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Ah, the internet: it has brought unprecedented connectivity, allowing you to share your daughter's dance recital video with your hundreds of Facebook friends at the click of a mouse. But as the saying goes, "Every rose has its thorn." Beyond the perils of procrastination from doomscrolling on Reddit or mindlessly bingeing TikTok videos, there's a far more sinister side to the online world that we need to discuss: the ever-growing and increasingly sophisticated "industry" of online scams. Here are some of the most common.

Fake Refund Scams

The infamous fake refund is the bread and butter of many sleazy scam outfits. These operations often involve dozens of scammers working out of fake call centers. It all begins with an email invoice for an antivirus subscription service plan or a random purchase from a company like Norton, Best Buy, or Amazon.

Next, they will ask if you indeed made that purchase. Once you deny it, they will suggest you download a remote access tool like AnyDesk or TeamViewer, ostensibly to help process a refund. This software gives them control over your computer beyond just screen sharing. They will then ask you to log into your account to process the refund. While they pretend they can only observe your screen, they have full control.

They will ask you to enter the amount of the supposed refund (say it's $200). As you type it in, they tap the zero key on their keyboard just before you hit return, modifying it to a much larger amount like $2000. They manipulate the website's HTML code behind the scenes to make it appear as though you received thousands of dollars that you do not actually have. Then the acting begins: "Oh no, what did you do?" they might exclaim, insisting on the return of their $1800 overpayment or they will lose their job. Any logical offer from the intended victim to simply reverse the transfer through the bank will be met with resistance. The scammer will insist on receiving payment through gift cards, demanding that you purchase them and then read off the codes. This is because gift cards are virtually untraceable and can be quickly converted into cash or sold on online marketplaces, making them the preferred method of payment for scammers.

Romance/Catfishing Scams

Also referred to by the delightful moniker “pig-butchering” scams (because they fatten you up with affection before slaughtering your finances), these scams often begin with an innocuous message supposedly meant for someone else. The scammer’s profile picture, posing as an extremely attractive man or woman, will immediately follow up to apologize for the mistake and “introduce themselves,” usually sending you a picture of an extremely attractive person.

In reality, the person you are communicating with is a scammer working out of a call center who looks nothing like the person in the photos. In texts overflowing with heart emojis, kissy faces, and declarations of adoration, they quickly escalate the conversation into professions of ardent love and attraction, claiming you're their soulmate, the one they've been waiting for their entire life. Once they've roped you into this illusional whirlwind romance, they have a number of approaches to scam you.

Red flags to watch out for include claims of having professions that involve international aspects, such as being in the military or stationed overseas for work as excuses for why they can't meet up yet—but they promise they will soon if you just send more money! They won’t talk on the phone or video call, citing excuses to hide their tell-tale accent or wrong gender. They may request money for emergencies, travel expenses, medical bills, or other urgent needs, all the while filled with over-the-top declarations of love and affection early in the conversation. Additionally, they may ask for personal information, banking details, or copies of your ID.

Medicare Scams

Medicare is unquestionably one of the most relied-upon and utilized lifelines for seniors, providing essential healthcare coverage when it's needed most. However, as with all good things these days, it has become fertile ground for scammers to exploit.

Medicare scammers have various approaches. They might call you pretending to be from Medicare, claiming they need to update your information or offering you a "free" medical device or service. Don't fall for it! Medicare will never contact you out of the blue asking for personal information or pushing unnecessary services. Another common tactic is the "new Medicare card" scam, where the scammers tell you that you need to pay a fee for a new card and ask that you provide your banking information to get your benefits. Remember, Medicare cards are always free, and they won't ask for your financial details over the phone.

Be on the lookout for fake medical equipment suppliers too. They might try to sell you overpriced or unnecessary devices, claiming Medicare will cover the cost. Always check with your doctor before purchasing any medical equipment and make sure the supplier is legitimate.

