is you’re giving your money to. As we’ve said, few of these services offer any kind of reimbursement if you mistakenly send money to the wrong account or if you send money to someone who doesn’t provide you the items or services you’re paying for. Verify the legitimacy of the person or the vendor you’re going to pay, confirm their details on whatever app you’re using to pay, and remember anyone can be anyone on the internet. It is best to only use p2p payment services with people you know—not with mystery vendors on the web.
Most of the creative scams affect those using p2p platforms to RECEIVE money. Perhaps you’re selling an item or asking someone to pay you for a service you rendered them.
Scammers have several tricks to dodge paying you through these apps:
Fake and stolen credit cards. A scammer can link these apps to a bogus payment method. By the time you find out the transaction won’t go through and you won’t receive payment, you may have sent a scammer an item or rendered them a service you can’t get back.
Fake “overpayment” emails. A scammer can spoof an email from a p2p platform to do one of two things. They could use it to phish for your login details and gain access to your payment methods OR they could claim someone “overpaid” you for an item, asking you to send a buyer back the overpayment difference.
Canceled payments. Though some apps, like Zelle, are instantaneous, some take up to several days to process payment. A scammer can “pay” you for an item or a service, receive that item or service, and then cancel the payment before it processes.
While social distancing remains a must, there’s no easy way to know who is and is not a scammer using p2p payment. Unfortunately, in most of these cases, you won’t find out someone is a fraud until after the damage is done.
Our best advice to limit the damage someone could potentially do to you through these services is to link a credit card rather than a bank account. While the apps themselves might not offer much in the way of reimbursement, by using credit cards, you can still take advantage of the security measures afforded to you through your credit card to make up for fraudulent exchanges.
It’s been my personal mission to rally people of all age groups around seniors’ issues for quite some time. Lack of general awareness is what allows abuses against specific groups to go unchecked. And let’s be real: everyone is going to be senior one day. The best thing we can do for ourselves in time is create a safer environment for retirees right now.
…Unfortunately, I’m also really into the epic roast war between Millennials and Boomers on the internet. In my family, the young people were always told, “20-year-olds don’t know anything—don’t listen to 20-year-olds.” Just before turning 30, it morphed into, “never trust anyone in their 30s.” One day—when I’m allowed to have an opinion—they’re REALLY going to get an earful.
So, I’m conflicted. As much as I love the differences from one generation to the next (and all of the opportunities it gives us to poke a little fun at each other from time to time), I’m not a fan of the very real divide those differences can cause. Especially when that divide isn’t as wide or as solid as we think.
Case in point: telephone and online scams.
Scams are something we tend to associate predominantly with seniors. Without seeing a single report or any kind of quote from an expert on the topic, almost everyone would tell you seniors are the most susceptible to scammers.
It’s true most scammers eye seniors specifically when they come up with their strategies. Some of the most profitable scams operating right now in the United States are exclusively targeting retirees, Medicare beneficiaries, and Social Security beneficiaries. Seniors are more likely to have savings accounts, assets, and are more likely to be living in social isolation, which is incredibly good for a scammer looking to siphon money from a victim in the long term.
But it’s also true scammers go where the opportunity is. And anyone willing to put their information out there is an opportunity, senior or no.
Remember when I said the best thing we can do for ourselves is to pay more attention to things that affect seniors? Well, the opposite is true, too: the WORST thing we can do is label something a “seniors’ problem” and walk away from it entirely. Especially when the problems we wave away because they don’t affect us are actually OUR problems.
The world may call phone and web scams “seniors’ problems,” but that’s NOT what the data is now showing. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s analysis of who is making scam reports, seniors may have one more point to make in the “wisdom before beauty” debate.
The FTC says in recent years, 40% of those making scam reports fell between the ages of 20 and 29, compared to 18% being 70 or older. According to their data, scam reports dramatically decrease beginning at age 50.
According to the Better Business Bureau, adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the highest risk of becoming a victim. Not only are young people continuing to be most susceptible to scams, but the trend has crossed over from the Millennial generation officially into Generation Z, the oldest of whom are currently between 18 and 24 years old.
Now, before you start thinking about all of the zingers you’re going to throw at your grandchildren over Zoom tonight, seniors are STILL very at risk. Although more young people fall for online scams than any other age group, seniors still tend to lose the most money. A college-aged adult may fall for every online scam he sees, but there’s no getting blood from a stone. I don’t know what your college bank account looked like, but if someone took $100 dollars from me when I was in school, I would have been tapped out for a while. This age group is NOT known for having spare cash.
Seniors, on the other hand, DO have money in the bank. They also have home equity, vehicles, working children, and other resources they can potentially use to get money if pressed by a scammer. Seniors may fall for scams less, but because they have more readily available funds, their losses can potentially be life-altering.
It’s also worth considering the data might not be telling the story we think it’s telling.
The hard data we have says seniors aren’t REPORTING losing to scams at the same level Millennials and Gen Z are. This isn’t the same thing as saying seniors aren’t losing money to scams at the same rate young people are.
Baby Boomers and older generations didn’t grow up in a society where oversharing was completely normal. The oldest Millennials, however, were young adults and teenagers when Myspace and Facebook were rolled out. They’ve been publicly sharing online for half their lives at this point.
And Gen Z? Whew. They never had a chance. They’ve never known a world without constant oversharing.
