NASHVILLE, TN – Scams can victimize anybody and everybody. “We have a sense that it happens to someone else,” said Monica Vaca, Associate Director, Federal Trade Commission of Consumer Response and Operations.
Vaca said people who think they won’t or can’t be played are vulnerable. “People of every age, of every group, and every walk of life fall for scams,” Vaca said.
It could start out like this: you find someone on an online dating site. You might talk on the phone or exchange emails but pretty quickly the other person starts asking you for money. Sometimes it’s just a little to buy more minutes for their phone so they can talk to you. But then they ask for more.
There is always some problem or reason why you can’t hook up. Maybe they are a soldier stationed overseas, maybe they are stuck on an oilrig, maybe they are in the hospital, or need money to get a passport or for airfare to come visit you. But none of that is true.
“For the person who’s being strung along it seems very real,” Vaca said. But it isn’t because that love interest is a scammer. Vaca said asking for money is a huge red flag. “Don’t send it,” she said.
Imposter scams are on the rise. The FTC received 3.2 million consumer complaints last year. About half of those reports, 1.7 million, were fraud cases that ripped people off for a total of $1.9 billion. FTC says imposter scams are the biggest category in their database with 647,000 reports filed in 2019.
Of those, romance scams accounted for the highest in total losses: $201 million. Last year they were three times higher than in 2015 and total the number of romance scam reports has increased six-fold since 2016.
Scammers are not who they say they are and can be quite persuasive. They pose as a government worker or romantic interest or even a family member. Sometimes they offer computer technical support. They commit fraud when they promise people things they don’t deliver and take their victims’ money instead.
“We want people to be aware that paying scammers with gift cards was the top payment method for all imposters scams in 2019. Remember that gift cards are for giving not for making payments over the phone,” Vaca said.
In 2018 there were 255,000 reports and 389,000 in 2019, a 52% increase. Vaca said Social Security imposter scams were driving it. (For info go to: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov)
Vaca explained how it could happen. “You get a call and someone tells you that your social security number has been associated with some kind of criminal activity. Sometimes the caller will ask you for money to reactivate your social security number. Sometimes they will just ask you just to confirm it and sometimes they’ll tell you that you’re in trouble and you’re about to have your bank account seized. None of that is true but they will walk you through all the steps down a path and you wind up losing a huge amount of money.”
Western Union wire transfers used to be the preferred method scammers used to rip people off. These days Vaca said that gift cards are the most popular way to fleece consumers. In recent years Social Security imposter scams have increased and IRS scams have decreased.
“Scammers use a particular storyline that is successful until it is so well recognized that nobody’s falling for it anymore. When the IRS scam was played out, they started trying different storylines. The Social Security imposter storyline is one that has been working for them because they continue to use it,” Vaca said.
The highest individual losses reported in 2019 resulted from counterfeit check scams. The median loss was $2,000. “You get a check in the mail and it seems like it’s for a completely legitimate purpose– some kind of a job or being hired as a personal assistant or maybe you’ve been hired to do some mystery shopping, or maybe you’re going to get check because you’re selling something online,” said Vaca.
But it’s all a ruse. The scammer has you send some of that money back to them for some reasons or to a third person. So you deposit the scammer’s check and it looks like it’s cleared. You send some of the money back only to learn in a few days later that the scammer’s check has bounced.”
Vaca said 20-somethings are falling for these kinds of scams in disproportionate numbers. They are looking for legitimate income opportunities. “These are not people who are just being greedy like ‘I got some free money’. Not at all. These are very sad stories,” Vaca said.
Despite the rise in imposter scams, identity theft was the most commonly reported problem in 2019. Fraudsters use the information they steal to open new credit card accounts. Georgia, California, and Florida were at the top of the list in 2019. In Tennessee, there were 10,664 cases of identity theft and 9,878 reports of imposter scams. In 2019 the total amount of fraud losses in Tennessee was $20.6 million.
The FTC uses consumer complaints to target law enforcement actions. And through court judgments since July 2018, the FTC has returned $882 million to U.S. consumers. In Tennessee the FTC sent checks to 126,318 people worth a total of $18.6 million.
To file a consumer fraud report go here: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.