Beware of scammers, scatterbrains when making digital payments

by Judy Stringer

With cases of mail theft and mail-related check fraud on the rise, many older Americans are turning to digital payment apps as an alternative to pay for goods and services and send cash to family and friends.

“Traditionally, older adults steered away from these kinds of services,” said Viktoria Jurkovic, consumer affairs manager at the Ohio Department of Commerce, “but I think because they’ve had to become more tech savvy, particularly during the pandemic, more of them are now more opened minded about the digital payment realm.”

Apps like Venmo, PayPal and Zelle – also known as peer-to-peer or P2P payment systems — allow users to send one another money from their computers or mobile devices through a linked bank account or credit card. These apps can be safer than sending checks or cash through the mail, according to Jurkovic, but are not without their own risks.

That’s mainly because digital payments don’t have the same fraud protections of credit cards, and since your bank is not involved in the transaction, “It really can’t step in and help retrieve any lost funds,” she said.

“It’s basically considered user error,” Jurkovic said. “I tell people to treat money they send through P2P payment apps like it’s cash. If you send cash to the wrong person, you are at their mercy in getting it back.”

Sending money to the wrong person – either in error or due to an intentional scam – is among the biggest complaints Jurkovic’s office hears about digital payments. Scammers, for example, have been known to troll public “friend” lists of app users and create accounts with names that look very similar to a friend’s but are slightly different, such as using a zero rather than an “o” in the name Joe. Next time that user goes to send money to her grandson Joe, she may unintentionally fund the scammer instead.   

Digital payments for goods never received is another common complaint.

“In either case, there’s not much your bank or credit card issuer can do about it,” she said.

Jurkovic said the key to using digital payment apps safely is to be proactive and deliberate.

On the proactive front:

  • Only exchange funds with people you know. Transferring money to strangers is “One of the best ways to fall victim to a scam,” she said.
  • Make your profile and “friend” list private so no one outside of your circle can see to whom you send money. 
  • Understand what, if any, buyer and seller protections come with the payment apps that you’re using. PayPal, for example, does provide “a little bit of security” for money sent in error or scam situations, according to Jurkovic, but most apps don’t provide any.

Being deliberate, she added, involves slowing down and taking the time to ensure you are entering the username information correctly and only sending the payment when you know that username is associated with the person you want to pay. Some apps give users the option of confirming a recipient by entering the last four digits of his or her mobile phone number. Don’t skip such verification opportunities.

“Unfortunately, a lot of times people send money to the wrong person because they are rushing and not fully paying attention to what they are doing,” Jurkovic said.

The commerce department executive also warns seniors to be on the lookout for scammers who try to obtain personal or financial account information with urgent calls or emails saying there’s a problem with the account.

“Often what happens is you will get a random phone calls or text that claims to be from your bank, credit card or P2P app and stating that there’s been some kind of security breach or there’s an urgent matter with your account and you need to respond quickly,” she said. “If there’s any sense of urgency on the part of the people trying to contact you, it’s most likely a scam.” If you suspect the call may legitimately be a digital payment service, call them back on a number you know to be a genuine customer service line.

Online Safety
National Cyber Security Alliance offers a few more tips for protecting yourself online:
• Create passwords and make them strong. Lock all of your devices including computer, tablet and smartphone with secure passwords. That will keep prying eyes out and add a line of defense in case your devices are lost or stolen.
• Secure access to your accounts. Since passwords can be stolen, adding two-step authentication to accounts provides a second layer of protection. Many online services, including apps and websites, offer free options that could help you protect your information and ensure it’s actually you trying to access your account – not just someone with your password.
• When in doubt, throw it out. Clicking on links in emails is often how scammers get access to personal information. If an email looks unusual, even if you know the person who sent it, it’s best to delete it.
• Share with care. Be aware of what you share publicly on social media sites like Facebook. Adjust your privacy settings to limit who can see your information. Avoid sharing your location.
• Adjust your browser safety settings. Security menus can often be found in the upper right corner of the browser. Consider clearing your browsing history at the end of your session so you don’t leave a trail of sensitive data.
• Consider support. If you live alone or spend a lot of time by yourself, consider a trusted source to serve as a second set of eyes and ears. Adult family members and grandchildren who are computer savvy may be willing to help. ∞