In fact, this is a major reason why younger generations fall for online scams right and left. Younger people are far more comfortable communicating with strangers online, doing business online, and putting personal details online. It’s all they’ve ever known.
Older generations, on the other hand, are slow to take up the newest social media trends. This is possibly because seniors aren’t primed to jump from one platform to the next putting their entire lives on display. If I had to pick the single most repeated, most critical, most serious lesson I was taught growing up by the older people in my life, it was “DON’T TELL EVERYONE ALL OF YOUR BUSINESS.” They all recoil at the thought of posting a photo of themselves online.
But where the comfort with sharing can be a positive thing is reporting crime. People who are very private and protective of their lives may find it very difficult to reach out and report losing money to a scammer. They may also feel a great deal more shame about being scammed in the first place.
It’s estimated only 1 in 25 seniors report financial fraud. This fact alone would make seniors the most ideal target in the world—the likelihood you’d ever get reported or caught scamming a retiree is very low. Not only are seniors less comfortable in general with our online transaction/online sharing/online communication world, but they’re so concerned being victimized will be taken as evidence of mental decline or incompetence that they often hide what was done to them.
So the takeaway from this data isn’t really who falls for online scams less. That doesn’t really matter all that much—though, by all means, don’t be afraid to whip this fact out at the dinner table if some sassy stripling decides to “OK Boomer” you.
The story here is really about why it’s important for young people and seniors to communicate and invest in each other. While Millennials and Gen Z consider being victimized by online scammers their grandparents’ issue, they themselves are getting destroyed by online thieves. My generation still has a LOT to learn from those we often choose to ignore—especially on the issue of privacy.
But our parents and grandparents could learn a lot from us, too. The data shows that when we get hurt by online fraudsters, we make sure someone knows. Sure, we might feel the same shame and embarrassment about falling for a stupid online scam, but we also know reporting a scammer may save someone else in the future.
There is NO REASON AT ALL to feel shame when someone takes advantage of you. All the shame belongs to the person doing the hurting—never the victim. If it has happened or does happen to you, don’t be hard on yourself. These people are very good at what they do, they are very good at picking their targets, and they use every detail about you and what’s going on in the world around you to exploit you. There’s no such thing as someone who is immune to scams.
And if it ever does happen to you? Reporting is essential to protecting others and getting justice for yourself. Nobody is interested in judging you for reporting a crime—they’re interested in stopping these crimes from happening.
So, as a self-appointed representative of the oft-scammed Millennial generation, I’ll officially concede that we’ve been pretty smug and pretty incorrect about how savvy and safe we are when it comes to scams.
…Go ahead and let that one sink in because it might a good long while before one of us admits we were wrong to you again.
But I will also say this: if it is indeed the case a lack of senior reporting is contributing to this huge gap in reporting between 20-somethings and retirees, know that we want to help you. Getting scammed so often ourselves, we know how rampant it is, we know how terrible it feels, and we know it’s not your fault.
But we won’t know someone is hurting you if you don’t tell us. So, if you don’t feel comfortable reporting being scammed or if you don’t know how or where to report it, be open with your family and TELL SOMEONE. Keeping these things a secret is what allows these scams to continue. And it takes a horrible emotional toll on those who feel they must hide it.
We may like to butt heads on a lot of things, but at the end of the day, we can all agree everyone has a right to be safe, secure, and happy, right?
And since WE’RE willing to concede we aren’t really as great at the internet as we thought we were, maybe we can make a small generational request..?
“Participation trophies?” Really?
You know perfectly well you gave us those trophies. Leave us alone.
If you’re planning on visiting CVS, Walmart, or Home Depot today, you might find yourself receiving some valuable anti-scam information from Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul while you wait to finish your transaction.
That’s because as part of National Consumer Protection Week (February 28-March 6), Social Security Administration Inspector General Gail S. Ennis has designated today the second annual “Slam the Scam Day.”
“Slam the Scam Day” is a national public outreach initiative to inform the public about the growing danger and damage of consumer scams, specifically targeting Social Security scams.
Several major retailers are participating, airing warnings over store audio systems and featuring information on-screen at customer service kiosks.
Since then, the amount of reports made to the FTC have increased 30% year over year. And last year, romance scams saw the biggest single jump since 2016: a 50% increase in the number of reports made AND over $100 million more swindled from victims than in 2019.
The explanation for this spike is simple: the pandemic has created a massive pool of lonely, isolated potential victims.
Romance scams occur on nearly every social and dating platform online. In a technique commonly called “catfishing” online, a scammer will create an appealing fake identity on a platform to lure in victims seeking romantic partners or companions. The romantic scammer will often steal images, names, and personal details of real people on websites like Facebook to create their own fake profile, tailoring the profile to attract an ideal victim. Frequently, this victim is a senior, a widow or widower, a divorcee, or representative of a chronically isolated group.
Once a victim is identified, the scammer will begin the process of “love-bombing” the target. Love-bombing is a strategy used by both scammers and abusers to get their victims hooked on the attention they’re receiving and far less likely to walk away or refuse requests. During the love-bombing stage, the scammer will lavish compliments, gifts, and praise on the victim, ultimately priming them to accept multiple asks and increasingly suspicious behavior.
When the scammer knows the target is fully invested in the “relationship,” that’s when the scam starts. The scammer will pressure the victim for money for all sorts of reasons, using the affinity the victim has for them as a weapon. All the while, the scammer will find no shortage of reasons why they can’t ever meet their victim or see their victim despite near constant promises to do so.
