Police officer educates seniors to avoid phone, internet scams

by Laura Bednar

The FBI reports that the senior population in the United States loses over $3 billion annually from financial scams. Victims can report the fraud to police, but in many cases the damage has been done.

Det. Victoria Miavitz from the Sagamore Hills Police Department gave a presentation on how to avoid phone and internet scams.

Scammers target people to steal money or personal information that leads to cash thefts. Miavitz said the methods are constantly changing to keep up with technology and current events.

Usually phone scammers pretend to be someone the caller trusts and calls from what seems to be a legitimate phone number. Examples might be a call about Medicare, a non-existent sweepstakes promotion or a “government agency” collecting overdue payments.

Miavitz warns not to pick up the phone if the number is unfamiliar. “If it’s important enough, they are going to leave a message,” she said.

A popular phone scam focuses on grandparents. Someone will call pretending to be a grandchild who has been in an accident or in another situation where grandparents would likely wire money. The “grandchild” will also ask to keep it secret from their parents.

In these instances, Miavitz said the target should ask a question only the grandchild could answer, or outsmart the scammer by asking something like “How’s your sister?,” knowing the grandchild does not have a sister.

She also said it’s a good idea to set up a safe word with family to repeat on a call.

A sign that a call is a swindle is dead air at the outset. Miavitz said this often is done so artificial intelligence can record your voice saying “hello” and use it to sound more legitimate in future calls.

In cases of scammers claiming someone missed a payment or failed to file taxes, Miavitz said, “If you didn’t do something, there are legitimate ways [an agency] will contact you.”

Sweepstakes rip-offs claim the target has won a prize but must send fees to cover shipping or another pretext. Miavitz said to follow the trusted saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”

The best defense is to hang up and never give personal information. To verify the validity of a call, tell the person you will call back then do your own research. Miavitz also said to ask your phone provider how to block spam calls.

Internet scams

Online scams range from clicking on a suspicious link to connecting with someone that turns out to be a fraudster.

Imposters will often use fake information. They may pose as a friend in a chat room, on social media or dating site and build a relationship with you. After they gain your trust or romantic interest, they will ask for information or money. Miavitz added that some fraudsters will steal photos or videos from Facebook to use against their target.

A phishing scam, much like the play on words, uses bait to catch a victim. Through emails, online advertisements and websites, people will earn a person’s trust and steal their information.

One example is a scammer professing to represent a well-known technology company. Your computer screen may indicate your device has a virus, and you must call the phone number they provide to fix it. Miavitz said they will ask for personal information or ask you to follow their instructions so they can remotely gain access to your computer.

Web and email scammers might have enough legitimate information to seem genuine. Miavitz told attendees to “become skeptics.” If an email comes from an unknown sender, do not click on any links or attachments. Email addresses often look similar to a familiar contact but might be off by a letter, number or symbol, indicating falsity.

Online scammers may ask a person to purchase gift cards to pay off a debt. Miavitz reminded everyone that most gift cards can only be used at businesses from where they were purchased.

Scams growing in popularity use artificial intelligence. A device will create a fake profile using online data to deceive people. AI can duplicate human voices in real time to make it sound as if the caller is a real person. Signs of an AI scam are you were contacted randomly, it’s impossible to get a refund and you were pressured to act immediately.

Victim and aggressor

Pressure to act is a character trait of a scammer. The longer you take to respond, the more time you have to check legitimacy and scammers lose. Miavitz said, “Scammers can be aggressive in ways you would not expect from the person they claim to be.”

She added that people should not feel pressured to act immediately. “Whatever it is, it can wait,” she said. “There is no time-bomb ticking.”

The aggressor will want payment immediately through a money transfer, gift cards or bitcoin.

The elderly are more at risk because they may be lonely and willing to communicate with strangers. They might not be technologically savvy, or their judgment might be impaired by memory loss, according to Miavitz. People also become victims because they are embarrassed to talk to family members or police about a potential scam.

These scams have touched Sagamore Hills Township. Miavitz said a resident received a call from his “grandchild” asking for $18,000, and he visited three banks to retrieve cash and send it to the caller. The scammer now has a warrant out for his arrest.

As final advice, she encouraged attendees to consult with a trusted friend or family member if they have questions about potential scams.

Victims can report fraud to the state attorney general and the Federal Communications Commission. Other tips are available at fraud.org. ∞

On our cover (photo): Det. Victoria Miavitz of the Sagamore Hills Police Department gave a presentation at Ferfolia Funeral Home about how seniors can avoid scams online and by phone. Dozens attended to find out today’s common scam tactics. Photo from Facebook.