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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus pandemic coincides with spike in online puppy scams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half of all seniors contacted by scam callers in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be aware of these growing COVID-19 scams

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

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

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

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

Snake Oil Salesmen

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

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

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

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

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

Fake Virus Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protective Gear Scams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Security Suspension

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

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

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

Fake Charities

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

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

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

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

Home Buglaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be on the lookout for COVID-19 stimulus scammers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These scammers belong in jail. Report them.

Fun with Social Security scammers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the laughs!

Don’t let website spoofing ruin your holiday shopping

Thanksgiving is just a few days away.  While for many of us, the perfect way to wrap up that big meal is a long nap, there are just as many people who will jump on their computers and officially kick off the Christmas shopping marathon.

Things have certainly changed a lot in the past 30 years.  No longer do we bundle up and race to the shopping malls to jump on those One Day Only Black Friday doorbusters.  Now we can sit at our desks in our pajamas with a hot cup of coffee for several days scooping up deals on our Christmas shopping lists.

The internet has definitely changed the game of how most of us handle the holiday season.  But with the convenience of online Christmas shopping comes the pitfalls.  It is without a doubt the most lucrative time of year for scammers.

Scammers have always been hyperactive during the holiday season.  But with so many of us using the internet to do our shopping, taking advantage of unsuspecting shoppers has never been easier.  Anyone with a little web design talent can use a basic trap to scam thousands of dollars from those unable to tell the real from the fake.

What we’re talking about is called website spoofing.  It’s the practice of creating a dummy website—one that looks incredibly like a trusted and popular retail site—and using it to collect credit card and other personal information.

There are a number of ways you might encounter a spoofed website.  More often than not, it’ll be linked to you through a bogus email saying it’s from your bank, offering you a deal or prize from a reputable retailer, or pretending it’s a receipt, invoice, or some other critical communication from a trusted online portal.  However, you can run into a spoofed website simply by mistyping a real URL or finding it through a simple Google search.

Scammers go to great lengths to impersonate the website you’re actually looking for.  Everything from the logos, arrangement of elements on the page, font type and size, color scheme, and catchphrases will be as close to the real thing as possible.  On first glance, a good spoofed website will be almost indistinguishable from the legitimate site.

But there are almost always warning signs on the page if you know where to look:


Amazon is a heavy-hitter in the Christmas shopping world.  Even outside of the holidays, many of us use Amazon to do our day-to-day shopping.  We wouldn’t think twice about receiving emails from the retail giant.

But take a look at that URL.  That’s not correct.  This is a scammer hoping you won’t notice that you’re on a completely different web address.


Here’s the login to Paypal, a secure payment service that many people use while making online purchases.

Except, not so fast.  This is another spoofed site.  In this example, many of the tabs and hyperlinks are nonfunctional.  There is also nothing indicating that the page is secure and protected—just a phony lock symbol on the page itself.

Telling the real from the fake is challenging, but it’s not impossible.  It just takes a few minutes of investigation and verification before you click links and enter your information.

Always verify that the URL is absolutely correct.  Hover over hyperlinks to display the URL to which the link leads and verify that these are safe pages.  Look for broken links, nonfunctioning links, and blatant errors.  Be sure the URL begins with “https.”

And in the case of the fake promotional emails that lead you to these sites, the old adage stands: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Social Security scam calls now the #1 way thieves prey on public, says the Federal Trade Commission

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans reported $17 million in losses to the Social Security phone scam in the first six months of 2019.

Since January, the FTC has received 73,000 consumer reportsrelated to threatening calls and voicemails telling consumers their Social Security benefits will be suspended or that their Social Security number has been linked to a criminal investigation.

The number of reports combined with the catastrophic financial loss make this Social Security scam the most damaging of 2019.  The FTC has dubbed the Social Security phone scam the “new IRS scam”of 2019.

If you’re unfamiliar with this scam, count yourself one of the lucky ones.  Nearly all of us have by this time received the garbled robocall telling us there’s legal action being taken against us and our Social Security number has been “suspended” or our benefits canceled.  Toward the end of the call, the robot voice directs the listener to immediately call an unfamiliar number in order to prevent prosecution or reinstate our benefits.

It usually sounds something like this:

The message you’ve received, however, is a lie.  And if you call the number to clear up the mess, you won’t reach any Social Security Administration or detective’s office.  It’s going to be a phone scammer likely working out of a call center full of people baiting victims the exact same way.