These scams can go on for months and years with virtually no detection. And due to the deeply personal nature of the scam, victims are far less likely to report them or talk about them with family and friends than other types of scams.
Where previously a scammer may have had to be choosy with his victims, now there are targets everywhere. We have been separated from our friends, families, and loved ones, prohibited from going to public places to socialize, and driven out of our workplaces for fear of spreading COVID-19. Our opportunities for social contact of any kind outside of our immediate household have been nonexistent for a year.
The only way most of us can engage in any kind of safe socializing is digitally: through our phones, through webcams, and through text. Those of us who never depended heavily on the internet for human contact have had to become comfortable with online interaction. These new social app users may not be vigilant or familiar with how rampant scammers run on these apps.
At the same time, the pandemic has given scammers a tool kit of excuses to ask victims for money and avoid ever interacting with them beyond calls and messages:
“I lost my job. I need you to help me get by.”
“My hours have been cut. I can’t earn enough money to come and see you.”
“I can’t come see you. I may have been exposed to COVID-19.”
“If you care about me, you’ll send me money to get treatment for the virus.”
“My family member is sick and I don’t have the money to take care of them.”
“No, we can’t meet. I’m caring for an at-risk family member.”
In this environment, we can’t question a potential partner’s unwillingness to engage with us and provide proof they want progress in a relationship as easily. We are also far less likely to be suspicious of someone we don’t know reaching out to us on an app—it’s the only way to safely meet new people right now.
There’s also the reality that none of us are exactly handling this sudden severe isolation very well. Even self-identified introverts are learning how much of a difference there is between low contact and NO contact. We are all suffering for lack of seeing other people. That suffering makes us extremely vulnerable.
To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding your future partner online. Online dating and social apps are increasingly responsible for long-term successful unions and marriages. We’ve come a long way since the dawn of the internet when meeting A Stranger online was something to hide or feel ashamed of. As we age, maintaining the friendships we already have—let alone cultivating brand new friendships—is easier said than done. In a perfect world, online socializing would be the greatest thing for seniors dealing with loneliness.
But as it stands, this world is far from perfect. And with love being the strongest intoxicant known to man, the romance scam is possibly the perfect way to swindle someone out of their life savings.
The hardest part of avoiding this scam—like other affinity-style scams—is not allowing your emotions to steamroll your common sense. Stripped of the emotional aspects, this scam is actually incredibly obvious and should be easy to poke holes through.
The Telltale Signs of a Romance Scammer
Love at first click. As much as we like a Romeo and Juliet narrative, it’s rarely the reality of falling in love. Attraction may be instant, but love is usually something we cultivate over time with another person. This is NOT the case when you’re dealing with a romance scammer. Romance scammers typically communicate with MULTIPLE victims at a time, so they’re not interested in investing more time than they need to in gaining your trust. The hallmark of a romance scammer is the whirlwind nature of the initial meeting to the claims they are hopelessly in love. If you pump the brakes on the fantasy just long enough to look at the timeline of events with a level head, you’ll see someone who claimed to be your soul mate before they knew anything of substance about you.
You’re smothering me. In the first stage of a relationship, it is entirely normal for two people to be joined at the hip. But there’s attached and then there’s attached. When a romance scammer sees a fish on the line, they want to get it out of the water as fast as possible. That means they’ll push you to delete all of your dating profiles (so only THEY have access to you—and your bank account) and they’ll often contact you obsessively. The constant contact is meant to keep you engaged at all times and thinking of almost nothing else but them. Not only is this part of the love-bombing tactic, but it also eliminates the possibility that you’ll have quiet time to consider how bizarre the relationship is or talk to other people you know about it. The goal is to get you completely dependent on them for all of your socialization and cut you off from other influences that might steer you away from the scam. Texts will be constant. Emails will be constant. You might even receive phone calls multiple times a day.
Excuses, excuses. Since romance scammers will conceal their identity completely during the scam, using fake photos, fake biographical information, and a fake location usually, they can’t exactly live up to their promises to come see you without blowing the scam. The person you think you’re talking to almost NEVER looks like, sounds like, or is that person. There will ALWAYS be an excuse when it comes to visiting you or even video chatting with you (“I don’t have a camera,” “I don’t have a webcam,” “I don’t have a computer”). With a lot of these scams being operated outside of the country, the scammer might not even be willing to talk to you on the phone for fear of revealing a foreign accent. They’ll absolutely PROMISE to come see you—they might even make plans with you to do so. But they’ll cancel at the last minute every time: a broken car, an illness, trouble at home, a job opportunity, a wedding, a funeral, and ESPECIALLY not having money to do so (so they can ask you to send them that money, of course). And don’t think you offering to visit THEM is going to change anything. They’ll be out of town on all of those weekends. Which is weird since they can’t ever seem to afford to go out of town to see you…
Boo-hoo-hoo. Romance scammers use pity to steal their victims’ trust and money. There isn’t a romance scammer in the world who doesn’t have a backstory more depressing than Les Misérables. Everything bad in the world has happened to them and only them, and that’s why you should listen to all their problems and send them money. These stories are meant to wear you out emotionally as much as they’re meant to convince you to send them cash.
