Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Susan Tompor reports, “An estimated nine in 10 U.S. consumers — or roughly 229 million people — encountered some type of scam or fraud attempt last year, according to a new AARP research study.”
The reality is that you might be fine at fighting off scammers most of the time but one day someone catches you when your guard is down or things aren’t running smoothly.
Ask anyone who has been scammed — or almost scammed. And they’re bound to tell you that they were juggling too much work on the job or dealing with a long list of upsetting situations and worries at home. And the COVID-19 pandemic only made everyday life even more stressful.
Con artists who have been interviewed in the past admit that their odds get better when they’re able to throw someone off kilter, said Doug Shadel, an AARP fraud expert.
“It happens to all of us. No one is immune to this,” Shadel told me in a phone interview.
Coping with a stressful event wears us down, physically and mentally. We consume valuable cognitive capacity to deal with a challenge. When we’re worn down, our defenses are down and we could lose money when confronted by a crafty scammer.
Even getting hit with a large expense, such as a medical bill or car repair expense, can throw your emotions off balance.
“It’s less about who you are as a personality and it’s more about how you are at the moment,” Shadel said.
“These are not weaknesses in human beings. It’s just about being human.”
Stress can work in scammer’s favor
An estimated nine in 10 U.S. consumers — or roughly 229 million people — encountered some type of scam or fraud attempt last year, according to a new AARP research study.
Consumers were asked whether they dealt with at least one of 26 possible scams, including the ones where con artists impersonate the Internal Revenue Service, tech support scams, fake job offers, and false promises to eliminate credit card debt. The No. 1 scam encounter involved car warranties where 70% of those surveyed ran up against the scam and 2.8% experienced a financial loss.
When it comes to a car warranty scam, someone contacts you and tells you that your car warranty is about to expire. They then say they can help you get a good deal on an extension of that warranty. But often, they’re out to steal personal information, such as, your credit card number, Social Security number, or driver’s license number.
An estimated one in seven — or 33 million people — lost money to some type of a scam in 2020 alone, according to the survey.
AARP partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to determine how many U.S. adults lose money to scams each year and examine the risk factors.
The survey reached more than 9,000 adult consumers, including 1,085 fraud victims.
The new survey by the AARP revealed that fraud victims indicated that they had faced twice as many stressful life events and other challenges during the time they encountered the fraud than non-victims. Such events included death of a family member, loss of a job, or feeling lonely.
Consumer watchdogs are increasingly pointing to evidence that anyone can become a victim of a scam regardless of education, age, race, or ethnicity — and stress triggers may be one factor that can work in a scammer’s favor.
Social media and other data bases help scammers know their targets. And they know how to hit people at their weakest moments. Random calls are bound to reach someone facing challenges, too.
Shouldn’t you just know it’s too good to be true?
Think you’d never put money on a gift card to help out a guy you met a few weeks ago on Facebook? Think you’d never give someone access to your bank account online to supposedly stop fraud and prevent someone from making a big purchase using your credit card?
Think again. Most people know if it sounds too good to be true, well, it’s usually a sign that a scammer is trying to rip you off.
But just knowing that alone isn’t going to help many consumers fend off a scammer.
Scammers tend to employ tactics that either target us when we’re vulnerable or they’re aiming to get our guard down.
As the holiday season approaches and more people shop online, consumers could be way more fearful when they see a fake text from Amazon or another big name.
Scammers know how to scare you into thinking that someone just used your credit card number to make an $300 or $500 order on Amazon.
We’re more vulnerable at some times than others.
Cyber crime researchers discovered, for example, employees can be more tired and vulnerable during the day from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and on Friday. Not surprisingly, scammers, who might pose as Human Resource department managers or the boss, will often hit potential targets with phishing attacks during such days and times when they know that a person’s willpower is depleted, and their defenses are down, according to the new AARP research report.
Scammers even target loved ones of COVID-19 victims, according to a warning by the Federal Trade Commission. The scammers are after Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers. And they’re pretending to offer help pay for a loved one’s funeral expenses.
A real program began in April where COVID-19 survivors can apply for benefits by contacting the Federal Emergency Management Agency at 844-684-6333 for the funeral assistance help line. But FEMA isn’t asking you to pay anything to get financial help or texting you or reaching out on social media.
We’re all vulnerable sometime
Just think for a minute about all that’s triggering stress in your life right now — the holiday shopping ahead, the dog who just needed major surgery, the long list of caregiver duties for older family members, the job or the hunt for a job, and yes, the pandemic.
Too often, many people want to judge others who are scam victims. Some may think only older consumers, perhaps those facing illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, would be victims because their decision making skills are impaired. Not true.
If you’ve gone through some life changing trauma, such as the sickness or loss of a loved one, you know that you’re often dealing with sadness and a long list of complex obligations. And you could be more vulnerable to a scammer’s pitch.
Some scammers even want you to talk about all that personal trauma — just to get you in an upset state and off balance enough to drain even more of your thinking power.
Many times, the scammers can leave you feeling out of control.
Victims reported “far stronger emotional responses during fraud encounters than non-victims.,” according to the AARP report.
“I would ask the fraud target to tell me their life story so I could find their emotional Achilles heel” said Stephen Michaels, a convicted investment fraud scammer during an interview with AARP researchers.
“Once I found it, I would throttle up on that event by saying, ‘Tell me more about your husband’s illness.'”
Worse yet, some scammers love talking to victims of investment scams. The AARP report noted that one scammer admitted: “If I know someone has already lost a lot of money, I just let them vent about how awful it was until they work themselves into a frenzy of emotion, and then I pitch them on how my deal is different.”
The AARP report uncovered other factors that were common among fraud victims. They include:
—Not much support. Fraud victims may not have many people in their lives to talk with or work out challenges. They might be fearful of even mentioning that they received a text or phone call that was confusing.
—You’re a target. It’s not your imagination that you’re getting a lot of strange phone calls or texts. On average, the AARP report noted that fraud victims reported 60% more fraud encounters than non-victims.
Over my years of talking with scam victims, I’ve talked with attorneys who were victimized by tech support scams, mothers who have had trouble paying their bills and lost money to advance loan scams, daughters who saw a family member lose money to the promise of a big sweepstakes win, widows who were lonely and ended up victimized by online romance scams, and so many others.
And I’ve come to the understanding that anyone can really be a victim.
The scammers can stir up so many emotions that they’re able to convince you that you must act quickly — all of course so you don’t contact anyone who will reassure you that, yes, this is indeed a scam.
(Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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