Déjà Vu Deception: These Old Senior Scams Resurface Again
Rerun rip-offs are nothing new; what’s previously worked for scammers will likely be successful again. And that holds especially true for these three longtime (and historically prosperous) ploys that have resurfaced with a vengeance:
Jury Duty Scam
Going strong for more than a decade, this telephone scheme has scammers posing as court employees or members of law enforcement ranging from local police to U.S. marshals. They say that you failed to appear for mandated jury duty, and as a result of that supposed no-show, you face immediate arrest.
These impostors are usually well-prepared — citing the name and address of their target (often drawn from public directories) and spoofing caller ID to show the phone number and name of a courthouse or law enforcement agency. “The scammers often provide information that seems very convincing, including the real names of federal judges or court employees, the location of the courthouse, and case and badge numbers. The victim has every reason to believe the call is legitimate,” notes a recent warning from federal authorities. “The caller then tells the victim they can avoid arrest by paying an immediate fine and walks them through purchasing a prepaid debit or gift card or making an electronic payment to satisfy the ‘fine.’”
What makes this scheme especially dangerous: In addition to getting a quick payoff, scammers may solicit sensitive personal information, including your birth date and Social Security number, for possible identity theft. What to know:
- As with jury duty summonses, official “no show” notifications are delivered by mail. Phone calls won’t occur unless a jury duty summons was mailed but returned to sender because it couldn’t be delivered.
- Police do not warn of an impending arrest. Courthouse employees don’t call after hours, while you’re eating dinner or when you’re preparing for bed. Scammers do.
- A bona fide court will never ask for a credit or debit card number, wire transfer or bank routing number over the phone for any purpose — including missing jury duty. Fines aren’t imposed until after you’ve appeared in court and been given the opportunity to explain a failure to appear.
Utility Shutoff Scam
In this swindle, fraudsters pose as local utility company personnel, claiming that electric, gas or water service to your home or business will be terminated within hours because of unpaid bills — unless the alleged tab is paid immediately. (Again, payment is typically requested by prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer.) The typical homeowner who takes the bait loses about $500 — nearly twice the amount of other phone scams — while some business owners have lost more than $10,000.
These scams have gotten so common — breaking rip-off records last year and on track for another banner year this winter (this ploy peaks during the heating season) — that more than 100 utilities have formed Utilities United Against Scams to warn customers. “Live” phone calls remain the most common way to con, but newer methods include bogus emails, robocalls and even “on-site” scammers in uniforms seeking a quick payoff or home entry for possible burglary. What to know:
- Before shutting off service, all utilities mail at least one written notice, providing you with several options to pay (online, return mail, phone, automatic bank draft or in person). None initiate the shutoff process with an unexpected phone call.
- Like most legitimate businesses, utilities don’t accept gift cards and never require payment by prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Scammers prefer these methods because they are like sending cash.
- Service on meters or inside the home is usually prearranged; if there’s a charge for work on customer-owned equipment, you’ll be billed by the utility, not asked for on-the-spot payment.
No surprise on the timing here: Most charitable donations in the U.S. (nearly $390 billion last year) are made in December. That’s when scammers do a full attack to dupe would-be donors with a hard sell and heartfelt scripts, typically made in unsolicited phone calls, but also front-door visits and email campaigns.
Some feign to be collecting on behalf of recognized groups, but more often they use sound-alike names of legitimate charities or invent their own authentic-sounding organizations. What to know:
- Listen or watch for imitative words, such as “National” being substituted for “American” in a well-known name. Mailed solicitations are less likely to be fraudulent than those by phone, email or front-door visit, so unless you dialed the call or previously provided your email address to that organization, don’t provide a credit card number over the phone or online. Also know that legitimate charities won’t specifically request prepaid debit cards or other scammer-preferred payment methods.
- The most successful scams (read: hot-button hoaxes) targeting older Americans are phony charities claiming to benefit police and firefighters, military veterans, sick or needy children, or victims of natural disasters.
- Before donating in response to any solicitation, check the charity’s name and reputation at Give.org, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch or GuideStar. You can also contact the agency in your state that regulates charities.