Gimme, gimme, gimme. If all else fails, this is the BIG one. The goal of a romance scammer is to GET. YOUR. MONEY. It’s not to be your friend, get to know you, or talk to you. All of those things are means to a financial end that will preferably come as fast as possible. Expect the asks to start almost immediately. They may be subtle or strictly implied (for example, “oh, I WISH I could come see you, but I just don’t have the money for a plane ticket right now…”), especially in the beginning. But as the relationship goes on, the scammer can get downright cocky about pressuring you for cash. Whether it’s constantly bringing up hardship to get you to feel sorry for them, asking you directly for help with a financial problem, or aggressively demanding or even extorting you for money, they WILL transition from love-bombing to money quickly. Normal people don’t ask the people they’ve just started dating for money. Normal people don’t lay their financial baggage on their partners right out of the gate. Your cue to run for the hills is the FIRST time someone you’re casually dating asks you for your money. This is NEVER appropriate behavior early in a relationship.
Catching a Romance Scammer
Even ticking all these scam checkboxes, you may not be prepared to believe the person you’ve grown to care about is a liar. Again, this is EXACTLY why these scams are so effective: you don’t WANT to believe the person you love is tricking you.
No worries. There are actionable ways you can verify the identity of your partner. They may not be 100% effective on their own, but in most cases, these verification methods can reveal at least SOMETHING that doesn’t quite add up.
Scrutinize their social media profiles. Since you’ll most likely be meeting this person on some kind of social media platform or dating app, you’ll have access to their fake profile (you can also ask to see any of their other profiles on different platforms). There are some key things to look for that can tip you off to a fake account: a very new profile created date, an extremely low number of followers or friends, very little activity in terms of posts or interactions with other people, a bare bones profile with next to no pictures or personal information, and multiple accounts on different platforms that were all created on the same exact date.
Image search is your best friend. In almost all cases of romance scamming, the scammer will be using profile pictures and photos stolen from someone else. The images we put online include metadata (called EXIF data) that can be used almost like a fingerprint to identify copies of the image elsewhere online and lead you to the REAL person who posted the photos. EXIF data CAN be stripped from an image (often scammers don’t bother to do it or aren’t consistent about stripping every photo they steal), and certain “secure” online communication platforms like Whatsapp automatically strip EXIF data on sent images (be suspicious of anyone who tries to move you from a very public communication platform to a “secure” platform right away for this reason). But performing a reverse image search on each and every one of the images you have available to you to check for this data is your very first step in looking for fraud. You can do this via Google Reverse Image Search or a variety of online tools specifically for finding stolen images and exposing catfish. Should you locate your partner’s images in multiple places online with different names, locations, ages, and other inconsistent details. You’ve got yourself a romance scammer.
Ask for an updated photo. Ask your would-be soul mate to take a self portrait just for you. …While holding a newspaper with today’s date on it. Or holding a piece of paper with a code word you’ve specified on it. If they’re not who they say they are (or hit you with he “oh, my phone camera isn’t working right now”), they won’t do this. They’ll probably launch into a speech about how HURTFUL it is that you don’t trust them. Yawn.
Romance scams are particularly alarming among other types of financial fraud for having the potentiality to escalate even further than simply robbing you of your savings. Romance scammers are known to operate in large networks, and there are even cases of romance scams leading to victims getting involved in serious criminal activity. Romance scam victims have been persuaded to money launder and even mule narcotics unknowingly for their scammers, resulting in serious criminal charges for the victims.
This is a scam that is not only really, really effective, but could lead to increasingly dangerous consequences for victims. And in the COVID-19 world, these scams are growing in number and harder to resist.
Do NOT allow the fear of scams to ruin the safest way for you to communicate with your loved ones. But do be very aware of how vulnerable we all are to these scams in the current day and how widespread they are. If you are using online platforms to meet a new partner, don’t allow isolation to affect your judgment—anyone can be anyone on the World Wide Web.
No matter what age you are, almost everyone in this country loves a good selfie. Especially when we’re celebrating a major event or when it’s helping to advance a cause.
Being one of the first to get in line for a COVID-19 vaccination fits both of those bills. Not only is getting your shot the beginning of the end (HOPEFULLY!) of this quarantine nightmare, but as one of the first members of the public to get it, you might want to show your friends and family there’s nothing to fear.
A developing trend among people first in line for the shot is taking a celebratory picture holding their vaccine certification card. I’ve seen this trend firsthand on my own social media timeline.
And because I’ve already seen this dozens of times personally, I’d like to send out this important public service announcement:
DO NOT POST PHOTOS OF YOUR VACCINATION CARD ON SOCIAL MEDIA.
Seriously. Please, please, PLEASE, don’t do this. And if you already have, pull that image down as soon as you possibly can.
Those vaccination cards are an open invitation to would-be scammers who may only need the pieces of your personal information on that card to steal your identity OR who are looking for people who have gotten the first injection to realize their scam.
For example: let’s pretend I’m a scammer and my strategy is to get those who have received their first shot to pay me for access to their second one. Maybe I’ll call those who have received their first shot pretending to be a state healthcare employee to say they’ll have to put down a deposit on their second shot or pay for their place in line.
The best way for me to find potential victims right now is to simply scroll through vaccine hashtags and look for anyone who has posted a photo holding that vaccination card.
Not only does simply posting that photo make it easy for me to find you, but I also have your full legal name, your birth date, and details about what vaccine you got and who administered it.
Those details might not seem that critical to your personal security, but they’re incredibly useful to me.
