For many senior citizens, the telephone has been their primary link to family, friends and the wider community since the COVID-19 pandemic shut them inside. According to local lawyers, though, that phone connection isn’t as safe as it may seem.
“The phone has become even more dangerous than the computer in facilitating scams against seniors,” said Pete Wellborn, managing partner and founder of Wellborn & Wallace, LLC. Callers who try to get money or private information from seniors are “vishing” or voice fishing, something that used to be done more often by email, he said.
Wellborn suggests that seniors — or anyone, really — put cards next to their phones to remind them that Social Security, the Internal Revenue Service, Microsoft, Amazon, Georgia Power, Nigerian princes, and anyone saying you can share in a lottery win or just wanting to verify your information are all scammers. “If someone calls and says your Social Security number has been used in a crime,” don’t believe it, he says.
Some seniors are getting calls purporting to be from Georgia Power saying that their electricity will be turned off if they don’t pay their bills within 24 hours. That’s a scam being perpetrated all over the country using local utility company names.
“Scams that succeeded five to 10 years ago are much less sophisticated than they are now,” Wellborn added, noting that scammers have actually recorded real Georgia Power messages and edited them, making them sound real.
The website of the National Council on Aging states that the FBI estimates that seniors lose more than $3 billion each year to fraudsters. “Scammers go after seniors because they believe older adults have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts,” the website reports.
But Wellborn and Sam Mullman, an associate at Wellborn & Wallace, argue that the $3 billion is probably much lower than reality. “So much never gets reported,” said Wellborn. “The elderly with middle-aged or older kids are too embarrassed to say they sent money to a Nigerian.”
“Many scammers go unnoticed,” points out Mullman, a graduate of Atlanta Hebrew Academy who earned his undergraduate and legal degrees from Georgia State University. But there are warning signs. If a Facebook friend invitation comes from someone you are already friends with, that’s a tip-off that a scammer is trying to get into your account.
Scammers in Georgia have been known to pose as police brotherhood organizations, veteran support and cancer research groups, say the attorneys. “Some are real charities, but 98 percent of the income goes to operations and paying salaries, with only two percent going to the stated charity,” said Wellborn. The bottom line, he emphasizes, is “never give money to charities that call you on the phone.”
The Federal Communications Commission website advises people who receive “an inquiry from someone who says they represent a company or a government agency, hang up and call the phone number on your account statement, in the phone book, or on the company’s or government agency’s website to verify the authenticity of the request. You will usually get a written statement in the mail before you get a phone call from a legitimate source, particularly if the caller is asking for a payment.”
Scammers use all kinds of technology to swindle unsuspecting seniors, including emails, social media messaging and text messages. “People who will not be calling you from a foreign country include your grandson and niece,” pointed out Wellborn.
It’s also not unusual for people to fall for the same scam twice, adds Mullman.
The best advice is to be intentional and keep your guard up, as well as to use common sense. “If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not true,” said Wellborn.
Another important piece of advice is to “never give out personal information to anyone who calls you,” said Mullman. “One rule to live by is to only discuss or give confidential information when you have made the call, after confirming the right number. That would knock out 95 percent of the scams.”
The attorneys offer more technical advice, as well. Mullman suggests that seniors check with their cellular providers and landline services. “Call your phone provider and ask them for the best solution,” he said.
Increasingly, phone services are noting “potential scam” on caller IDs. “If you pick up, you will hear a click. It’s a call center and the dialer is going from an automated call to a live call,” said Wellborn.
While the telephone has served as an essential connector during the pandemic, it has also facilitated a huge increase in scams. In 2020, scams jumped 25 to 33 percent, according to Wellborn, and “so far, 2021 looks the same.”
“The world of scamming is a tiny reflection of war in society going back thousands of years,” Wellborn philosophizes. “Years ago, you had to be close to someone, to use a sword. Then it was a bow and arrow, then missiles, etc. The potential fallout is so much greater as technology advances and becomes cheaper. There’s so much more power in the hands of bad guys. I have grown to hate these scammers.”
Mullman says that the best way to stop calls is a grassroots awareness of the problem. To that end, he and Wellborn have teamed up to offer free presentations at local senior facilities or to other groups at high risk, about scamming. “If I could spend one hour with potential victims, there would be no more scams,” Wellborn says.
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Senior Living
- potential victims
- Pete Wellborn
- Wellborn & Wallace LLC
- Sam Mullman
- COVID-19 pandemic
- voice fishing
- Social Security
- Georgia power
- Nigerian princes
- National Council on Aging
- Atlanta Hebrew Academy
- Georgia state university
- police brotherhood organizations
- veteran support
- cancer research groups
- Federal Communications Commission
- potential scam
- Caller ID
- grassroots awareness
- Internal Revenue Service