By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Identity thieves are getting bolder and brassier all the time, and today they think nothing of calling up elderly people and posing as a grandchild who is in some really big trouble and needs money; more specifically, the grandchild needs grandma or grandpa’s credit card number to get out of this really awful jam, said Tami Nealy of LifeLock, a company that specializes in protecting people from having their identities stolen.
In fact, said Nealy, Senior Director of Corporate Communication for LifeLock, the “grandchild-in-trouble” phone scam, a variation of the now-familiar email scam, is currently one of the biggest ploys out there targeting the elderly.
Thieves have all kinds of ways of getting that grandchild’s name, said Nealy. For instance, at your dentist’s office, whom do you list as your emergency contact?
Thieves can easily hack into a dentist’s files or those of an eye doctor, pediatrician, veteran’s association, university, or even a bank, to find out who might be listed as an emergency contact or beneficiary for someone. Any organization that collects personal data on large numbers of people – even the IRS – is a prime target for hacking.
“They (thieves) don’t go digging through dumpsters anymore,” said Nealy. They don’t have to. They can just hack into any number of online files for personal information.
Currently there is no legislation mandating just how securely doctor’s offices, insurance companies, banks or other organizations are required to store personal data, and even if there were, there are no penalties for failing to securely store it.
Also, the scam artists are clever and quick. They contact the victim, establish a psychological connection by posing as a loved one or a friendly stranger offering help, create a problem (the more frightening the better – fear and panic tend to short-circuit logical thinking) and then offer a solution that involves sending them money.
The best protection is to question, question, question, or tell the con artist you can’t talk right now and need to call them back in five minutes. If they give a phone number, write it down.
But – call back using a trusted number. Call the grandchild’s cell phone, or call the parents or friends to find out if the person really did attempt to call.
Another defense is asking questions only the real McCoy would know. When is your birthday? What did we do last Christmas? Or ask misleading questions that will provoke wrong answers if the person is a fraud: What, too big to call me Mee-Maw anymore, if the grandchild has never used that nickname.
There is, of course, the fear that the call could be real, and that is what thieves count on; the panic reaction that short-circuits logical thinking. Trust your gut, Nealy advises. Is it normal for the grandchild to call the grandparent instead of a parent or friend? Even so, ask questions to confirm the caller’s identity.
A second big scam is the “jury-duty scam.”
“Hello, Mr. John Smith?” says a pleasant voice on the phone. “This is ‘Mary’ with the (fill-in-the-blank) County Court System, regarding the jury duty you failed to appear for last Tuesday….”
Of course, Mr. Smith is confused because he never received a summons, so the short-circuiting process begins. Did he overlook something in the mail?
“Mary” then helpfully warns Mr. Smith that there is a warrant out for his arrest for failure to appear, and that a sheriff’s deputy or police officer may be on the way to his residence. Now worried, or even panicked, Mr. Smith explains that he never received a summons, and friendly stranger Mary is sympathetic; oh yes, sometimes things can go wrong with the postal system, this has happened before, let her check with her supervisor to see what can be done to clear this up. She puts Mr. Smith on hold, and when she comes back on the line, it appears that there are several Mr. John Smiths in the system, and she needs a date-of-birth, social security number, and so forth, to verify that she is dealing with the correct one. Mr. Smith gladly provides these to the friendly, helpful voice that promises to get this whole thing cleared up and call back as soon as the matter is resolved.
That second phone call never comes. ‘Mary’ has gotten what she needs – enough personal data to steal Mr. Smith’s identity and rob him blind.
It is somewhat similar to the older, more familiar “phone-call-from-the-bank” scam that claims there is a problem with the victim’s account, asking for the bank account number, social security number and other personal data to “verify identity.”
In both cases, said Nealy, never give the caller this information. Tell them you need to call them back in five minutes and get a name and phone number if possible, to give to the police. Then call the actual bank or the county court system using a trusted number, and ask, “Did you just try to contact me?”
“The more you know, the more you can protect yourself,” said Nealy. Why would a bank be calling customers to ask for their bank account number? Why would a court employee call someone to warn that a deputy or police officer is coming by with an arrest warrant? Don’t get rattled; that is what the thieves want. Don’t give out any information, and get off the phone as quickly as possible. Then think it through and call a real number to verify.
Another big scam going on now are the phony websites that pop up after widely publicized disasters like the tsunami that hit Japan back in March. Seniors often get emails soliciting donations to help the victims, and when they click on the links provided, they are taken to what looks like a well-known website for a disaster relief organization. The web sites are so well done they look real, but they not only take in donations, they also snag the credit card numbers.
It’s all about informing people about what is going on out there, Nealy added, and getting them to create new behaviors for their own protection. Learn to tell the caller “Excuse me, but I don’t give out personal information over the phone,” or “I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of something, I’ll need to call you back in five minutes.”
Never respond to an email soliciting donations. Instead, go online, type in theorganization’s name and let the search engine bring up the genuine website. Or, call the organization with a trusted number. Get a verified mailing address for sending a check. Even better, send a money order.
Once people begin catching on to the above scams, the thieves will, of course, adapt and evolve new scams. It’s not only seniors, but people in general who need to learn how to protect themselves. No one is immune.
Question, question, question, and verify, verify, verify.