I can use all those details to convince you over the phone that I’m a healthcare worker with intimate knowledge of your vaccination records. While you’re talking to me on the phone or through email, you might not immediately remember you posted those details publicly where anyone could find them. I’d have just enough correct information about your vaccine experience to look very legitimate to you.
Once I have your trust, it’s easy for me to ask you to give me your financial information to arrange payment for your second injection. I could even ask you for even more critical personal information to “make sure you got the correct shot at the right time.” Then, I could steal your entire identity.
While posting that card may not provide ALL the details someone would need to seriously jeopardize your finances, it does create a very good opportunity for a skilled social engineer.
Social engineering is the most common way scammers slurp information out of victims: it’s a strategy where all someone needs is charisma and a scarily short amount of research to convince you he knows you, he can be trusted, and prod you into giving him the information he wants. These types of scammers flourish on the seemingly innocuous things we post on Facebook and Twitter.
And as for the information that is given on those vaccination cards, you might be surprised to know scammers can use your birth date to figure out MOST of your Social Security number digits if they know where you were born–which they might if you’ve posted where you’re from on your social media profiles or if you were affected by any of the major data breaches of the past several years (most Americans were).
So on top of not posting imagines of that card on social media, you should definitely also consider removing any details related to your birth date and birth location as further protection from all kinds of scammers.
While I haven’t seen any reports of any specific victims of this potential scam, the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau are pre-emptively raising the red flags as this social media trend gains steam:
As seniors in most states are becoming eligible for their first vaccination, I ask you to be very careful with this trend and with your personal information. The COVID scammers have been out there since the very beginning of this pandemic and they’re always looking for new ways to bait victims while this situation is evolving. Since seniors are the first general members of the public to get access to the vaccine, seniors are specifically the ones being targeted at this time.
So keep your personal information close—even if it doesn’t seem all that personal—and try to find much less public ways to celebrate your newly vaccinated status.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s DEFINITELY a reason to celebrate. But I want YOU to be the one celebrating—NOT the person who may have just used your good news to destroy your credit.
Today, most U.S. states have opened eligibility to lower priority groups within Phase 1 COVID-19 vaccinations.
With some alterations, states are largely following guidelines set forth by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a team of experts within the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In the ACIP’s recommended vaccination strategy, Phase 1 is comprised of healthcare personnel, essential workers, seniors, and those with the highest need for the vaccine. These groups are both the most at-risk for exposure and the most likely to transmit the virus to the larger public.
The first people to receive the vaccine were doctors, nurses, and other essential hospital and clinic employees. In the ACIP guidelines, this group is 1A.
With states hustling unbelievably fast to get this shot into as many arms as possible, more than half of the U.S. is now working through the 1B and even the 1C groups. These groups primarily consist of seniors over 75 years of age—though depending on how your state may have deviated from APIC guidelines, these groups may include seniors over 70, 65, or younger if they have a high-risk medical condition.
If you are over 65 years of age, I encourage you to start keeping a regular eye on your state’s website. This will be where you can see if you’re eligible and we’re you can locate the necessary information to schedule your vaccination appointment if eligible.
While we have no idea what vaccine administration will look like once it’s rolled out to the general public (the goal is to make it very similar to getting a flu shot at your local pharmacy), we know right now it’s a matter of checking for your eligibility and getting yourself an appointment. Vaccine supplies are limited, so you’ll need to schedule a time to get your poke.
The important thing to understand here is if you’re eligible right now, you’ll have to rely on yourself to get that information AND make the appointment to get the vaccine. The average retiree quarantining at home will likely NOT be contacted by any local agency to alert them of their eligibility or the process to make an appointment.
Don’t expect for anyone to reach out to you personally to let you know it’s your turn.
The first reason I bring this up is because if you haven’t checked out your state’s health department website, you should do so. Right now, in fact. There’s a possibility you are now able to get your vaccine.
The second reason I’m bringing this up is because don’t expect for anyone to reach out to you personally to let you know it’s your turn.
Seniors are receiving calls, texts, and emails from various agencies inviting them to the COVID-19 Vaccine Party every single day.
The price of admission to that party is anything from your bank or credit card information (to pay for the shot, naturally) to your Medicare information (to verify your identity and/or to make sure the cost of your shot is covered).
The federal government has used YOUR tax dollars to purchase this vaccine and send it all over the country. There is no charge to administer the shot because we already paid for it. And because it’s a matter of public health that EVERYONE gets this shot regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance status.
The vaccine is free. F-R-E-E.
So, you probably see what I’m getting at here.
The likelihood someone will contact you via any means to tell you they checked for your eligibility specifically—in an ENDLESS OCEAN of people waiting for this shot—is slim to none.
But the dead giveaway these calls and emails are scams is the asking for financial or insurance information. NOBODY is paying for this vaccine. This isn’t a profit-making situation. This is a global health crisis situation.
The shot is gratis because it must be in order to create herd immunity. While we don’t know for sure how high a vaccination percentage is needed to achieve that immunity with this specific virus, we do know that number gets as high as 95% with other contagious illnesses, like measles. That means 95% of a population needs to get vaccinated against measles to effectively ensure the remaining 5% won’t get measles.
But because the triage for getting a limited vaccine to every single person in the U.S. is complicated, to say the least, a lot of people have little to no idea how to get it, if they can get it, and how they’ll know it’s time to get it. It is extremely hard to get that kind of information out to every single person, especially when that information varies from state to state and the situation is constantly evolving. A lot of people who can get vaccinated will probably be left in the dark.
