KEVIN LEININGER: Being victimized by age is bad enough; don’t let the scammers get you, too

AP photo
Marjorie Stephens
Kevin Leininger

I’ll turn 65 in May, and if the prospect of joining the ever-growing ranks of the government-dependent is appealing — and it is — retirement offers risks as well as rewards.

“We get about 25 calls a week about the Social Security scam,” said Marjorie Stephens, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana, whose agency is so concerned about this chronic and consistent scheme that its voice mail warns callers against being ripped off. And it’s not just a local problem. Between 2015 and 2019, Americans reported 1,334 scam attempts, including 71 in Indiana over the past two years alone. The U.S. Justice Department, in fact, charged more than 225 people over the past year in connection with fraud attempts targeting seniors.

“But just one in 10 who are victimized report it, because they’re embarrassed. It’s the most common scam among seniors,” Stephens said. “Seniors are trusting, and perhaps not as familiar with the Internet. They can also be more lonely, which makes them more vulnerable.” Dementia can be a factor too.

According to BBB statistics, people in the 18-24 age group are actually the most susceptible to scams, with a median loss of $92. Seniors are about half as likely to be scammed but when they are the loss is about $400 — which can be a lot of money to someone trying to make ends meet on a fixed income.

How do these scams work and, more important, how can you avoid becoming a victim? According to Stephens, it often works this way:

You get a call from someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, saying your account needs to be updated, has been targeted for fraud or that your benefits are about to be canceled. In order to address this, the caller is asked to provide certain personal information, including the Social Security number that can allow scammers access to credit cards, bank accounts and other sensitive areas.

The real Social Security Administration, obviously, already knows your number. What’s more, Stephens said, the SSA will never seek payment or threaten benefits over the phone. But scammers, who may threaten legal action if the target resists, hope pressure will overcome common sense. They may even be using a phone number that shows up on caller ID as the Social Security Administration.

But it’s not only the scammers’ technology that is getting more sophisticated, Stephens said. Because some originate in other countries, poor spelling or grammar could alert savvy targets. Such clues are becoming less common.

So the defense against such scams is obvious: Never give personal information to unsolicited callers and don’t trust caller ID. If you’re concerned about a call claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, Stephens said, you can call the real SSA at 1-800-772-1213. What’s more, email from the SSA will end in “.gov,” while many fraudulent attempts end in the generic “.com”.

If you suspect you have been scammed, you should immediately put a security freeze on your accounts. But vigilance and prevention are far preferable options.

As more and more people grow up with the internet, the technical confusion that can breed risk will abate. But other factors often associated with aging will continue to expose seniors to a unique brand of cruelty. People who have worked hard their entire lives in anticipation of a comfortable retirement deserve better.

If you have elderly parents, relatives or friends, you can help by keeping an eye on them as best you can and offering help and guidance when appropriate. I know from personal experience how badly seniors want to hang on to their independence, but that is not always in their best interest. The BBB has also produced a short video on this topic that can be found at http://bit.ly/2MYlo8s

We all like to think we’re far too sophisticated to fall for this sort of thing, but the numbers suggest otherwise. Turning 65 doesn’t mean you’re suddenly unable to care for yourself, but scammers clearly hope otherwise. Let’s all prove them wrong.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.