December 15, 2023
Kimberly Higgins, CFP®
In our line of work, keeping our eyes open to scams is of the utmost importance. As Advisors, we often read articles on the ways scammers manipulate their victims. We receive training on common fraud techniques and how to spot them. We pay close attention to the horror stories of those who have fallen prey. It’s important to know that nobody is immune to deceit.
I am the newest Advisor here at WEIL. My first week at the company, I was sent a text message from “Chris Weil.” He asked me if I was available to help him with a special project. I thought, What a great way for me to show the founder of the firm that I’m a team player? And I’m being tasked to keep quiet about it since it’s a special project that will be a surprise for the other WEIL employees? Absolutely!
But when “Chris” asked me to purchase $600 in Apple gift cards, I became suspicious. My reticence proved prudent, as it was indeed a scam, and a sophisticated one at that. The scammer knew that I was a new employee (presumably by seeing something on LinkedIn or the company website), and that as a new employee I would be eager to comply with a request from the guy with his name on the door. Luckily, I had heard about gift card scams in the past, so a red flag came up in my head and stopped me from proceeding any further. As someone who previously felt impervious to scams, only to be mere minutes away from losing hard-earned money, I am writing to shed light on the top scams to look out for, ways in which to avoid them, and what to do if you are scammed.
Crypto Romance Scam
Scammers employ a combination of cryptocurrency and traditional romance fraud tactics by assuming false identities as online love interests. These fraudsters attempt to exploit feelings of loneliness or neglect by flattering, confiding, and appearing to pay special attention. They often make plans to meet in person but cancel “due to unexpected reasons.” Their goal is to persuade victims into downloading an application and investing in fraudulent cryptocurrency accounts. Steve Baker, a former Federal Trade Commission official who publishes the Baker Fraud Report, notes that these perpetrators falsely claim to contribute their own funds to the victims' accounts. Despite the app displaying data that appears to indicate financial growth, in reality, the criminals are siphoning off the victims' money. To safeguard yourself, exercise caution when evaluating any investment opportunity, even if you consider yourself a savvy investor. You are always welcome to forward any investment proposals you receive to our team for a second opinion.
Oops, Wrong Number
Beware of scams that often commence with seemingly missent messages. You might receive a text intended for someone else, appearing urgent, such as a rescheduled business meeting, a romantic invitation, or an offer to “buy your property at 13489 Treehorn Lane” (when you do not actually own that property). If you respond with a "Sorry, wrong number!" the scammer may persist with friendly texts and eventually lure you into websites, aiming to extract credit card information and money. Alternatively, they may try to convince you to invest in cryptocurrency, ultimately taking your money. To be safe, refrain from responding to texts from unfamiliar numbers, never click on any link sent by someone unknown to you, and resist responding with "STOP" as suggested in messages claiming it prevents future communication. Instead, block the phone numbers associated with these messages, even if it goes against your inquisitive and/or friendly nature.
If you've set up your online banking or credit card accounts to require a live code for access (commonly known as “two-factor authentication”), imagine a situation where someone unauthorized has your login details and aims to steal from you. In this common scam, the fraudster pretends to be from your bank, claiming there’s an issue with your account. They say a “one-time passcode" is being sent for verification and ask you to share it. What you may not realize is that the scammer's login attempt triggers your bank to send a passcode to the contact information your bank has on file for you. Giving this information out grants the user full access. To stay safe, never share your passcode with unsolicited callers, or with anyone you don’t know and trust. Hang up, find your bank's contact number from your statement, and call to verify any issues. Report suspicious activity to your bank's fraud department promptly.
