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Fake emails and texts have been flooding our phones lately. Scams have exploded in the past year. Both the most vulnerable, senior citizens, and the youngest have been hit hard. 

“I don't really think it's gotten any better,” said Detective Sgt. Phil Emmott, of the Hingham Police Department. “I really think it's gotten worse.”

More teens and adults in their 20s fall for scams than seniors. However, seniors lose the most money because of the wealth they have accumulated.

According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), victims older than 60 lost $3.1 billion in 2022, an 84% increase from 2021. And as of August 2023, losses have already exceeded those in 2022 by 40%.

Hingham police Sgt. Detective Phil Emmott gave a presentation to seniors about scams at the Hingham Council on Aging, Sept. 20, 2023. Emmott said the problem appears to be getting worse.

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In Massachusetts, seniors lost $70.1 million in 2022, which ranked 11th nationally. But that figure is probably on the low end, as some victims are too embarrassed to reveal that they had fallen for a scam. 

Nationally, seniors lost the most on investment scams with a total of $990.2 million in 2022. The scam with the most number of victims was for tech support, at 17,810.

“We all have grandparents, we have loved ones,” said Emmott. “So we see folks go through this. We think of our own family.”

Types of Scams

  • Grandparent scam
  • Investment/ cryptocurrency
  • Call center/ tech support/ delivery problem
  • Bail money/ fine from scammers impersonating local law enforcement
  • Scammers impersonating Facebook, Amazon or local business
  • Business email compromised
  • Lottery/prize scam
  • Romance scams
  • Contractor- extra supplies from another job
  • Sextortion- compromising images (women & boys)

In August, a Hingham couple, ages 82 and 78, fell victim to the arrested relative scam, also known as the grandparent scam. The scammers claimed their daughter was involved in a car accident and that she would need $24,000 that day or risk going to jail. 

The scammers coached the seniors with answers to use if the bank teller questioned them about the large withdrawal. The couple then gave the money to a courier who came to their house. 

Scammers also target non-English speaking communities

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Hingham police also reported two seniors who were scammed out of $36,000 in two separate instances in which messages indicated their computer had a virus.

Some scammers target non-English speaking communities that have distinct vulnerabilities unique to them. On WeChat, a Chinese messaging platform, scammers message overseas Chinese people that their friends or family members in China are in prison and need bail money. 

Paying for utility bills has now become a problem, too. Braintree police reported a case of whitewashing checks, where scammers would use a master key to open mailboxes to find personal checks. Scammers cash the check using their bank mobile app after replacing the name of the utility with their own. 

The FBI recently released a statement a week ago warning about the Phantom Hacker scam. Many victims have lost their life savings thinking they were taking steps to protect their assets. Scammers pose as tech support and instruct victims to download a program so they can get remote access to the victim’s computers.  

Red Flags

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  • A request is made for payment in gift cards
  • The contacting party asks for an address to provide a courier
  • A sense of urgency on the phone
  • There’s a misspelling or two different fonts are used in the name of email sender
  • A link to a website address that's similar to a major brand.
  • The contacting party asks for remote access to a computer
  • Texts come from unrecognized numbers
  • If it sounds too good to be true, i.e., eligible for prizes or lottery

Plymouth County Sheriff Joe McDonald Jr. and the Plymouth County district attorney, Tim Cruz, have been educating seniors about scams through the TRIAD program. Members of TRIAD hold workshops and distribute pamphlets to senior centers throughout Plymouth County.

Training sessions are also being held by local police and at regional banks like Rockland Trust, which has more than 120 branches serving 390,000 consumers, businesses, municipalities and nonprofits throughout Massachusetts. 

A sign warns buyers about gift card scams at Best Buy in Tacoma, Washington, on Aug. 31, 2023.

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About 20 seniors attended a recent information session held by Hingham police at the Council on Aging, where Emmott highlighted red flags for seniors to watch out for.

Officer Lisa McCracken, who was part of the training, recounted seniors running hysterically into the lobby of the Police Department with their phones to their ears asking police to check to see if it's a scam.

