Senior Citizens increasingly becoming targets for scammers; sheriff issues warning

Ed Robbins, of rural Huntington, shows a list on his cell phone of the multiple calls he’s recently received from scammers. A variety of scams that especially target the elderly have not only inundated his phone, but his wife and numerous other local Seniors have also gotten calls. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.
Ed Robbins, of rural Huntington, shows a list on his cell phone of the multiple calls he’s recently received from scammers. A variety of scams that especially target the elderly have not only inundated his phone, but his wife and numerous other local Seniors have also gotten calls. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

In today’s high-tech world, one can never be too wary – especially if one is a Senior Citizen.

Scam attempts seem to be on the uptick in Huntington County, and it’s not even official tax season yet. Some area residents – all of them over age 55 – say they have been inundated with calls, informing them their sensitive information has been compromised by scam artists who are actually trying to pry their personal information from them. And more and more, the crooks’ prime targets are the elderly.

Huntington County resident Ed Robbins has recently received a plethora of calls that were multiple scams, most of them leaving messages on his personal cell phone.

“They leave a voicemail; as a matter of fact, it’s a transcript even,” he reports. “Essentially it says, ‘This call is from the Department of Social Security Administration. The reason you have received this phone call from our department is to inform you that we just suspended your Social Security number because we found some suspicious activity. So if you want to know about this case just press one.’”

Robbins gets the calls every three or four days, usually coming from someone who acts like an “older, pleasant gentleman,” he says. “Only about halfway through his spiel does he act like it’s urgent. He starts out like a nice old boy, then the next thing you know it’s really urgent, and you’ve got to call him back.”

Even Joan Robbins, Ed’s wife, is no stranger to getting the calls, even receiving threats from would-be scammers. She recently got a call from someone identifying themselves as being from the Internal Revenue Service, who threatened her with arrest if she didn’t immediately pay the back taxes she owed. She doesn’t owe any. Joan invited them to send the cops out to her house and they quickly exited the conversation.

“And the other day, I got a call from a young man and he said, ‘Hello Grandma? This is your grandson,’” she says. “I told him that was odd, since I don’t have a grandson. He immediately hung up.”

That scheme is an old one in phone scammer cons. The man targets elderly women, telling them he is in jail or tied up in customs in another country and needs her – his grandmother – to help him bail out or pay what he owes. By now the Robbinses are both scam-savvy, but they want to warn others to beware.

“We’re just annoyed with it,” Ed says, “but somebody can really get hurt by it.”

Pat Scher, another Huntington resident, says she’s gotten more calls than usual, mostly about her credit card. She knows something is fishy because she pays her credit card off every month. The caller is usually asking for her to “verify” her personal information, such as her birth date, Social Security number and credit card numbers. This process is known as “phishing.”

“They say, ‘Please don’t hang up,’ but I hang up,” she says. “I just don’t think I need to have them.”

Cindy Geders also says she has received a rash of scam calls recently, some from people purporting to be from the Social Security Administration and others telling her to stay on the line to learn about her credit card account.

“They’re saying, ‘The-re’s not really a problem, but …’ then they go into whatever their pitch is,” Geders relates. “I’ve also gotten calls from people saying that they were afraid my personal information has been breached … He did ask me for my Social Security card number, and I knew not to give that out over the phone … A legitimate organization will not ask you for that over the phone.”

Geders is painfully aware of how strangers on the telephone can target and steal from the elderly, as her father was scammed out of about $100,000.

“He gave away just about everything he had,” she says. “He was scammed by people who would call – he’s elderly – and he would say, ‘Well, I want to make sure I’m talking to the right person, so they would give him a number to call.,” she says. “But he wasn’t thinking in his mind, ‘You know, they’re giving me this number to call but they could be giving me a wrong number.’”

All this comes just ahead of tax time, when fraudulent callers prey on taxpayers to either share their ID information, send them money or open files onto their computers that turn out to be corrupted with malware.

The most common tax scams are phone calls and emails from thieves who pretend to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Scammers use the IRS name, logo, fake employee names and badge numbers to try to steal money and identities from taxpayers.

Taxpayers need to be wary of phone calls or automated messages from someone who claims to be from the IRS. Often, these criminals will say taxpayers owe money and demand payment right away. Other times, scammers will lie to taxpayers and say they’re due a refund. The thieves ask for bank account information over the phone. The IRS warns taxpayers not to fall for these scams.

In November, the Indiana Department of Revenue (DOR) and the IRS issued a warning about scammers impersonating officials encouraging individuals to open links sent in email messages. The links can infect unwary users’ computers with a virus-like malware known as “Emotet,” which is complex, destructive and may take several months – and lots of money – to remove.

