I recently learned about a nasty new scam making the rounds while visiting older relatives in Michigan during the holidays.
Last October, my family members received a phone call from a company dubbed Utility Savings Expert, whose website (utilitysavingsexpert.net) features the tagline We are here to help you, but omits the second half of the sentence: separate you from your money.
The pitch was enticing: Utility Savings Expert claimed they could help customers save up to 50% on various bills, including cell phone, cable, electric, and more. All you had to do was share your account information in order for them to pay the bill on your behalf. Once you checked to make sure the bill was covered, you simply wired the company half the full amount due. Voila! Instant savings.
The offer was so tempting that my family members, who are retired and live on a fixed income, decided to try it with their Sprint phone bill. They gave the scammers their Sprint account information, and a few days later, sure enough, their $250 bill had been paid in full. Satisfied, they agreed to send half the amount to the Utility Savings Expert company. The catch? They could only send payment via wire transfer, not check or credit card.
Legitimate companies won't require you to pay only by wire transfer or reloadable debit card.
That should have been a glaring red flag, says Brandy Bauer of the National Council on Aging. "Legitimate companies won't require you to pay only by wire transfer or reloadable debit card," she says.
It wasn't until about a month and a half after they wired the money that they noticed something wrong. Sprint was charging them an additional $250 because a payment made on their account weeks ago had been reversed.
Here's what most likely happened: the scammers called the issuer of the credit card they used to make the payment and alleged that it was a fraudulent charge—so the bank reversed the charge. Of course, the victims were out both the money they wired and still had to pay their Sprint bill.
New Twist on a Familiar Scam
Phone scams targeting older Americans are certainly not new. In fact, a 2015 study by True Link Financial estimates that seniors lose more than $36 billion each year to various kinds of financial abuse, including scams that prey on victims by luring them to send money over the phone. And that's just the ones that are known: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that only 1 in 44 financial crimes against elders are actually reported.
Seniors lose more than $36 billion each year to various kinds of financial abuse.
What is new, however, is the way fraudsters lure their targets. Criminals continually invent new ways to entrap unsuspecting Americans—very often seniors—into giving out personal information or money over the phone.
"There is always a new variation of a phone scam," says Nicole K. Parshall, a staff attorney who specializes in consumer protection at the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo. "Scammers are very good at developing new tactics in order to engage with specific types of individuals."
The Evolution of a Scam
Scammers are also experts at developing sophisticated and convincing stories in order to persuade you to work with them. When I called Utility Savings Expert posing as a customer to inquire about their services, I asked how they were able to offer these discounts.
"We have accounts and contracts with service providers all over the U.S.," said Naveed, who declined to give me his last name. He added that the company earned gift cards from these contracts, which they used to pay the bills.
They could then pass on the savings to customers, whom they only charged half the price of the bill due. This explanation was convincing enough for my relatives to fall for the scam. (When I called the company a second time, no one answered or returned my calls.)
None of the scam experts I spoke to had ever heard of this particular phone scam, nor did a Google search turn up any information on the company. But neither were they surprised by the phone scam's new incarnation.
"I've heard and seen a lot of phone scams, but not that one," says Curtis Bailey, an elder law attorney in St. Louis, who also hosts a fraud podcast called Scamcast. "These scammers just continue to evolve and change. I can see how easy it would be for people to fall victim to this one, because who doesn't want to pay less for a phone or utility bill?"
Frank Dorman of the Federal Trade Commission, which handles these types of scams, says that the agency has never logged this particular scheme. The FTC advises never to do business with someone unless you know and trust them—and especially never to send money or financial account information.
"In this case, a phone call to the utility company should reveal whether or not the utility has an arrangement with a third party, and if not, which likely, report the scam to state and local law enforcement and the FTC," says Dorman.
Fraudsters will often exploit affinity relationships to build trust.
Another twist in this particular scheme: The scammers spoke to my relatives in Urdu, which is their native language. Bailey says that doesn't surprise him at all, as fraudsters will often exploit affinity relationships to build trust.
"A lot of people don't understand that what makes scammers more effective is that they will push certain emotional levers like fear and greed. But another one is sympathy," says Bailey. "A victim might think, ‘I identify with the caller and trust him because he's speaking my native tongue.' This is just another tactic these criminals use to generate a false sense of trust so the victim will be manipulated into sending money or give out personal information."
The Likely Victims
Indeed, True Link Financial's study concluded that $6.7 billion worth of senior scams occur because the criminals take advantage of a trusting relationship to scam seniors.
Amy Nofziger, a fraud expert at the AARP, says that scammers specifically target older Americans because they are more likely to be successful with them.