Rockland Trust includes printed warnings about scams, has podcasts about it, and hosts video tutorials on its website. It also trains tellers on how to spot scam victims. 

Local experts offer tips to thwart scams

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Julie Beckham, assistant vice president of financial education, development and strategy officer at Rockland Trust, has been teaching financial education since 2011. 

If you receive an email, text or call, she suggests pausing by saying, "1-2-3 let me see" before acting on a request to prevent being scammed. 

The psychological impact for victims lasts well after the scam. 

“What's toughest about it is that it feels really personal,” said Beckham, who has had friends and friends of friends fall for scams.

“People are shaken and upset,” said Carol Hamilton, director at the Marshfield Council on Aging. “And (they) feel victimized and feel stupid. Embarrassed.”

A newsletter detailing an impersonation scam was included with a bank statement from Rockland Federal Credit Union.

Financial losses can be enough to wipe them out, according to Hamilton. Victims lose trust in other people, which is devastating to see. 

Scammers also take advantage of seniors who are suffering from cognitive issues. 

Hamilton recalled how a Marshfield senior who suffered from dementia came to the COA really upset about being scammed but couldn’t recall the details of what happened to him. All he knew at the time was that he made a terrible mistake. 

“If families know they have cognitive decline, they should try to take the necessary steps to try to protect them from vulnerability, because they are more vulnerable,” said Hamilton. 

However, it’s a fine balance families have to navigate.

Seniors sometimes don't report scams due to shame

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Seniors may refrain from reporting being scammed because they're afraid of losing their financial independence if they admit they've been fooled. It may look like a sign of decline to loved ones, even though scammers are sophisticated. 

“These scammers are professional,” said McDonald. “This is what they do. They’re thieves, just as if they came to your house with a mask and a gun. And what they do is what con men have always done.”

Reporting scams is important for law enforcement to prevent more people from falling victim. They stress they are there to help victims and their loss is just as important as other crimes.

Having conversations with family members about scams is important to prevent your loved ones from becoming a victim. 

“I think the more we talk about it, the more we normalize the fact that these things happen,” said Beckham, of Rockland Trust. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about.”

Unfortunately, scams are evolving with emerging technology.

“AI (artificial intelligence), I think, is going to enhance tremendously (scammers’) ability to know about us and to recreate aspects in a very believable way of our lives that are going to be very difficult to distinguish from the real world,” said McDonald. 

Kathy Barry of Hingham asks a question during a workshop on scams presented by Hingham Police at the Hingham Council on Aging on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.

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A recent study concluded that humans cannot reliably detect speech deepfakes, which scammers will use in the future. 

The FBI released a warning in June about malicious actors manipulating photos and videos which will become increasingly easier with developing technology to create compromising photos and videos to extort money from victims. Twenty girls, ages 11-17, were victims of AI-manipulated photos in the Spanish town of Almendralejo.

Sextortion mostly targets women, but it also includes boys who are being reached through online gaming. Scammers pretend to be girls that pretend to be interested in them romantically and ask for compromising photos.

Because of major data breaches at Experian, T.J. Maxx, Yahoo, LinkedIn and , a lot of our personal information, like emails, phone numbers and addresses, are on sale on the dark web, which is likely the reason for the influx of texts and emails. Recently, 23andMe’s data was also leaked. 

“I think everyone needs to assume that all of their information is somehow out there, available to the bad guys,” warned McDonald. 

One thing to keep in mind when dealing with a potential scammer is that they don’t want to spend too much time or energy on a single victim. They will easily move on to the next candidate because there are so many at their disposal. 

One woman, Judy Mullane-O'Brien, attended the scam information session at the Hingham Council on Aging. It verified a lot of things she had been hearing and she learned how important it is not to panic. 

“(I learned) not to be afraid,” Mullane-O'Brien said. “Hang up on people and they go away.”

What to do if you have been scammed:

  • Call local police
  • Report it to the postmaster inspector if contacted by mail
  • Report scam to the FTC
  • File a complaint with FBI’s IC3 
  • Check credit report
  • Change passwords depending on scam
  • Call National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-FRAUD-11

Sources


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