AARP survey shows public overconfident in spotting scammers

Beulah Green of Pasco didn’t fall for any of the scam calls she recently received.

One scammer called from a Florida number claiming she missed jury duty and police would be coming to arrest her.

Another said he was calling about her computer, but Green doesn’t own one.

A third one said she owed back taxes.

The 82-year-old woman recognized the scams for what they were and cut the callers off short, often with a snappy retort.

“The one who called about jury duty said the police would be at my house by 12 o’clock to arrest me. I said, ‘Well, I’ll be here,’” she said.

Green is among the 79 percent of Washington state consumers who reported being targeted by at least one of the most common imposter scams, according to a new survey from AARP.

Green said she received three scam calls in the past six months.

“I don’t give anyone my Social Security number. Not any of them,” she said.

While 85 percent of those who took the AARP survey said they could spot and avoid a fraudulent pitch, more than 77 percent failed an “Imposter IQ” quiz.

People are becoming overconfident in being able to spot an imposter, said Doug Shadel, AARP state director, at a May 25 Kennewick educational workshop to launch “Unmasking the Imposters,” a joint campaign with the state Attorney General’s Office, Federal Trade Commission and BECU. Green was among more than 250 people who attended.

“There is this meteoric rise in imposter scams,” Shadel said, explaining it’s getting easier to be an imposter, thanks to technology.

Among the survey highlights:

  • Nearly half (44 percent) of Washington consumers do not know that technology companies do not contact consumers about viruses on their computers.
  • About three-quarters of Washington consumers (71 percent) did not know that it is illegal to play a foreign lottery when you’re in the U.S.
  • About three-quarters of Washington consumers (72 percent) did not know that when surfing the internet, a locked box icon does not necessarily mean it is safe to interact with the site.
  • Three-quarters of respondents (73 percent) did not know that commercial telemarketing calls from companies you have not done business with are illegal.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told the seniors in attendance about his mother, a retired public school teacher, who received a scammer’s email. The message appeared to be from a friend claiming she lost her passport while traveling and needed $1,000 to return home.

“She knows Susan. She didn’t think she was traveling. But she wasn’t sure,” Ferguson said, adding that not every 85-year-old woman in Washington has a son who is the attorney general to check on them.

Ferguson’s office fielded 42,000 consumer complaints in 2016 and said half of all consumer fraud victims are over the age of 50.

He encouraged seniors to tell callers they’ll file a complaint with his office as a way to get off the phone. All they need to do is call 1-800-551-4636 or visit, he said.

“Report them to us. It makes a huge difference,” he said.

Ferguson said he’s expanded the state’s Consumer Protection Division. In 2013, there were eight attorneys and today there are 25 attorneys. No tax dollars are used to fund the department. Instead, lawsuits against “bad actors” provide its funding.

“This thing makes millions of dollars,” Ferguson said, explaining the money won in cases is reinvested back into the program.

He told those in attendance to take the information they learned at the Kennewick workshop and share it with their friends. “Be skeptical,” he told them.

Courtney Gregoire, assistant general counsel for Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit and daughter of former governor Chris Gregoire, said scammers have a simple goal: to separate you from your money and gain access to your computer.

It’s a serious problem, with Microsoft receiving 10,000 reports a month. She encouraged seniors to continue to report scams so her department can analyze data and bring lawsuits against the fraudsters.

She told seniors not to fall for website pop-up advertisements as they’re often disguised as promotional or security alerts. She instead told seniors to initiate help and verify sources.

“If you click anywhere in the box, it can activate the ad,” she said.

Instead of clicking on the “close” button in the pop-up, shut down the computer’s browser, she advised.

She said other red flags to pay attention to in emails include low resolution images, odd names in email addresses, odd characters, typos and incorrect information.

“Report it. Almost every email server wants you to report you received phishing email,” Gregoire said. “Delete it and alert others who might be at risk.”

She told seniors to review their privacy settings and remove their addresses and birth dates from public profiles. She told them to take out memory chips before recycling printers and computers.

She said she worried the workshop was “scaring you from using technology” that can make life better and provide connections around the globe to family and friends. But she encouraged seniors to use their devices frequently so they are familiar and comfortable with them.

The Kennewick event also featured a taped interview with Jayesh Dubey, a 19-year-old native of Mumbai, India, who worked in one of the largest IRS scam rooms in the world.

His job offered a starting salary of about $250, plus commissions, which was about six times more than anyone else was offering, he said.

Dubey’s job involved answering frantic return calls from U.S. consumers after they had received stern voice mail messages from fictitious IRS agents telling them they owed back taxes.

The goal was to get the victim to pay the phony “tax bills” by buying gift cards and providing the numbers to Dubey, who called himself “Officer Adam Smith.”

And if the victim refused or asked too many questions, he had a threat ready: “As I told you, your case file has already been submitted to the courthouse procedure. Only I can help you now. And if you don’t believe me, then I’ll just hang up the call, and in 45 minutes a local sheriff will be at your doorstep.”

He said the owner of the operation would send out about 50,000 voicemails each day with messages claiming to come from IRS agents. “Out of those 50,000 voicemails, we’d get around 10,000 to 15,000 call backs, and I’d personally take 150 to 200 calls a day,” he said.

Dubey quit the job shortly before the operation was busted by Indian authorities in July 2016, when 700 people were rounded up for questioning. Weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 61 individuals and entities in the transnational criminal organization that victimized tens of thousands of people in the U.S.

To avoid scammers like Dubey, the new “Unmasking the Imposters” campaign offer these five tips:

  • IRS imposter scam: The IRS will not contact you by phone about paying back taxes without first sending you a written notice.
  • Tech support scam: Technology companies will not contact you to warn about viruses on your machine. Don’t give out your financial information, and don’t give anyone access to your computer.
  • Family emergency scam: The goal of this scam is to play on your fears and get you to act fast. Slow down and check with others to make sure you’re really hearing from a loved one.
  • Romance scam: Be extra careful when dealing with anyone you’ve met online. Romance scams often start with fake profiles on online dating sites. Be wary of anyone who professes love too quickly, wants to leave the dating site immediately and use personal email or instant messaging to communicate, or anyone who asks for money.
  • Foreign lottery fraud: You can’t win a lottery you never entered. Plus it’s illegal for a U.S. citizen to participate in a foreign lottery when they are in the U.S.
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