Think You Are Too Smart To Be A Victim Of Fraud? Think Again

Posted on 12/10/19 by Larry Lipman

FALLS CHURCH—"Is there anyone here who has not received a spam phone call?” asked Pamela Houghtaling, an AARP volunteer community ambassador.

None of the more than two dozen people who filled every available seat in the recreation/meeting room at the Falls Church Community Center raised a hand.

“Is there anyone here who has not received a suspicious email?” Houghtaling asked. Same response.

Everyone attending the workshop sponsored recently by the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the Falls Church Senior Center was aware that fraud and scams exist and that older people are often the targets. But they came eager to learn more about the latest ways that con artists use to separate people from their money and how to avoid such traps.

But first, Houghtaling offered some sobering statistics regarding just how bad the scam epidemic has become. She cited a Wall Street Journal article about a New York City woman who lost about $340,000 to scammers. She noted that a recent Federal Trade Commission report found that there were more than 3.1 million complaints in 2018 including 1.5 million involving fraud and nearly half a million related to identity theft. The toll was more than $1.6 billion, including nearly a half million dollars lost by people over 60.

“These statistics are appalling,” Houghtaling said.

But lest folk think that scams are confined to big cities like New York, Houghtaling read from the local Falls Church News-Press warning that Falls Church police have discovered that scammers are calling local residents with caller ID numbers that are the same as the city’s police department.

Other scams now use technology that make it appear that a phone call is coming from a local number – such as a 703 area code and even the three digits of local phones—when in reality it may be from a scammer across the country or in another country altogether.

Scammers have “upped their game,” she said. “Never trust the phone number that shows up.”

Several audience members offered examples of scam attempts they have encountered and echoed Houghtaling’s warnings.

A favorite tip-off that the call is a scam: When they ask you for money in the form of a pre-paid gift card or wire transfer. “The police or the FBI is not going to ask you to send a pre-paid gift card,” Houghtaling said.

Scams in which the caller pretends to be someone else are numerous and are generally referred to as imposter scams. They include the oft-used, but effective, grandparent scam—where a caller pretends to be a grandchild (usually a grandson) who is in trouble in a foreign country and needs help getting out of jail. Never send money immediately, Houghtaling advised, noting that a simple phone call to the grandchild usually can puncture such a rouse.

Other imposter scams involve people portraying officials with Social Security, the IRS, or local Sheriff Offices warning that you haven’t shown up for jury duty and an arrest warrant will be issued unless you immediately pay a “fine.”

To verify a suspicious call such as these, Houghtaling urges people to go directly to the source by calling the agency’s phone number – not the number given by the caller—or go to the agency’s website, not a link provided in an email.

Other scams don’t involve an agency, such as romance scams—a person poses as a potential suitor, or even just a potential friend, before taking your money—and sweepstakes scams.
The tip-off for a sweepstakes scam is that you have to put up a bit of your own money in order to cash in on the supposed pot of gold. You pay and they don’t.

Another type of fraud involves identity theft. In this case, the scammer is not asking for money, merely information. Such as your Social Security number, your bank account number and other information with which they can pose as you and go into your financial accounts. Emails that claim to be from companies checking their records and claiming that your accounts need to be verified are virtually always attempts at identity theft. Again, when in doubt, go directly to the source, Houghtaling advises.

Workshop attendees got an inside look at how scammers operate as they watched a video produced by AARP called “Under the Ether.” It detailed the ways scammers use emotions to undercut a person’s logic. And it warned that those most likely to believe they can outsmart the scammers are the most likely to be scam victims.

The ubiquitous computer – including devices such as laptops and cellphones that have computer capabilities—has become a doorway for scammers.

Holding up an old-fashioned address book, Houghtaling urged attendees to use different passwords for every account and to change them frequently. But write them down somewhere where you can easily find them.

Attendees debated the relative merits of online systems that save passwords, with some vouching for their security and others offering skepticism.

Mobile devices such as laptops and cellphones and the widespread availability of public wi-fi systems have made it easy to do personal business almost anywhere. But that offers scammers the opportunity to steal your information literally right out of the air. It might be safe to check the weather using a public wi-fi network, don’t assume you are safe doing online purchasing or banking using such a network.

When dealing with any website involving money, Houghtaling urged workshop participants to make sure that the website address starts with https—not just http. The “s” stands for secure, but that still doesn’t mean it’s safe to use on a public wi-fi network.­

One way scammers get your information is by using “phishing” methods which mirror legitimate agencies and organizations. Some phishing operations use email addresses that appear legitimate, but if you hold a cursor over the address it often will expand and show that the email is bogus.

Some scammers come right to your door. One such scam popular during warmer weather is the “woodchuck” scam, where people pose as contractors and offer to fix something on your house. Older people, who often have a difficult time maintaining their property, are particularly susceptible to such a scam.

One workshop participant noted that in Virginia, anyone soliciting door to door must have a license. Ask to see it.

Think someone is intercepting your mail? The US Postal Service offers a daily email and a phone app called “informed delivery” that lets you know what pieces of mail are supposed to be delivered that day. One participant noted that the system doesn’t always show every piece of mail that will be delivered.

Participants at the workshop were offered a table of pamphlets and brochures, some produced by AARP, others by the federal and state governments, including a publication on identity theft produced by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

Houghtaling praised the Fraud Watch Network, which sends out biweekly alerts informing people about the latest scam and fraud techniques and offering ways to avoid them. The network can be reached at and there is no cost to subscribe.

People can take active steps to reduce, but not eliminate, the threat of scams. They include signing up for the Do Not Call Registry (it reduces the number of legitimate telemarketing but is ignored by scammers). Other systems include and other call-blocking methods offered by various phone carriers.

Here are some “Don’ts” that Houghtaling recommended:

· Don’t return calls to numbers that you don’t recognize.
· Don’t return text messages from senders whom you don’t recognize and who do not adequately identify themselves.
· Don’t press “1” when responding to a call that you didn’t initiate.
· Don’t say “Yes,” when responding to a call that you didn’t initiate. Your voice could be recorded and your response used as part of an identity theft operation.
· Don’t press the “unsubscribe” button on emails you didn’t initiate unless you are certain where the email came from.
· Don’t access personal information on public wi-fi networks.­
· Don’t click on emails offering links to financial institutions, such as your bank or credit card. Use the 800 numbers provided on the back of your credit cards or call the institutions directly or go to their website.

Two ways to protect yourself: If the message sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And when in doubt, just hang up.

This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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