Scammers are already exploiting that information gap to the fullest extent.
Whether it’s the shot itself, a fee for administering the shot, or a fee for scheduling your appointment, we can’t stress this enough: getting the COVID-19 vaccine is free. Anyone—no matter WHO they claim to be with or contacting you on behalf of—who tells you there’s any kind of payment involved in the vaccination process is 100% trying to scam you. PLEASE report anyone who contacts you saying this.
Additionally, state health officials are reiterating they would NEVER ask someone they called for sensitive personal information over the phone.
In the event someone would call you to let you know you’re eligible for the vaccine—and that is already highly unlikely—no legitimate caller is going to play 20 Questions with you about your name, birth date, address, Social Security number, or any other information that can be used to steal your identity. It would simply be a call and an attempt to schedule an appointment. That’s it.
In time, these scammers will be putting a target on every head in this country, but at this time, only seniors and essential workers are eligible. This means if you’re a senior, scammers are going to be looking for YOU, specifically. Until this vaccine opens up to lower priority groups, these scams will disproportionately affect retirees as scammers look for ways to get in contact with as many people within our current phase as possible.
So, be proactive about your vaccination eligibility by locating information on your own. Don’t wait for anyone to contact you. Head over to your state or county’s website or contact your local health department to get the information you need. Any changes to eligibility or access will be posted there first.
In another life, I used to write about a lot about sheep.
I used to write about a lot of animals, actually. My job was to explain how different landscape and livestock tools worked. Wild animal repellents, animal fencing, those really creepy fake owls you put on top of your barn to freak wild birds out—that sort of thing. To understand why those sorts of products work and how to use them properly, you have to understand why animals act the way they do.
So, now I know a lot a lot about sheep. And I’ve had a linguistic bone to pick with a lot of people ever since.
Sheep are the most slandered animal in our language. If you’re going with the crowd, you’re being a sheep. If you hold a popular belief someone else disagrees with, they’ll probably call you a sheep. To be a sheep means you’re the kind of person who goes with the group. It means you share the same opinions as the rest of the “flock.” The implication is you’re too weak or stupid to go it alone, so you find 30 of your friends and do what they do instead of forming your own opinions or behaviors.
But if you know sheep—or at least, if you’ve had to do a lot of Googling about them in order to write promotional materials—you know this is not at all the reality of flocking behavior.
Sheep are NOT stupid. Far from it, as a matter of fact.
The flocking behavior we see in social animals is actually pretty genius. When you’re not strong enough to stand up to a wolf on your own, you’re safer when you stick with your friends. Flocking animals rely on having dozens of eyes on the ground to look for the slightest sign of danger—that’s why they follow each other so closely.
Sheep aren’t the only animals known to get by with a little help from their friends. Without our cooperative social nature, humans would likely not have shot straight up to the top of the food chain as quickly as we have.
Much like sheep, we rely on other people in our communities on a daily basis to do all the things we need to do. And we absolutely depend on our flocks to stay safe from would-be predators.
Our flocks are more than just our family and friends. Whether we realize it or not, we form flocks based on any number of shared traits, experiences, and identities: sharing an alma mater, a religious belief, a locality, a political affiliation, an ethnicity, a language, or a place of work. We tend to trust others more when we have things in common with them. You can probably think of at least a few people in your life you may have trusted almost immediately—despite being strangers—based on a few shared traits or values.
It’s not a bad thing most of us do this. We make lifelong friends because we are able to quickly identify commonality and bond over it. But when we do that too readily, the tendency to trust those we view as part of our flock can be dangerous—especially when we’re dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
There is a term for the types of scams that rely on people’s tendency to trust those they perceive as similar to them. It’s called affinity fraud. Affinity scams are scams—usually investment scams—that exploit a target audience by dressing those scams up to be everything that audience would trust by default: someone just like them.
While not every scam targeted toward a specific group is a textbook affinity scam, many of them are.
Seniors are one example of a flock—a group of people who share a specific age range and many of the unique experiences that come with being that age. Seniors would be far more likely to trust pitches made to them by other seniors or senior-adjacent people or causes. This is why so many scammers opt to pretend to be from Medicare or the Social Security Administration. A retiree target deals with those programs every day. They trust those organizations. These scams aren’t classic investment affinity scams, but they are successful because they use affinity tactics.
The most recognized affinity scams are those targeting religious groups. Religious people have a great deal of trust in their churches, other members of their religious sect, and causes related to religion. Someone who might be very wary of answering their phone and handing out their information to just anyone might not question a stranger claiming to be part of their religion asking for a donation for the church. This behavior is exactly why churchgoers have lost MILLIONS of dollars to fraudulent investments and Ponzi schemes committed by fellow church members or bogus church organizations.
An affinity scammer can use almost any part of someone’s identity to gain their trust. But the most basic affinity scam is one where someone is simply targeting their own friends and family. Why? Because those people already trust them simply for being them. It’s the simplest way to get money from someone, but it’s probably the most tragic, too.
Anyone can fall prey to these scams. Everyone has something about their identity that can be exploited to gain their trust.
But seniors are particularly vulnerable to affinity fraud. Seniors have more assets than younger people. Seniors have retirement nest eggs and savings accounts. If an affinity scammer is looking for someone likely to have at least one account or asset they can tap immediately to get a few thousand dollars to invest, they’re probably looking for a retiree.
