Telephone scams targeting seniors are soaring, largely because technology makes the scams easier and cheaper to operate. The scams mostly are variations of the classics. The technology, however, allows crooks to be more prolific and make the scams appear more legitimate.
Two types of technology have become cheaper and more readily available to crooks.
Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP): Telephone lines no longer have to be established with a regulated telephone carrier. Instead, VOIP technology allows telephone calls to be made over the Internet. Crooks all over the world can call into U.S. homes and businesses. The call quality now often is the same as a landline call.
Robocalling: VOIP technology also allows calls to be made directly from computers. Technology that automatically dials calls and does so at high volume has been available for a long time. What’s new is that now it requires a small investment to obtain the software and install it on a basic computer. Crooks can generate a lot of calls at low cost. The calls also can be recorded messages, reducing the need for trained cons to work the phones. A variation leaves recorded messages when voice mail is triggered but allows one of the crooks to take over the call when a person answers.
Masking technology: Caller ID used to protect people from unwanted calls and scams. But cheap technology now exists that allows callers to disguise themselves and their locations. The technology allows callers to trick caller ID into identifying the callers as being from government agencies or well-known companies or charities. This is sometimes called spoofing.
Very inexpensive long distance calling rates and low-cost overseas labor also make the scams more profitable. Robocalls now can be placed internationally for a penny or two per minute, and caller ID can be fooled for 20 cents or less per minute. The crooks usually are from outside the United States. Authorities believe India, the Philippines, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Peru currently are major sources of such calls.
One major scam, especially during tax return filing season, is for the caller to allege that the target has an outstanding tax bill and will be arrested or have assets seized if they aren’t paid immediately. Targets often are urged to provide a credit card number or go to a local store to obtain a prepaid payment card. The crooks often provide fake IRS badge numbers to add authenticity and might have taxpayer ID numbers or other personal information about the target that was purchased on the black market.
The grandchild-in-distress scam also is widespread. The crooks obtain personal information about a target’s family. A person calls, often in the middle of the night, claiming to be a grandchild or other close relative who is stranded overseas, in distress, and in need of cash quickly. The need for cash might be to prevent arrest, be released from kidnappers or to replace money that was stolen, among other reasons.
Claims that the target has won a lottery, free cruise or other substantial prize are another common scam. The target is told that the prize will be awarded as soon as he or she pays fees and taxes.
Another widespread scam is for the caller to offer assistance with computers or other technology. The caller induces the target to go online and download software to the computer. The software is malware. It might obtain valuable information from the computer, allowing the crooks to access bank or investment accounts. Or the software disables the computer. The caller then offers to fix the computer for a fee.
Not only are the scams illegal, but so is the robocalling. Under U.S. law, only charities, political campaigns and some groups such as schools are allowed to make robocalls. Recorded sales calls are allowed only if you’ve given written permission. None of this stops the crooks, and authorities can’t keep up with them. The “do-not-call” registry also is ineffective when it is ignored and authorities can’t trace the calls.
You have to defend yourself from the scams. Realize that you can’t rely on caller ID to be accurate. Be aware of the scams that are in use. You can read about the latest and the classics on the Federal Trade Commission web site at www.ftc. gov. Keep in mind that the IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers through the telephone or email. If you owe taxes, you’ll receive a notice in the mail, and you’ll have time to respond. As always has been the case, be suspicious when someone initiates contact with you by phone and asks for or demands money. Be especially suspicious when the request or demand is said to be urgent.
There is technology that allows people to block robocalls into their telephones. One version has been used in Canada for about 10 years. Legislation has been proposed in Congress to require phone companies to make such technology available free to any phone customers who wants it. You also can go to www.nomorobo.com for a free software solution that won a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contest for technology to limit robocalls. It won’t stop all unwanted calls but will stop many