Overall, scammers extracted an estimated $1 billion from Americans last year, and 70% of reported fraud began with a phone call, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which says phone-based scams took nearly $300 million from Americans, while online fraud took $141 million and email-based fraud another $100 million.
Still, scams involving fake tech support help, online dating and tax refunds are rapidly gaining ground. And while federal officials say millennials are twice as likely to be scammed as seniors, they’re less likely to lose as much: Consumers in their 70s lost an average of $621, while victims ages 80 and older lost nearly $1,100. Millennials, in contrast, lost $400 on average, according to the FTC.
Nofziger and FTC officials said that technology combined with a personal touch is a growing concern. Scammers can look up a target’s Facebook page and pretend to be the authorities or a kidnapper in a far-off place demanding money to release a loved one or head off an impending arrest. Even worse: sophisticated online dating scams that target people living alone. That type of scam takes longer to execute but can be both financially and emotionally devastating.
Californian Elizabeth Owens, 68, is still reeling from a recent scam that took $36,000 of her hard-earned money over three months. It started, she said, with a phone call on a Friday afternoon in early December from a man claiming to work for U.S. Customs. Out of the blue, he claimed she was facing arrest because her name was on a package of confiscated painkillers in another country. The man told her she needed to pay bail money to keep from being arrested.
Owens had no reason to believe he was telling the truth — she wasn't expecting a package and didn't know anyone abroad — but believed it was all just a mistake that would soon get sorted out.
Week after week, “Michael" promised Owens progress was being made, and she only needed to pay small filing fees or put up a percentage of the potential fines to clear her name. Keep the Western Union and Moneygram wire transfer receipts, he told her, because all of her money would be refunded when her name was cleared. He also provided her official-looking documents referencing her case, and used legal jargon that lent an air of credibility.
“I was strung along thinking everything was legit,” the former local government worker said. “He made me feel like I was part of the team. He befriended me."
» RELATED: Are your credit cards at greater risk for fraud?Telling her story now, Owens marvels at how foolish she's been, insisting she would have never thought she'd fall for what seems like such an obvious scam. "Michael" demanded confidentiality, told her that her phone was tapped and her internet usage was being monitored. Experts say that's textbook scammer behavior: Keep the victim off balance and emotional.
“He was always reminding me how confidential this all was,” Owens said. “I was literally sick to my stomach. You get to a point where you’re just so freaked out you don’t question it.”
Experts say questioning everything makes sense. Real authorities aren’t going to demand you act immediately, won’t be calling you on the phone and would never ask that you keep things confidential. “Take a deep breath. Take your time. And before you do anything, talk to somebody,” said Monica Vaca of the Federal Trade Commission. “And it almost doesn’t matter who you talk to. Just talk to somebody else.”
Owens wishes she had. After reporting the scam to the FTC, FBI, AARP and her local sheriff, she’s not expecting to get her money back. She also texts “Michael” daily to demand her money back. She hopes it annoys it him.
“I’m humiliated. I’m embarrassed. And I’m angry,” she said. “He kept telling me things I wanted to hear about progress in my case. As soon as I started questioning things, he’d throw out something out there and reel me back in."
Tearing up, she added: "I want to see him punished. I want this guy caught. If talking to you saves one person from a scam like this, it's worth it. But there's too many of them out there."
Nofziger said she advises people to ignore phone calls unless they know who is calling. Spammers can spoof a number so it looks like a neighbor or a local police department, but they rarely leave a message. “People really love their phones. And my advice is that if you don’t know who is calling, just don’t pick up the phone,” she said. “It’s not a long-lost boyfriend or Oprah calling. It’s just not.”
If a family member or friend has been scammed, remember that yelling at them won't make anything better, Nofziger and Vaca said. In most cases, the victim is already embarrassed and ashamed, in addition to being out the money. Nofziger said she advises giving a hug, any other support that person might need and then helping them report the scam and figuring how not to get victimized again.
No matter what, Nofziger and Vaca said, it's important to remember that anyone can fall victim to a scam because crooks are using sophisticated techniques and technology to target you. They said the most important thing for people of any age is to remain on guard.
"People tend to not see themselves as vulnerable as fraud – they see other people as vulnerable, that it's something that happens to someone else," Vaca said. "And that's a big, big problem."
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