Confession: I’ve been scammed.
Years ago, during a particularly chaotic time in my life, I got a call from a woman who said she was from my electric company. She was very sorry, but last month’s bill was so overdue my power would be cut off by the next day unless I paid by phone now. For the record, the dollar amount she gave was the same as my monthly bill.
I was sure I’d already paid. She said maybe they hadn’t received it or there was some glitch, but the cutoff process was in motion and they could always refund me. I did not want to deal with losing power. I’d pay now, sort it out later.
You know the rest: My account was fine, she wasn’t from the electric company, and I felt like a sap.
Scammers continue to build a lucrative business, with more than $3.3 billion lost by American consumers to fraud in 2020 — up from $1.8 billion the year before, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Top grifts included online shopping and “impostor” scams like mine.
And forget the stereotype of elderly folks being the biggest target: While 20 percent of those fraud victims were 70 to 79 years old, more than twice as many were 20 to 29.
Scams constantly morph and update. AARP warns that danger can lurk behind using your cellphone to scan a suspicious QR code — those black-and-white squares that can allow you to board a plane or check when the next bus is coming. The fraudulent versions can be as risky as clicking suspicious links or attachments in emails.
The Better Business Bureau recently advised that if you get a text that looks like somebody dialed you by accident, don’t text back even a polite “sorry, wrong number.” It could be a “chat bot” trying to lure you to dating sites with the goal of getting your credit card information.
And the Florida Attorney General’s Office reports a cryptocurrency investment scheme that’s a bait-and-switch scam making the rounds on social media.
So forget that old-school Nigerian prince emailing you for “help” with promises of big money. (Though that one was reportedly still bringing in a tidy $700,000 in 2018.) ”The reality is that they have evolved,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren told me. “The public is getting smarter, so the fraudsters are getting trickier.”
Scams come with a sense of urgency, trying to get us to act now because of trouble with the IRS or Social Security. But such institutions generally contact people in writing, Warren points out, so be on alert if a caller says you need to pay by phone now.
Scammers — particularly groups that cast a wide net to many potential victims — are notoriously difficult to track and prosecute. Call-back numbers go dark. And going after those working overseas can pose logistical and jurisdictional problems for law enforcement.
“The best defense is not being a victim in the first place,” said Warren. “Often that means the best defense is hanging up the phone.”
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As in: Hang up and call the government agency (or electric company) to see if there really is a problem. In emailed come-ons, watch for misspellings and odd grammar.
Turns out that utility scam is a classic.
Just last year — years after I’d been had — I found myself reporting on that same con making the rounds on both sides of Tampa Bay. I was in good company: They hit Florida residents, bars, restaurants, even a Catholic church.
But unlike me, one would-be victim I interviewed got wise to what was happening. She hung up on the polite caller she’d just given her payment information to and immediately called her credit card company — just in time to avoid getting scammed.