The warning states that Emotet is known to constantly evolve, and in the past few weeks has masqueraded as the IRS, pretending to be “IRS Online.” The scam email includes an attachment labeled “Tax Accountant Transcript” or something similar, with the subject line often including the words “tax transcript.” There may even be an official-looking logo displayed in the email to aid in the appearance of being an official communication.

Neither the DOR nor IRS contact customers via email to share sensitive documents such as a tax transcript.

Both agencies offer several tips to help individuals to not fall prey to email scams:

• Use security software to protect against malware and viruses, and be sure it’s up-to-date.

• Never open emails, attachments or click on links when you’re not sure of the source.

• If you are using a personal computer and you receive an email claiming to be the IRS, it is recommended to delete or forward the email to phishing@irs.gov. If the email claims to come from the DOR forward it to investigations@dor.in.gov. Businesses receiving these emails should also contact the company’s technology professionals. Local law enforcement should be notified as well.

“We get scams all the time; it’s not uncommon for our department to get phone calls on scams, especially with technology,” says Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton. “I think the elderly came from a time and an age where you could really trust about anybody. A lot of those folks still do keep their doors unlocked, and it’s just a different time anymore, so people tend to prey on those individuals.”

Newton also has tips to add to help keep Seniors and other potential scam victims safe from identity thieves.

“Anytime you see somebody say, ‘Just send the money via Western Union, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be a scam,” he warns. “If there’s a Western Union attached to it and they want you to put money there, it’s a scam.”

Newton says it’s difficult for anyone – including Seniors – to recognize a scam when they answer their phone.

“A lot of these are professional people and this is what they do for a living,” he says. “If you have any questions, don’t make any decisions immediately; do your due diligence and do some online searches on those particular things that they (the scammers) are talking about – the  businesses, the names.”

If something seems fishy it often is. Newton advises elders to contact their families for a second opinion if they feel that something’s up.
“Usually that sixth sense that we all have is there for a reason,” he adds. “In the back of our minds, something is telling us that it doesn’t ‘feel’ right. If that’s what you’re feeling, then you’re probably right.”

Newton also warns against believing the number that may show up on a caller ID screen. Many times, scammers have sophisticated programs and can change the caller ID to say they’re somebody else.

“I had dispatch call me the other day, and say, ‘Hey, just so you know, a scammer was just using your department cellular phone number,’” he says. “You can’t believe what you see on the caller ID.”

Another word of advice: don’t pay for anything up front.

“Especially when you’re doing money stuff, always consider how you pay,” Newton says. “Giving your credit card information over the phone to somebody is never a good idea. Wiring money – especially like a Western Union or maybe a Moneygram is always risky, because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back when you do it that way.”

And Newton reiterates that you should never give your sensitive ID information over the phone to someone you don’t know for any reason.
He also advises people to hang up if they get a “robocall” – a recorded message that plays automatically when the call is answered.

“Again, these scammers are professionals,” Newton stresses. “They are not some 13-year-old kid that you’re going to recognize on the phone and say, ‘It doesn’t feel right.’ These people get paid to lie … And a lot of the scams that we see come from third-world countries.”
Some phone companies offer “Robocall protection,” which sends automated messages to voicemail or to the trash.

Other telephone companies such as Verizon Fios offer a connection with Nomorobo (nomorobo.com), a third-party service that that identifies known robocallers and telemarketers and stops your digital voice home phone from ringing. However, Nomorobo will not work with Traditional copper voice service. There is a fee charged for the service.

Phone customers can also sign up on Indiana’s Do Not Call List, which may deter some companies from calling. The Do Not Call Registry accepts registrations from both cell phones and landlines. To register by telephone, call 888-382-1222 (TTY: 866-290-4236). You must call from the phone number that you want to register. To register online (donotcall.gov), you will have to respond to a confirmation email.

But even then, unscrupulous scam artists may simply ignore the list and call anyway. If you receive a call you suspect to be a robo call, even if your number is not on the Do Not Call list, you may file a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. Exceptions include calls from school districts to students, parents, or employees and businesses advising employees of work schedules. More information is available at in.gov/attorneygeneral/2446.htm or call 888-834-9969 to request a complaint form.

If you do fall victim to a scam, call the Huntington County Sheriff’s Office at 356-8316; Huntington city residents should call 356-7110. And call your bank immediately to notify them of the situation. Fast action can sometimes provide protection from having additional money stolen, and may even help arrest the culprit.