Older adults often don't want to seem rude on the phone, and they are often more vulnerable because they are living on fixed incomes. Many older Americans have also built up some wealth, making them an attractive target. Sometimes, their decision-making skills have been affected: a study at the Boston College's Center for Retirement Research found that such skills decline about 1% each year after the age of 60.
Each year, 1 in 18 "cognitively intact" older adults become victims of financial scams or abuse.
And while cognitive decline can certainly contribute to a victim's vulnerability, you don't have to experience cognitive decline to be a victim. In fact, a new study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that each year, 1 in 18 "cognitively intact" older adults become victims of financial scams or abuse.
And once someone is the target of a phone scam or other fraud scheme, it's very likely that they will be targeted again, says Parshall.
"These criminals share ‘suckers' lists—they are a commodity bought and sold between various scammers. They also target people who engage in certain activities, like playing the lottery or things like Publisher's Clearing House," she says.
Because these crimes often go unreported and cause a lot of shame and embarrassment to the targets, they are even more susceptible to falling victim more than once.
How To Avoid Being Scammed
Whether a phone scammer is enticing you to save money on your utilities, threatening to shut off your electricity unless you pay an outstanding bill immediately, or pitching an unbelievably "low-cost" vacation opportunity, the most important thing you can do is to simply hang up the phone.
This is easier said than done, as many older Americans don't want to seem impolite. But Parshall says it's vital to get over that fear.
"We tell people to screen their calls and not pick up unless they recognize the number," says Parshall. "And if you did pick up, the second someone asks for any personal information or anything to do with money, just hang up. Don't feel bad about it—you did not invite them in. They're entering your space."
No legitimate offer or service is going to evaporate after you hang up the phone.
If you have entered into a conversation with someone who is trying to sell you a product or convince you to engage in a service, tell them you need some time to think about it. No legitimate offer or service is going to evaporate after you hang up the phone.
"If something sparks your interest, hang up anyway, do your own research and run it by a family member or friend," says Parshall. "Sometimes just hearing yourself say it out loud is enough to give you pause."
Giving yourself time also allows your more rational urges to kick in.
And remember that no legitimate company is going to limit your payment method, which is what Utility Savings Expert did. They claimed they could not receive payment by check or credit card—only wire transfers.
Similarly, a legitimate operation will never ask you to volunteer personal information, like your Social Security number or even account data. That's another huge red flag. If your utility company, for example, needed to contact you for an outstanding balance, they would never do it over the phone until you'd received numerous written notices from them. And even then, they would never ask you to offer personal information. If you are concerned, hang up and call your utility company using the number indicated on your written statement.
What To Do If You Become a Victim
Prevention is key in these situations because in most cases, it can be difficult to recover swindled money, says Nofziger. "That's why education is key."
But if you have been defrauded, the first thing you should do is file a police report. That is an important step in getting things on the record—and may help in getting your money back from the bank. For example, my relatives should file a police report and then take it to their bank to demonstrate that they were defrauded. In some cases, the bank might make you whole. (They haven't yet because they've been traveling, but I've encouraged them to do it as soon as possible.)
"With a wire transfer, your recourse is to go back to the bank, show them the police report, explain everything that happened, and they might replace the money," says Bailey. "Every bank treats these kinds of situations differently."
Parshall adds that while some police departments may give you pushback, persist in getting that report filed because it can be used to help you set up a permanent fraud alert, and as evidence, if the issue comes back to haunt you further.
Next, you may also want to report it to the FBI or to relevant state and federal agencies. You can file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. Your state's Attorney General office is also a good place to lodge the incident; they may have a division devoted specifically to such scams.
You should also check with your county or state to see if they have an organization devoted to helping seniors with financial fraud, like Buffalo's Center for Elder Justice. Try contacting your state's Adult Protective Services agency to find out if they have a financial fraud department. Find information for state offices at the U.S. Department of Justice's site at elderjustice.gov.
The key is to be vigilant, be educated, learn as much as you can about the scams out there.
"The biggest hurdle we have in getting people to open up and report these things is that they're embarrassed, angry, [and] fearful, which makes them reluctant," says Bailey. "But we encourage people to speak out. The key is to be vigilant, be educated, learn as much as you can about the scams out there. Be open. Don't be afraid to talk to your family about it. It goes both ways—from kids to parents and vice versa."
I talked to my own relatives about their experience, who did feel some embarrassment at being duped. But they also said they learned their lesson and don't plan to answer phone calls from people they don't know in the future—a lesson that cost them $200. It's a mistake they don't plan to repeat.