Personal Finances - 2017


Con Artists and Your Money

By Mo Vidwans

Are you being phished, scammed, frauded, cajoled and scared into parting with your money? – then you are not alone!

My first encounter, long time ago, was a fraudulent prize-promotion scheme out of Las Vegas. Then, they used to send you a postcard in the mail saying you won one of four fabulous prizes. Later those same types of scams came over the telephone. And the next thing, it was ads on the computer and personal emails. The method of delivery changes and the schemes change, but unfortunately, fraudulent operators are and will always be out there and that will never change.

From my perspective, an “alert and educated consumer" is one of the best ways to stop these fraudulent operators but we will get to that later.

Of this endless saga, here are some of the latest schemes that are going around:

You get a call asking if this is Mr. or Mrs. So and So. There is a natural tendency to say yes if you are that person. That is all they need, your voice signature for a yes. They may have other information about you that they have already phished and gathered, like your credit card numbers, bank account numbers or whatever else. Soon you start noticing charges on your credit card that were not incurred by you.

Somebody pretends to be an IRS agent and you get a call saying you owe them taxes/penalties/interest and of course if you don't pay immediately then there is plenty of trouble. This can be a person with a foreign accent. I am not sure why they go for that. I have had four of these calls in last three years.

The one most frequently done (and still going on) is a letter arriving in the mail or email from a foreign country saying that you have won a lot of money and you have to deposit the tax or earnest money to the tune of thousands of dollars to claim the prize.

Another one, mostly targeted towards seniors, especially widows, is where someone befriends you, via web or one of the many sites which cater to singles, gains your confidence and then before you know, a large amount of your money is swindled out of your hands. At that point, even if one finally realizes that it was a con game, usually the person is still not willing to file a complaint out of embarrassment.

People watch your house for a long time to make sure there are only single seniors living in that home. Then they tell you that your roof or something else needs repair because it is not to code, offer a very good price, and ask for a hefty deposit and bam it is gone.

I can go on; there is absolutely no end to the schemes that they come up with and they seem to be constantly using smarter and modern tactics to fool us. I am sure either you have experienced such episode yourself or know someone who has. The only thing I can say for sure is that it will never stop and they are getting more and more sophisticated every day.

So, the real question we have to answer is how do we prepare ourselves for this unnecessary attack on innocent and unsuspecting people. Most of the time the focus of such targets is seniors who can be more trusting, gullible and prone to such cons.

It is clear that we have to create our own defense for such attacks. Think of it like our own body defense system; there are so many diseases, germs, viruses and other elements in the environment that are harmful to our body. But we cannot possibly eliminate them all. We can only reinforce our own body defense system like using proper hygiene, healthy diets, exercise, vaccines, and other means.

The two most basic elements of human psyche are fear and greed. Con men play on those elements when they tell us that we owe back taxes, our grandchild is in trouble with the police and needs money to free himself, roof needs repair or whatever new scheme they come up with. We become panicky out of fear and that is exactly they are expecting and that is exactly what we don't want to do. They also play on our greed factor; who would not wish to have lot more money by paying a little now.

What to do? The most important thing is to not respond immediately to any of these calls/letters/threats. Immediate panic response is what they always hope and expect you would do. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) never calls any body; they send letters to your address and they give you plenty of time to respond. So, when such a call comes, either don't answer or stay calm and start asking name of the caller and other pertinent information. They will hang up. If it is a letter in the mail, trash it. If it is your grandchild in trouble take information down because you want to call the grandchild or the parents first to find out what is going on. If the roof really needs repair it can wait for a day or two while you check it out.

Here are the actions you want to take in all such cases:

1. If it is an unknown or non-familiar number, do not answer. Let it go to messages. They will not leave a message but if they do you will know it immediately that it is a fake call.
2. Don't answer any question with a Yes. Ask “who is this?"
3. Buy time, even if you think that what they are telling you is true. Then call a trusted friend first to consult or call police. So many such attempts are thwarted by just playing the stalling tactics.
4. If you wish to pursue this further so that they will not do damage to other innocent citizens then report it to police and district attorney general's office.
5. Remember one thing: by taking time to sort through this you will not hurt anyone but only help yourself. Do not react to any such communication immediately. Stay calm and think.

Here are some helpful links from the IRS and Federal Trade Commission:

www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/identity-theft
www.irs.gov/privacy-disclosure/security-summit
www.irs.gov/newsroom/avoid-phishing-and-tax-fraud-schemes
www.irs.gov/identity-theft-fraud-scams