In August, while checking her email, Deb (she prefers not to reveal her last name) was alarmed to read one she received that looked like it came from the online payment company PayPal. /zigman2/quotes/208054269/composite PYPL -2.97% It said someone had accessed her PayPal account and taken $500 from her linked bank account.
Deb, a retired business owner in rural South Carolina, immediately called the phone number in the email to correct the issue. “The person was very professional,” she said.
After he told Deb they’d need information to refund her money (including access to her computer), “That raised a little red flag. But I’ve had remote computer work done and they had to have access to help me,” she said.
Over the next 2½ hours, Deb relinquished her bank account information, Social Security number and several passwords. She ultimately became suspicious and asked to speak to a manager. Another man got on the line. “I thought I was really talking to PayPal and they acted like they wanted to correct this,” said Deb.
The man from ‘PayPal’
This man then had her install an app on her phone. When she saw a $340 transaction come through it, “he told me not to worry about it, that it wasn’t meant for me,” said Deb. “He then told me I’d have to go to Walmart /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT -1.93% and buy a $500 gift card to get my money back. That’s when it clicked. I said, ‘I think this is a scam, I’m going to call my bank,’ and the man hung up.”
B e sure to read: Worried about Social Security? Panic can lead to bad decisions
After learning the $340 had been transferred to the scammers from her bank account, Deb was mortified. “I felt so stupid, inept and violated,” she said.
Sadly, she’s in very good company. There’s currently a rash of similar phishing scams being perpetrated on older adults through email, as well as cons through phone calls and texts. Some of the crooks purport to be from places like PayPal or Amazon; /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -1.57% others claim they’re tech support from Microsoft /zigman2/quotes/207732364/composite MSFT -1.94% or Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -3.00% . Or they say they’re from the Social Security Administration, the IRS or another government agency.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2.1 million fraud reports in 2020, up about 24% from 1.7 million in 2019. Total losses last year: $3.3 billion. And the agency has seen 67,000 tax-related scams in just the first half of 2021. The FBI reported a 69% increase in cybercrimes between 2019 and 2020.
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You can blame the pandemic, in part. “Lockdowns have made us more vulnerable. They find out what we need and prey on that and our fears,” said Alexis Abramson, a gerontologist, an Atlanta spokesperson for Comfort Keepers Home Health and author of “Stop Fraud.”
One reason older adults, in particular, are being targeted: “People in their 70s and 80s are more trusting and they usually are financially stable with good credit,” Abramson said.
The “ Friends Talk Money ” podcast, co-hosted by Next Avenue Managing Editor Richard Eisenberg, has a new episode all about these types of frauds and how to avoid them. (You can hear it wherever you get podcasts.)
“There’s fear and there’s urgency,” when people get the scammer calls, texts and emails, said “Friends Talk Money” co-host Terry Savage, a personal finance columnist and author. And, added the podcast’s co-host Pam Krueger: “The scammers just keep getting more clever, so it’s very hard to tell what’s real.”
Also read: Will you outlive your savings?
Why the scams are growing
Abramson said Deb was the target of what is becoming a more sophisticated email scamming system. “It used to be those types of scams had misspellings and grammar errors. But they have gotten very sophisticated in their language and even their logos,” she noted.
Her own father, who she describes as a “brilliant” retired physician, fell victim to one of these scams.