Student Loan Forgiveness
The Biden administration's initiative to forgive student loans is currently facing an uncertain future due to legal entanglements. Despite its temporary hold, scammers are actively attempting to exploit individuals who may not be aware of the ongoing legal proceedings. These fraudsters have established application websites with the aim of illicitly obtaining applicants' Social Security numbers and banking details. In some cases, they resort to contacting potential victims via phone, exerting pressure to apply, and charging a fee for their purported assistance. This scam is so prevalent because it speaks to a real point of anxiety for many people. To protect yourself against such scams, visit the Department of Education's student aid website (www.ed.gov) for the latest updates on the status of the proposed loan forgiveness program.
Government Impersonation Scams
Impersonation scams and fake debt collection schemes often involve fraudsters posing as government officials or tax agencies, intimidating individuals by claiming the individual owes money to the government. These scammers may use aggressive language and threats of legal action such as arrest or asset freezing, applying pressure to make on-the-spot payments using methods like wire transfers or prepaid cards. Additionally, the scammers employ official-sounding names or references to government programs to enhance their credibility. To avoid falling victim to impersonation and fake government debt collection scams recognize that government agencies will never call, email, text, or message you on social media to ask for money or personal information. They always send notices by mail with a phone number and case number. Initial conversations with government agencies never include demands for immediate payment or threats of arrest. Be highly skeptical of such threats, never share personal or financial information during unsolicited communication, and verify claims of debt through official government websites and independently sourced contact information. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be an agent of a government agency we recommend you hang-up and block the caller’s phone number.
Delivery Package Scam
Emerging package delivery scams involve deceptive texts and phone calls, ostensibly originating from a professional sounding delivery driver who claims difficulty locating the intended recipient's residence. In cases where no orders have been placed, perpetrators may attempt to convince individuals that a gift has been dispatched. Alternatively, recipients may receive an email suggesting the need to reschedule a delivery or encounter a counterfeit "package delivery attempt" sticker affixed to their front door. The primary objective of these scams is to elicit the provision of personal information or prompt engagement with a provided link. Subsequent interaction with the link results in the download of malware (malicious software), facilitating the extraction of passwords and account information from the victim's computer. To mitigate the risk of falling victim to such fraudulent activities, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advises reaching out to the seller or delivery service using a verified phone number. Never use numbers or links provided by suspected scammers.
For those concerned with avoiding scams and staying abreast of the ever-changing swindler landscape, AARP has the Fraud Watch Network™ (www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/fraud-watch-network/), which will provide resources to “Help spot and avoid scams and protect your loves ones.” There is also an AARP Fraud Helpline (877-908-3360) for those who believe they have been scammed. This is a free service that connects you with a fraud specialist to offer support and guidance.
If you do fall victim to a scam, you are not alone. This happens to millions of Americans yearly and there is no shame in it. The emotional ramifications of being scammed are meaningful. We recommend you utilize the AARP’s support group to provide you with resources and a wider community (https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/voa-rest-program/).
In the television series Hill Street Blues, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus began every shift by telling his officers, “Let’s be careful out there.” While nobody wants to live their life in fear or with a “glass half empty” mentality, it is vital to your financial wellbeing that you keep your eyes open. The government will never call you if you are in legal trouble; they will send you a certified letter or, under extreme circumstances, show up at your door with a warrant. If an unsolicited caller is making you feel intimidated, bullied, or pressured, call us and we’ll weigh in on the legitimacy of the request. Any threats to you or your family need to be reported to the police. These scammers are smart and they are ruthless; they socially engineer us and either lull us into a sense of false confidence or manipulate our sense of safety and desire to protect our loved ones. Staying informed about scam tactics, promptly reporting suspicious activities, educating others about these scams, and using WEIL as a sounding board contribute to a more vigilant and protected community.
For your reference, we have included a supplement to this quarter’s Wealthwise by WEIL providing some examples of scam attempts. Additionally we recommend you visit investor.gov/protect-your-investments and read the fraud information they provide.
We are here to help. We encourage you to call any WEIL Advisor if you have questions about suspicious calls or emails that you receive. Nothing would make us happier than if your standard response to any embarrassing, stressful, or puzzling inquiry related to your finances was, “Let me check with my advisor.”
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