Not only that, but seniors tend to be very active in church communities and charities. Many seniors choose to spend their retirement volunteering or participating in community activism. Seniors are a group of people known to be generous with their time and money when it comes to higher causes. This is exactly the personality type an affinity scammer looks for: the kind of person who will contribute to something bigger than themselves. The fact that retirees also tend to have bank accounts with readily available cash is icing on the cake.
Because these scammers are playing on the trust you have for those who share some of your most intimate and passionate beliefs—or even the love you have for them as a friend—these scams are some of the most damaging of all. The money lost is bad enough, but trauma, shame, and devastation of having your trust destroyed by someone you may have cared about can follow you the rest of your life. Sometimes the victims of these scams never move past what was done to them.
Protecting yourself from affinity scammers starts with understanding every single one of us is at heart a sheep. I don’t mean that in the negative pop culture sense of the word, but rather in the sense that we all have the exact same need to stick with our flock as the animal we like to make fun of. The reason we’re so quick to trust people like us is because we SHOULD be able to trust each other, especially when have so much in common.
But humans are predators, too. For every one of us just trying to enjoy some grass with our friends, there’s another person who sees a field of fresh lamb chops.
Whether it’s an absolute stranger, someone loosely associated with certain things you are, or someone you’ve known for years, there can be no difference in the level of scrutiny with which you examine ANY investment proposal made to you. The temptation to trust certain people over others will always be there, but you can’t allow anyone to override your common sense when it comes to your check book.
Verify every detail of the pitch made to you independently. Take nothing someone asking you for money says for granted. Get as much information about the opportunity as you can and do your own independent research to verify the legitimacy of their claims.
Do not succumb to grandiose emotional appeals, guilt tactics, or pressure to give someone your money. This is true of ALL kinds of scams. If someone is trying to guilt you into giving them money (“don’t you trust me, we’ve known each other for years,” “but I helped YOU all those times—why won’t you help ME?”), don’t make a knee-jerk decision you’ll regret. The more someone pressures you emotionally instead of listing the data-based reasons why an investment is good, the more you need to be wary.
Make sure absolutely everything is done in writing—no handshakes, no verbal agreements, and no money exchanged without a legitimate receipt. Everyone knows this, but this tends to really go out the window when dealing with a friend, family member, or someone close to you who you trust. Never give someone a substantial amount of money without the paperwork. And if that person balks at you requesting such a thing? It’s not because they’re worried about YOUR best interests, if you catch my drift.
Consult a financial planner or lawyer in absolutely every major financial investment. If you aren’t a financial professional, chances are good you won’t really know the full extent of what you’re getting involved in. Never stroke a huge check to anyone without talking to a pro. If there’s something fishy about the arrangement, a financial advisor will see it right away.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” It’s pretty hard to tell someone how to avoid getting affinity scammed. The red flags may not be flying as high or as bright as with other scams, and because victims trust the scammer, what few flags are visible might be hidden by fog. But one ancient bit of wisdom will always serve you well here: beware of investment opportunities promising mind-blowing returns or rewards. The bigger the promises, the smaller the chance what you’re being told is true. If there’s one glaring warning sign, it will probably be this one.
With nothing else better to do, you might be one of the millions of people who have succumbed to the temptation of internet shopping in the past few months. Don’t worry—I’m not going to judge you. The way I see it, if you don’t ask me what useless things I’ve purchased on Etsy this year, I’m not going to ask you. Nothing empties my wallet faster than boredom.
And anyway, a lot of our increased online shopping this year is out of necessity and self-preservation—at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself. This isn’t exactly the best time to be milling around in brick-and-mortar stores if you can avoid it.
Then, add Christmas on top, and most of us have been going a little swipe-crazy sitting at home on the computer.
But with increased usage of our cards online, payment processing services like Paypal, logging in and out of our email accounts, and setting up online accounts at retailers we may have only shopped at in person, we open ourselves up to online fraud. We are giving online thieves and scammers infinite opportunities to scam us out of information, steal our card numbers, and snatch our login credentials. The more we put out there, the more there is for someone to steal—that’s just kind of how the internet works, unfortunately.
So getting a fraud alert email, text, or call around this time would be a bummer, but would you question it if you spent the last month running up your credit cards online? Probably not.
Well…it turns out you probably should.
Today the Better Business Bureau published its newest fraud warning regarding bogus fraud alerts about “compromised” accounts, including Amazon, Paypal, and Netflix, to name just a few.
But this can happen with any one of your online accounts. You could receive a fraud alert from your bank, your email client—anywhere you log in, and especially those accounts that could contain sensitive or financial information.
But the compromised account alert is merely just a solicitation to you to get you to compromise your account.
BBB reports this scam is happening via email and phone call. Emails—which may be disguised as coming from legitimate senders and businesses—will send you to a phishing site, asking for your login information and even your Social Security number. In the phone version, the caller tells you that suspicious charges were seen on your account. The caller will either try to get the same information out of you the email version does or will ask you to download a mysterious “anti-malware” program to your device. Spoiler alert: that “anti-malware” program will be malware.
Just a few months ago, consumers reported calls regarding their Apple accounts being compromised.
In each case, the scammer will either use trusted branded materials or a spoofed legitimate business address to contact you via email or tell you on the phone that they’re an employee of the business in question. It is possible the phone number will be spoofed to appear legitimate, as well.
