Trees and flowers aren’t the only things growing this spring. We’re seeing a huge increase in phone scams and phishing campaigns–all designed to separate seniors from their money.
To understand how scammers can reach seniors by phone or phony email campaigns, you should understand a few things about modern communications technology.
Phony Phone Calls
Let’s start with your telephone. Whether you have a landline or cellular phone, it most likely has caller ID–which is supposed to display the phone number of your caller and maybe even the name of the person or company calling. The operative word is “supposed.” What you see on your phone’s display is not necessarily the actual number or name of the caller.
In today’s telephone technology, scammers use computer technology to “spoof” a phone number or name that might be familiar to you. Two of the meanings of “spoof” are hoax and deceive, and an incoming call that shows an Atlanta area code actually may be coming from a phone anywhere in the world. The scammer merely attaches any phone number they want for the caller ID.
Those of us who grew up in a more trusting age might be tempted to politely answer the phone whenever it rings, but more and more, we’re ignoring calls when we don’t recognize a name or number. That’s a good policy to follow. If it’s a legitimate call, they’ll usually leave a voice message and a number that you can call back.
But sometimes, we pick up those calls because we may be expecting a call from, say, a healthcare provider to confirm an appointment. Or we may be expecting a call from a service provider, such as a plumber or electrician–or even an IT consultant to fix a computer problem.
That last category is actually fertile ground for many scammers. Many seniors have older computers that don’t perform all that well, and when scammers call you, they’re betting you have an older system. They’ll claim to be from Microsoft and say there’s a problem with your computer that they can fix to improve its performance. All you need to do is give them access to your computer, and they’ll control your computer.
Scammers also claim to be from Amazon or a bank and say they’ve discovered a problem with your account. If you don’t answer the call, they might even leave a phone number for you to call back. But in this case, it will be a fake phone number that goes outside the US – not connected to Amazon or any bank. Once you give the scammer the financial information requested, there’s a good chance your account will be emptied before you hang up the call.
Phone scammers may also claim to be from the IRS or a court jurisdiction. Don’t fall for it. The IRS and the courts use good old snail mail when they want to talk to you. If you do happen to pick up the phone and suspect a scam, our best advice is to hang up before they somehow cajole you into giving up any information they can use to get money from you.
We’ve found two common ways scammers use to get into your computers: 1) a pop-up “ad” while you’re using your browser and 2) a phishing email. We also know that many scammers are using text messages to cellphones to accomplish the same results as with phishing emails.
A phishing email is a computer-world term for a fishing expedition. The idea is that if a scammer throws out a wide enough net – i.e. sends a huge volume of spam emails – they’ll catch enough unsuspecting people whom they can scam. The same idea is behind text messages, and they essentially work the same. You can avoid them with common sense.
Some of the key tipoffs that an email is a phishing scam include:
• A mismatched URL or domain name. If you use Outlook for your email, you can hover the name of the sender to see the actual URL or domain name. If they don’t match, don’t click.
• A misspelled name that’s designed to look like a name or company you know. We rely on our brain to autofill what our eyes see, and scammers know this. Slow down and look closely.
• A threat from a government agency or financial institution. They don’t send you threatening notices by email, nor do they ever ask for payment in gift cards or cryptocurrencies (such as bitcoin).
A request for personal information from a government agency. Many seniors get emails from Medicare, but they’re typically informative. If they ask for personal information, delete them.
• A request for money. Do your kids, grandkids or friends really send you emails because they need you to bail them out of financial or legal problems?
• A request to act on something you didn’t initiate. You can’t have won the lottery if you never bought a ticket. Are you expecting a package you didn’t order?
• Spelling mistakes and poor grammar or syntax. You’ll be thankful you paid attention to your grammar school English lessons.
Make it a personal rule never to open an attachment or click on a link in an email from someone you don’t know or that looks suspicious. You can always pick up the telephone and call the person or company–and open a browser to find a phone number. Don’t click on anything in a suspicious email. Open a browser and go to a company’s website by typing in their URL to verify something in an email. Don’t click on a link. A scammer will slightly misspell a link or use a fake domain extension to trap you.
Exercise the same caution with pop-up ads while you browse the internet.
Many pop-up ads are either for incredible bargains or services to fix your slow computer. They can be disguised to look like they are from reputable merchants such as Amazon or an Amazon-affiliate or tech companies such as Microsoft. But once you click on their links, you open yourself to any number of problems. The so-called merchant could be offering a product of poor quality or that doesn’t even exist. Once you provide your credit card information, they can use your account to buy products and/or simply sell the information to others who can buy products.
The fake service provider can get your credit card info, too, and any scammer can do even more harm. One of the worst outcomes could be the planting of ransomware on your computer. Ransomware kidnaps your data files and holds them hostage until you pay a ransom. You may not think your files are all that valuable until somebody seizes them and gives a price to redeem them.
Besides exercising common sense and caution, there are a number of steps you can take to keep scammers and hackers out of your technology. They are not listed by priority; all are vital.
Make sure you have the latest versions of your cell phone, tablet and computer operating systems and the latest versions of all your application software. Hardware manufacturers and software publishers are always updating their code to add new security and performance features and to fix bugs. We recommend you stay up to date with all your software by downloading and installing updates when they’re issued. If you can automate the update process, you’ll be a step ahead of the scammers and hackers.
Use strong passwords for anything you do online, such as email and websites. Make them complex by including upper- and lower-case letters, numerals and special characters. The longer and more complex the better, because it slows down the software hackers use to try to figure out passwords. Ideally, you should not use the same password for multiple accounts.
We suggest you write down your passwords and store them in a secure place or use a password manager program. The password manager programs you pay for are usually stronger and allow you to use the program over several devices.
If a website requires you to provide answers for security questions, don’t give them honest answers. The schools you attended and the middle names of siblings or other family members are all searchable in public records.
Adjust the display size on all your devices so you can read things more easily. Scammer and hackers know our eyesight isn’t what it used to be, and they take advantage of what you perceive to see on your screens. They’re looking for any opportunity to make you click or tap a link that opens your world to them.
By the same token, be careful about what you type, too. We know of someone who had a problem with a Canon printer and wound up on a malicious website because they typed in “Cannon printers.”
Back up all your files to an offsite server – AKA the cloud. If you happen to click on something that puts ransomware on your computer, you have a much better chance of recovering all your files without paying a ransom.
Backing up to the cloud also protects your data in the event your hard drive fails. This is critical for seniors because seniors tend to hang on to technology too long and don’t always plan for dealing with computer or device failure.
While most people don’t need the latest and greatest technology or the fastest systems, you need some level of good performance for enjoyment and security. To address that latter matter, we find many seniors run into trouble with old, slow technology that just doesn’t respond in a timely manner. When you get impatient and click a mouse or tap a screen several times, a browser or website can open multiple times, and it’s easy to click on malicious links while trying to get rid of all those screens.
Even though there’s a shortage of new computers, there is still a fairly robust secondary market for refurbished business-grade machines that are very well-suited to seniors’ personal use. Laptops come with fast-enough processors and sufficient RAM to handle web browsing, email and Zoom conferences. And, most important, their technology can handle the most recent versions of operating systems and application software that provide better security while you’re online.
Security, by itself, may be just the reason you need to upgrade your technology and thwart the scammers and hackers who are after your money. But the best tool of all may be that organ that sits in your head–between your ears.
Common sense will make your technology even stronger for fighting off the evil forces of online crime.