In order to release yourself from the investigation or reinstate your Social Security benefits, the person on the other end of the line—probably pretending to be a Social Security employee or someone working out of an investigator’s office—will ask for your name, Social Security number, personal identifying information, and bank details.

After the initial setup, this becomes the exact same phishing scam as all the others.  It is an attempt by a scammer to coax you to reveal personal information or to make payments to them over the phone on fraudulent grounds.

While it may be alarming to receive a call or voicemail saying your benefits are threatened or accusing you of being involved in a crime, do not be fooled.  The Social Security Administration will NOT suspend your Social Security number and will NOT call you to tell you that your benefits are stopped or that you are under investigation. Under no circumstances will any calls like this you receive be legitimate.  This is not how the Social Security Administration (or any government agency) handles official business.

Watch the video below for more advice from the Oregon Attorney General on how you can avoid falling victim to Social Security scammers.

Study reveals the sad, shocking truth about the true culprits behind senior financial abuse

This is Agent XXX from the Social Security Administration.  Your Social Security number has been linked to criminal activities…

I am XXX, a daughter to XXX of Libya.  I will offer you 20% of the total sum of $4.2 million for your assistance…

I’m from Medicare.  We’re sending out new Medicare cards and I need to confirm your billing information to keep your coverage active…

By now we are all sadly aware of the numerous tactics used by fraudsters to drain seniors’ life savings.  The situation is so bad, anyone with a cell phone is probably accustomed to receiving a handful of these phishing calls every week—and that’s to speak nothing of emails, texts, and mail attempts.

When we think about senior financial abuse, these tend to be the kinds of tactics that first come to mind: the stranger cold calls and the robot voicemails we encounter every day.

The reality of senior financial abuse, however, is far more vicious than any Nigerian prince or phony Social Security Administration employee.  As with many forms of abuse and exploitation, the stranger in the back alley is rarely the real predator.

A recent study by the Journal of Applied Gerontology analyzed the characteristics of 1,939 calls coming into the National Center on Elder Abuse resource line.   Among the shared characteristics of these reports was the source of the abuse.  Not a stranger or an unknown conman, but a known and trusted family member.

The study identified 309 calls (about 46.8% of the total calls studied) that accused a family member of senior abuse.  If this sample size is truly indicative of the whole, it suggests siblings, children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren are the most likely to exploit seniors.

And it’s not limited to strictly financial abuse.  Across all types of offenses (physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect), family members were always the most reported perpetrators.

It’s heartbreaking to think your own flesh and blood—someone totally trusted—would be the most likely to hurt you.  But as shocking as that seems, it’s not at all uncommon.

In fact, it’s true for all age groups and demographics: those closest to you will always be the most likely to take advantage of you.  Family members are the most intimately aware of a victim’s finances, belongings, lifestyle, and emotional state.  They have the victim’s trust and a level of access to a victim’s home and personal information a stranger would have to work to have.  

For scammers, there really is no better victim than a parent or grandparent.  Most people would never suspect a child or grandchild of something so hideous. And even if they did, who would ever want to contact the police and report a beloved family member?  Would you be able to put your child in jail?

Family member senior exploitation is rampant, but the last thing any senior should do is be scared of their families.  Though it’s estimated as much as 90% of elder abuse cases involve a family member, only one in 10 seniors will experience elder abuse. Most families will be the important and supportive social network seniors can depend on.

Nevertheless, these numbers are concerning enough that seniors need to be aware of how to protect themselves in the event of the unthinkable.

The Justice Department declares war on elder fraud in largest nationwide sweep ever

In 2018, the United States Justice Department launched a nationwide campaign against senior fraudsters–the largest such sweep in history.  Over 200 senior scammers–responsible for victimizing over a million Americans–have been identified and brought to justice.  Through their financial schemes alone, victims lost over half a billion dollars.

This year, the Justice Department’s sweeps were even more successful than last.  Over 260 defendants were charged with allegedly defrauding over two million Americans for over three quarters of a billion dollars.

Among other types of scams, the sweep focused specifically on identifying tech support scammers, consistently one of the most damaging scams targeting seniors.

In order to crack down on senior scammers, the Justice Department is a multi-prong attack, working with overseas governments to stop bogus foreign call centers, catching and stopping international “money mules,” and coordinating with the United States Postal Service to intercept payments sent to scammers.

In a press conference led by United States Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department presents the results of their senior scam crack-down and explains how the government is fighting back against senior scammers.