Whether the scammer contacts you by email or phone, the key here is not to give any personal information up until you can verify what they’re telling you. For example, if someone calls from your bank telling you there are suspicious charges on your account, log into your online banking before you continue the conversation. If there is indeed some kind of freeze or flag on your account, it’ll be pretty obvious once you’ve logged in.
You can also ignore the email or hang up on the call, find the phone number for that business, and call them directly to check on your accounts. If you do this, just make sure you’re getting the phone number for that business from your own search—not from any website or email the caller might give you.
The most important thing to remember—especially with scam callers—is not to let fear or pressure cause you to do something you know isn’t safe. You don’t have to share your information with just anyone who asks for it, no matter what the situation might be. And the more a caller tries to apply pressure or use fear tactics to get that information out of you? The more likely it is they are fraudsters.
Besides. What are they going to do if you don’t? Beat you up over the phone? Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing by being protective of your personal information. Frankly, any business would be happy to know their customers are protective of their information. It saves them a lot of hassle, you know?
So now that the Christmas shopping rush is over, it might be a good time to go through all of your accounts and statements just to make sure everything is in its right place. Keeping an eye on your finances in general is another good way to thwart anyone trying to tell you that you have thousands of dollars in suspicious charges or that your accounts are frozen. Being aware of your spending and the health of all your accounts will make it much harder for someone to lie to you about it.
After a year I think we all are looking forward to forgetting, Santa has swooped in at the 11th hour to deliver us the gift that’s at the top of all of our Christmas lists: a COVID-19 vaccine.
Of course, in this festive metaphor “Santa” is all the people in the medical research field who have worked day and night to develop an injection that will end this complete and utter nightmare—and did so with a novel virus at neck-breaking speed. In this situation, I have to give credit where credit is really due. Sorry, St. Nick.
Hopefully very soon we can return to some semblance of normalcy around here. Personally, I can’t wait to get out there and see how bizarre my loved ones have gotten since I last saw them. At least, I hope they’ve gotten bizarre. I don’t want to be the only weird one at the reunion.
But for right now—and presumably into the next several months—vaccine quantities are extremely limited. They’re rightfully being reserved for those who most need them, primarily the healthcare workers risking exposure every single day. This group also includes workers in long-term care facilities where COVID has a particularly strong stranglehold.
After that, it is expected the second priority group in most states will be people over 65 years of age. This is especially critical because, aside from seniors being vulnerable in general, it will cut off the virus’ favorite breeding ground: nursing homes. Nursing facilities have been the source of many early outbreaks in this country.
Knowing that, none of us should be expecting to receive any kind of communication telling us to pull up at the COVID Shot Store any time soon. Even seniors who will be among the first to receive the vaccine shouldn’t expect it—we’ve only just started to deliver doses to frontline health workers.
With thousands of healthcare workers waiting on the first vaccines to arrive, there is absolutely NO chance of getting any kind of early access to the shot. Zero. Zilch. Not possible. No way, and no how. There are very few doses even being made yet, and every last one of them is spoken for.
But if we know ANYTHING about scammers, we know they are shameless opportunists. Judging by how they reacted to the first available COVID tests, the Department of Health and Human Services is getting out in front of the vultures before they really start circling.
The Office of the Inspector General at HHS is already issuing warnings about any communication the public might receive—be it email, phone call, or text—about offers and access related to the COVID vaccine.
To paint a picture of just how fast scammers can mobilize campaigns, the Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the first COVID vaccine six days ago. Just three days later, we got the first reports about vaccine-related scams.
Per usual, scammers are making these calls and emails sound and look as if they’re coming from genuine government and health institutions, like the FDA, the CDC, Medicare, or local physicians and pharmacies. There may be very little in the way of red flags to let you know the communication is from an imposter: emails will spoof email addresses and use legitimate branding materials, and calls may used spoofed phone numbers that on a cursory look-up seem to be coming from a legitimate place.
Normally I’d give some tips about how to recognize these things or maybe a list of things you can do to steer clear (I do LOVE a bulleted list). But telling you how you can avoid having your personal information stolen by these particular scammers is, thankfully, much simpler than that:
You can’t get the vaccine.
There is no vaccine available to the general public.
There won’t be a widely available vaccine until second quarter next year.
That’s really all you need to know. Anyone offering you some kind of super secret VIP access to the shot in the meantime is trying to get something from you. Absolutely NO ONE can get this shot except a select few who really, really need it. That’s it. That’s all. End of.
The day we have enough of the vaccine to distribute it to the public, it will absolutely consume the news cycle. I imagine there will be lines outside every PCP and pharmacy door that would make you think someone was handing out free suitcases of diamonds (or toilet paper, AM I RIGHT?! Hahahaha! Help, someone, please.).
There will be no questions at all when this thing becomes available or if it’s available. We will all know when that time comes. And that time is not any time soon.
So, know that in the coming months these vaccine scams will be everywhere. Scammers will contact people in all the ways they usually do, via any means, and they will be really good at making themselves out to be something that they’re not.
And as it gets colder and darker and the cabin fever starts setting in (if it hasn’t WELL before now), they’re going to use that to tempt victims into thinking they can get this shot that will allow them to get back to life.
Don’t fall for it. It’s going to be a tough winter, but we made it this far. We all just need to keep following the rules for a few more months so we can end this nonsense once and for all.