Scammers go into overdrive

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It would be great to report that during the unprecedent upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic that con artists trying to steal money from people would have taken a break. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison W. Bragg, Eastern District of Arkansas, Little Rock.

“People can certainly be more vulnerable during the pandemic,” Bragg said in a telephone interview. “Tensions are high. A lot of people are very stressed. Getting a supposedly urgent phone call from someone claiming to be a government official saying they owe money can really put someone over the edge.”

One of the most common scams continues to be people who call and say that your Social Security account has been frozen until you take action. Also common is someone calling to say a warrant is out for your arrest because you didn’t show up for jury duty. To avoid arrest, you are supposed to buy a money card and send money to the caller.

Bragg said that kind of scam is difficult to track because it works almost like cash in the sense that once the scammer has that cash card number, it is hard to determine the location of that person.

“They seem very credible on the phone,” Bragg said. “Scammers can be quite sophisticated. What I tell people is no government agency will call and say you owe money. The IRS and Social Security don’t do that. They will send you a letter. No law enforcement agency will call you on the phone and say there is a warrant out for your arrest. If there is a warrant out, they will simply arrest you.”

Another red flag to help people know when a scam is being attempted is any time you are asked to put money on a card and send it. Bragg said one company being used a lot for that is Green Dot.

“That company hasn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “They just help get money from one person to another in an efficient way. Unfortunately, scammers have found ways to use that for nefarious purposes.”

Arkansas is one of nine states involved in a state/federal crackdown on illegal schemes this year preying on people who are desperate because they have lost jobs due to the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission reports some of the biggest targets are senior citizens, immigrants, Black and Hispanic people, students and military families. Pyramid schemes are particularly prevalent in immigrant communities. The FTC said losses reported by consumers the first nine month of 2020 – $150 million – broke records. And many people who are ripped off don’t report their losses.

“I know our office has been very busy,” Bragg said. “We would hope the pandemic would create a lull. Instead, scammers are using the crisis to take advantage of people.”

Her recommendation is that if you are suspicious of a call or an email, always double check. That can mean calling law enforcement or checking with a trusted friend or family member.

Bragg said it is important to protect elders who have spent so much time contributing to society. She recommends checking on parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors because not everyone is aware of the scams.

“Telling an elder to let you know if you can ever help can go a long way, especially during the pandemic,” Bragg said.

People who have caller ID need to know that scammers can “spoof” the number making it look like it is a local number when it is not. If you call the number back, no one will answer.

“It is always a good idea to take a pause before responding,” Bragg said.

Things like bad spelling and grammar in emails are also red flags. Fake invoices continue to be a common way that scammers operate on email. Another frequent scam involves warning that your email account is about to be shut down unless you click on a link in the email.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s office puts out alerts each week on scams. Some common frauds include:

  • People being told their utilities will be cut off unless they send money.
  • People posing as Covid-19 contract tracers trying to steal your identity.
  • Online shopping sites that aren’t secure. When shopping online, look for the “lock” icon on the browser’s status bar, and the abbreviation “https” in the web address to be sure information is secure. Check the online merchant’s privacy policy before providing any personal financial information. Pay by credit card, which is the most secure payment method.
  • Theft of someone’s financial identity. Never give out or confirm sensitive information such as bank account, credit card or Social Security numbers to an unsolicited caller.
  • Sales of fraudulent franchises.

Other advice from the AG’s office includes not answering a call from a number you don’t know. If you answer a call that turns out to be a robocall or a scam, hang up. Don’t press any buttons or give any information. If the caller is a real person, tell them to remove you from their calling list and hang up without another word.

Wiring money is like giving away cash. If you wire money, there is no protection if you later learn that the recipient is not the person he or she claimed to be.

Never send money to someone you do not know and haven’t met in person.

It is always a scam if they ask you to wire money or pay with a prepaid credit card or gift card.

Most importantly, if the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Investigate the offer before accepting or paying any money.

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