A phone scammer made a mistake when he called my mother.
The young male caller pretended to be her grandson. He said he’d been arrested for fishing on an Indian reservation — unaware he was breaking the law — and needed bail money so a judge wouldn’t throw him in jail.
My mother’s response, which I’ll share in a moment, is now a classic part of family lore — but the threat that increasingly sophisticated scammers pose to elderly Americans is nothing to laugh about.
In this era of smartphones, email and social media, scammers have their choice of tools to attempt to fleece us all.
They use fraudulent texts, “spoofed” emails that appear to be from people you trust, or robocalls and other phone scams — all with the goal of separating us from our hard-earned money.
Posing as U.S. government representatives is a preferred technique. The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection says that this spring reports of such scams “reached the highest levels we have on record.”
Scam callers pretend they’re IRS agents demanding back taxes, or say your Social Security number has been suspended, or tell you the Department of Health and Human Services just made you eligible for some medical device.
Such scams are increasing in number because they’re profitable. In the past five years, the FTC received 1.3 million reports of government-impostor scams. About 6 percent of those targeted reported losing money.
People ages 20 to 59 fell for these scams more often than older people, but older victims lost considerably more money. People 80 or older reported a median loss of $2,700 per scam.
The solution: Be careful who you share personal information with — and protective of personal information you make public.
Scammers love to use information from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to their advantage. Through such “social engineering,” scammers patiently collect information they can use to convince you they are authentic and steal your money.
Perhaps a young man tells the world he’s going to Canada for the weekend — and leaves his grandmother a playful note saying he’ll bring her some fish. He may have unwittingly set her up for a phone scam.
Email scammers’ regrettable wealth of tools can give them easy access to all information on your computer — if you let them. Verify that email links and attachments are legitimate before opening them. Use anti-virus tools regularly.
Regarding government-impostor scams, know that government agencies will never call on the phone or ask for account numbers or for money to be wired. Be sure elderly family members and friends understand the risk.
Because many elderly people have nest eggs and paid-off homes, they’re ripe targets, according to the FBI. And because many are friendly, trusting and wary of being rude on the phone, they’re especially at risk in our high-tech era.
Scammers generally are located outside the U.S., making it impossible to recover stolen funds or seek justice.
Of course, if a scammer calls you, you can just hang up. Or you can do what my mother did.
Quickly realizing she’d been targeted in an attempted fraud, she feigned a feeble voice and pretended to be flummoxed.
She tied up the scammer for hours, telling him she couldn’t find her credit card, forgot the account number he gave her, couldn’t get to the bank because her car wouldn’t start — and preventing that dirty rotten son of a you-know-what from scamming another elderly person.
We still delight in her quick thinking. I share her story in the hope that it can prevent others from being victimized by increasingly sophisticated crooks.
Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.