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Retire Better: Seniors beware: The FBI says these are the 10 biggest online scams

It’s the season of giving, but for scam artists the holidays are all about taking. Taking your money, your identity, taking whatever they can profit off.

As usual in this coverage, online scams are often the fastest way criminals can rip you off. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says its Internet Crime Complaint Center is bracing for an uptick in crimes this year, by thugs who will say or do whatever it takes to rip you off. 

“The best thing you can do to be a savvy shopper is to know what scams are out there and take some basic precautions,” says Kieran L. Ramsey, special agent in charge of the FBI in Portland, Ore.

Read: The quick and easy way to lose your life savings

Confidence fraud and romance scams

This is the biggest type of online crime of all, says the FBI’s annual “Elder Fraud Report,” which accounted for some $281 million in losses last year (2021’s final data will be released early next year). The true figure is certainly higher, given that barely a quarter of all online scams are even reported.

These types of scams happen when a victim, likely a widow or widower, receives romantic attention from someone online. The crooks slowly win the trust of their victims, pulling their heartstrings and eventually convincing them to send money under false pretenses to the scammer. Here’s some really good advice from the FBI on how to protect yourself.

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Compromised emails

This is the second single-biggest source of scams against older Americans, the FBI says. You might see an email that appears to be from your bank or a store you shop at. The message line might say: “Action Needed” or “Take Our Survey”—anything to get you to open the email and click on a link or attachment. That’s when they’ve got you. Scammers can see your account numbers, passwords, birth dates and more—all of which can be used to steal money, or even your identity. 

A separate federal agency, the Federal Trade Commission, says identity theft more than tripled between 2018 and 2020, driven in no small part by scams related to aid programs related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Never click on attachments from a “government agency,” bank or store—just don’t. 

‘Tech support’

These scams have proliferated during the pandemic, taking advantage of the fact that we’re spending more time at home, isolated and in front of our computer screens. The FBI defines these crimes as occurring when you get an email or popup notice saying that your computer has a virus or some other problem that needs immediate attention. To fix it, just click on this attachment! This is, again, just an attempt to access your computer to steal personal and financial information. Again: Don’t click on anything, don’t call any toll free “Help Desk” number. If you have a problem with your computer, contact Apple Support — I can assure you that these links ARE safe — Apple support and Microsoft support

One way to tell if a website is legitimate, by the way: Go to the address bar and look for this: 

The lock symbol and an address that starts with https://. Meanwhile, BeenVerified also offers advice on how to ensure that a website is safe.

Other online crimes against seniors that make the FBI’s top 10 include:

Investment. When you’re tricked into putting money into a stock, crypto-currency, or “hot IPO” that really doesn’t exist. 

Real estate/rental. The real estate market is hot. Wanna get in on the ground floor of a new development? Uh, no you don’t.

Government impersonation. The IRS, Social Security or Medicare doesn’t call people. It doesn’t send “agents” or “representatives” to your door. Period. They do send letters. But if there’s an issue, call them. You can also visit their websites—again, these are safe: the IRS website, the Social Security Administration website and the Medicare website.

Spoofing .(when someone or something pretends to be something else in an attempt to gain our confidence). This is similar to government impersonation, but in this case a crook may pretend to be, say, a doctor with a miracle cure for COVID-19. Just send in your money! Of course, there is a miraculous way to prevent COVID-19: it’s called a vaccine.

Non-delivery. The supply chain’s all gummed up because of the pandemic. But wait! This company says it has a few (name a toy) – exactly what you’d like to give your grandchildren for a holiday gift. But hurry! Supplies are limited. Order now. Then, it never shows up. During the early stages of the pandemic, crooks made oodles of money on non-delivery of things that were in short supply, like toilet paper and masks.  

Identity theft.  You know how this works. The bad guys get a hold of sensitive info—your birthdate, Social Security number, bank account info, etc., and are off to the races. In terms of the sheer number of seniors affected, the FBI says this is the fourth biggest online crime. This has gotten worse during the pandemic because folks have been posting their vaccination cards on Facebook and elsewhere. Please don’t do this—unless you want crooks to know your birth date, or patient number. 

Lottery / sweepstakes /inheritance.  Wow! You’ve won the lottery! Or have inherited a bunch of money! It’s your lucky day. But to process your winnings, or to verify that it’s really you, we’ll need your Social Security number, date of birth—and a fee to process your winnings. Don’t be fooled. 

“Each year, millions of elderly Americans fall victim to some type of financial fraud or internet scheme, such as romance scams, tech support fraud, and lottery or sweepstake scams,” says Calvin Shivers,  who at the time the report came out, was assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Criminals gain their targets’ trust or use tactics of intimidation and threats to take advantage of their victims” he said, adding that Americans over 60 are the group most likely to be victimized. 

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