In the golden days of our youth, we left our doors unlocked and let door-to-door salesmen into our homes. We trusted people. But our generation, the Baby Boomers, may have become the most cynical generation in history, and unfortunately, we have our reasons. The world isn’t always a pretty place. Bad things happen. As children, we watched riots and assassinations on TV, and the world didn’t seem quite as golden as it did in the 1950s.
And now, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, our skepticism radar has to be on high alert at all times. If it’s not, we are increasingly likely to become victims. It feels like someone is waiting to scam us, steal our identity, and part us from our money and security at every turn.
Were there scammers back in our youth? Sure. Mostly land frauds – they’d sell swampland in sultry Florida or a lot in a supposed retirement community in Arizona, all based on shiny brochures and fancy documents. People would then discover that the property they purchased (they usually received authentic deeds), was actually inaccessible, unusable, undeveloped land in some god-forsaken remote corner of the state. A handful of people may have ended up getting the last laugh in Florida, as Disney sprouted in the midst of that dismal swamp, and their tiny lots actually gained in value. But many people invested their life savings into a future that was just an illusion. They’d load up the family on vacation into the big Chevy station wagon to go see their wonderful investment, only to drive out into the desert and discover that the pretty tree-lined community in the brochure was a complete and cruel hoax.
Today, scammers are preying on us, our children and our parents with an alarming array of schemes, often frightening people into paying them or giving them private information. It’s easy to shrug it off and brag that we’d never fall for such a scheme, but that’s stupid. Face it – if this stuff didn’t work, they wouldn’t be doing it. Just the fact that the scams are being run at all means that people ARE falling for it. We need to be aware, and we need to warn our friends and family members of what to watch for.
Today, a young friend of mine received a frightening message on her cell phone. It was a serious voice, telling her to return the call immediately to discuss a debt of hers that needed to be addressed right away to avoid legal action. A single mom who recently went through a terribly nasty divorce, “Sally” called back in concern. The man told her repeatedly that he was an attorney, and he gave her the last four digits of her social security number and the last four digits of her bank account. He knew where she worked. It was unnerving. He told Sally that they were pursuing a $400 debt from a paycheck advance loan (which she had never made). When she started asking questions, the caller became threatening, telling her that if she didn’t pay, they’d serve a warrant on her and have her arrested. When Sally protested that she had young children, the caller told her she’d better make arrangements, because she was “going to jail”. By now, poor Sally was shaking and crying – begging for more information. Thankfully, she was smart enough not to respond when they asked her to “verify” her social security number. The “attorney” terminated the call with more threats.
When she came to me, my “scam alert” went on – big time. I called the number they’d given her, said I “represented” her, and I demanded information. He immediately got belligerent with me, in a heavy foreign accent. When I told him I was reporting him to the attorney general, he hung up on me. I called the local attorney general’s office, and the woman I spoke with assured us that no one could arrest my friend for a debt without providing written notice of the debt, which she could then contest in writing. She referred us to the Federal Trade Commission’s fraud division.
Our contact there was equally pleasant and reassuring (by now Sally was beginning to calm down), and the woman took a full and detailed report. She told us the caller wanted to steal Sally’s identity by trying to confirm her full social security number and bank account number.
My young friend is not a fool. She’s a professional worker in the office of a major corporation. And these SOBs were able to reduce her to sobbing in fear and confusion. I started thinking of how many people they have been able to bully into giving up their personal information. The thought that they might frighten my mother, my aunts, my nieces, my friends into giving up critical data makes my blood boil.
So consider this my public service announcement, and please share it with others. Mulder was right – TRUST NO ONE. Question everything. The worst that can happen is that you might momentarily offend someone who’s not trying to steal from you. They’ll understand.
That call from your sobbing granddaughter/cousin/nephew in Europe/Canada/Texas saying she/he was mugged and has no money and needs a wire transfer right away….DON’T DO IT! Even if they use the right name and say the right things. If you think for a second that the call might be legit (it isn’t), then ask very specific questions that only your relative would know (“what color is Aunt Sophie’s house/hair/dog?”). Then get a phone number and hang up. Call your other relatives and verify where this person is really? I can virtually guaranty they’re not in some other country being mugged.
Anyone else who asks you for money? The internet is as much blessing as curse – check them out. Google them. Isn’t that easier than handing over your hard-earned cash or your social security number to someone, no matter how nice or honest they sound? And be sure to protect your internet data by changing your passwords regularly for email, Facebook, etc., (you are using a different password for each one, aren’t you???), and don’t use your birthday or children’s names as passwords – it’s just too easy.
And finally – do not ever, ever, EVER give anyone your social security number over the phone or online unless you are absolutely 100% positive about who you’re talking to. Get their phone number and call them back with the info – if they don’t want you to do that, HANG UP THE PHONE. If they say they’re from your bank and want to verify your information, hang up and call your bank to check it out.
It’s sad to say, but there are a lot of cruel, evil people out there trying to think of new ways to rip us off. I’d love to get Sally’s callers in a room for just 10 minutes…the bastards. But since I can’t do that, I will starve them by announcing their “game” to everyone. Don’t assume your friends and family won’t fall for one of these schemes. These guys are very good at what they do. But we can be better by being informed. And skeptical. Talk to people. Spread the word. And be careful out there.