The Grandparent Scam

The Grandparent Scam preys on the love and concern grandparents have for their grandchildren. In this scam, the fraudster calls or emails, pretending to be a distressed grandchild. They might claim to be in a legal or medical emergency, needing money urgently. Often, the scammer will ask the grandparent not to tell the parents, playing on the desire to help quietly. The scammer will ask for money to be sent via wire transfer or gift cards. Always verify such requests by contacting other family members or the supposed grandchild directly before sending any money.

Bank Impersonation Scam (Phishing/Vishing)

Bank impersonation scams are designed to trick you into giving away your personal banking information. Recently, these scams have evolved to become particularly pernicious. Initially, you might receive a clumsily written email or text message that appears to be from your bank, raising your suspicions. This initial contact is actually a tactic to prime you for the second act of the scam. Once you're on alert, you receive a more convincing phone call from someone claiming to be your bank's fraud department, informing you of suspicious activity on your account.

They will ask you to confirm your account details, personal information, and passwords, supposedly to secure your account. Feeling relieved that the scam has been intercepted, you readily hand over the information. Armed with these details, the scammers can transfer your money into their accounts or even take out loans in your name, leaving you with a massive negative balance. Remember, your bank will never ask for sensitive information over the phone or via email. Always call your bank using the official contact number if you suspect fraudulent activity.

Investment Scams

Investment scams promise high returns with little to no risk. These scams can take many forms, including Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes, and fraudulent investment opportunities. Scammers often use high-pressure tactics to create a sense of urgency, insisting that you must act immediately or miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

Common red flags include promises of guaranteed returns, pressure to reinvest earnings, and lack of detailed information about the investment. They may also use professional-looking websites and documents to appear legitimate. Always research any investment opportunity thoroughly, consult with a trusted financial advisor, and be wary of unsolicited offers. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Overall Tips for Avoiding Scams

  1. Verify Identities:
    • If you receive a call from someone claiming to be a family member, friend, or representative of an organization, verify their identity by asking questions that only the real person would know. For instance, if someone claims to be your grandchild, ask about a specific memory or detail only they would know.
  2. Do Not Share Personal Information:
    • Never share your Social Security number, banking details, or passwords over the phone, email, or text message unless you have initiated the contact and are certain of the recipient’s identity.
    • Be wary of unsolicited emails or messages asking for personal information. Avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown senders.
  3. Use Secure Connections:
    • Ensure that the websites you visit for financial transactions have a URL that begins with "https" and look for a padlock symbol in the browser's address bar.
    • Avoid using public Wi-Fi for banking or other sensitive transactions. If necessary, use a virtual private network (VPN) to secure your connection.
  4. Stay Informed:
    • Keep up to date with the latest scam tactics and warnings from trusted sources like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.
    • Participate in community seminars, webinars, and workshops on scam prevention. Many local senior centers and libraries offer educational resources on this topic.
  5. Implement Strong Passwords and Security Measures:
    • Use complex passwords that include a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters. Avoid using easily guessable information like birthdays or common words.
    • Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on your online accounts whenever possible. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second form of identification, such as a code sent to your phone.
  6. Monitor Financial Statements:
    • Regularly review your bank and credit card statements for any unauthorized transactions. Early detection of fraud can prevent further financial loss.
    • Check your credit report at least annually from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to ensure no fraudulent accounts have been opened in your name.
  7. Be Skeptical of Unsolicited Offers:
    • Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true, such as guaranteed high returns on investments with no risk. Always research and verify the legitimacy of the offer and the company behind it.
    • Be cautious of unsolicited communications. Legitimate businesses and government agencies typically do not ask for personal information through these means.
  8. Educate Yourself and Your Family:
    • Stay educated about common scams and share this knowledge with family members and friends, especially those who may be more vulnerable, like elderly relatives.
    • Have a plan in place for what to do if you or a family member is targeted by a scam. This might include contacting your bank, filing a report with the FTC, and notifying local law enforcement.

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