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Scams are on the rise, and they take many forms

When Meg Bagdonas answered the phone one December morning, she was certainly not expecting a call from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. But the caller identified himself as Agent Rosario Velasquez and said he was investigating a ring of identity thieves. The ring had been uncovered in Texas, he said, when the Postal Service intercepted a package from Mexico full of fake driver’s licenses and Social Security cards in Bagdonas’ name. The caller told Bagdonas she was a victim of identity theft and gave her what he said were his badge number and the federal case number for the incident.

Bagdonas was skeptical. She said she would call Customs and Border Patrol directly to verify the information. Instead, “Velasquez” advised her to go to a web address he gave her; he said it was a federal government website. With her years as president of the Harvard League of Women Voters, Bagdonas was quite familiar with the usual format for government web addresses, and she quickly saw the address he gave her was bogus.

Bagdonas told the self-styled agent she would call the Harvard police instead. To her surprise, he agreed that was a good idea. He said he would tell the local police to call her.

“And lo and behold,” Bagdonas wrote in an email describing the whole incident, “while I was still on the phone with the first caller, I received a call from 978-456-1212 (the nonemergency HPD phone number), and the second caller identified himself as a Harvard police officer.” Bagdonas told the second caller she would call him right back. “He hung up immediately,” she said, “and I haven’t heard anything since.”

 “We never got to the point where either caller asked me for personal, private information,” Bagdonas wrote, “but I’m certain [they] would have as it escalated.”

She called the Harvard police immediately to report the incident. In taking her report, the officer also explained that websites or apps can spoof caller ID, which was how the scammer was able to make a call appear to come from the Harvard Police Department.

An all-too-common problem

Both Detective Daniele Fortunato of the Harvard Police Department and Council on Aging Director Debbie Thompson told the Press they hear almost weekly about phone or internet scams. Within just a few recent weeks, they said, people in town have lost thousands of dollars, in some cases more than $25,000 each. The problem has become so widespread that Amazon and Chase Bank, among other large businesses, have sent out warnings and advice.

The warning from Chase included a list of the most common current scams. Among them was the “grandparent” scam, in which a youthful-sounding voice may simply say “Grandma?” when someone answers the phone. If the answerer responds with a name—“Johnny?”—the caller goes into a spiel, asking for money to deal with an emergency like a car accident, a stolen wallet, or even an arrest. “But please don’t call my parents. I don’t want to worry them,” the scammer often says, to prevent the grandparent from checking on “Johnny’s” real whereabouts.

Another common scam, mentioned by Detective Fortunato, is the so-called “geek squad” scam. In a phone call or email, the scammer pretends to be from a tech support department and asks for access to a computer or smartphone, supposedly to fix a technical problem. Or the email may tell the home computer user to “Click here” to fix the problem or renew some important software. In fact, the scammer is seeking to steal personal and financial information and passwords that are on the computer.

When in doubt about a call, text, or email, says Fortunato, check with the Police Department.

Online shopping and credit scams

When online shopping skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the scams associated with it. Amazon recently sent out a warning that advised people to go directly to their Amazon account if they get a call or an email asking them about some unfamiliar but very expensive purchase. Going directly to the online marketer’s own site—not a web address provided in the questionable email—allows a customer to check previous orders or at least get a valid customer service number to call.

The same advice holds for any supposed credit card charge. A recorded phone message may refer to a large purchase on a credit card or Amazon account and then advise, “Press 1 to speak with customer service if you did not make this purchase.” But don’t follow those directions, warned Robin Putnam from the state Office of Consumer Affairs in a 2019 presentation at Hildreth House. Instead, she said, “Call the number on the back of your credit card” to check your account.

Putnam noted that scamming robocalls go to every age group, not just seniors. “The scammers are very, very good,” Putnam said, “and they can have a lot of information about you” from online sources or even discarded mail. That information, she said, makes the scammer appear legitimate. The target of the scam may think, “How could they know all this if they weren’t really from my credit card company?” Or from Amazon, Social Security, or the Internal Revenue Service—whoever the scammer is pretending to be.

Banks on the alert

Sometimes the last line of defense against a major scam is the neighborhood bank. Lori Kelly, who is the deputy security officer for the Rollstone Bank & Trust, said bank tellers receive regular training to help identify a customer who may be on the brink of falling victim to a scam.

Kelly said an unusual withdrawal is one sign tellers look for. Another sign is “a sense of urgency.” Scammers often push people to pay quickly to prevent some dire outcome such as losing Social Security benefits, shutting off the electricity, or being turned over to a collection agency. Sometimes, Kelly said, people come into the bank while still on their cellphones, because the scammer is giving them instructions on exactly where and how to send the money.

If a teller thinks something is wrong, Kelly said, he or she may call on a supervisor. That way, the customer can discuss the withdrawal in a private office, rather than in the public area of the bank.

“We don’t want people to lose the money they have worked so hard for,” Kelly said.

Guarding against scams: Tips from the experts

The following suggestions are adapted from a variety of sources.

Don’t provide personal information to someone who calls you. Instead, place a call yourself to the company or government agency the caller claimed to represent. And use a phone number you found yourself—not a number the caller gave you.

Scammers want to rush you. Don’t let them. Take time to double-check their claims or verify their stories.

Have a code word with your grandchildren so you can be sure who is calling you.

Monitor your credit card accounts and bank accounts monthly for unfamiliar charges or withdrawals. Watch for small charges as well as big ones; sometimes fraudsters use small charges as tests to make sure an account is working.

Report suspicious account activity at once. You have only 60 days to be reimbursed for fraudulent charges.

Ask your bank to put a limit on your debit card. It’s easier to recoup money lost by fraudulent credit card charges than ones on a debit card.

Likewise, don’t keep more money in your checking account than you regularly use in a month or so. That way, if one of your checks goes astray or is altered, less money is at risk.

If you plan to donate to a charity, check online with Charity Navigator first to make sure it is genuine.

If you get an email that claims to come from your bank or a federal agency, hover your computer mouse over the sender’s name to see their full email address. If the address is something like smartguy@asdfjkl.net, it’s not from the bank!

Sources: These suggestions are based on online advice from Chase Bank, DCU Digital Banking, and Amazon and on interviews with police and bank personnel. Robin Putnam’s full presentation for the COA on Dec. 10, 2019, is available on HCTV; click on “Watch Now” and search for “fraud prevention.”

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