March 24, 2021

Phone Scams Are on the Rise, Especially Involving Seniors

By Anne Levin

With the deadline to file taxes only a few weeks away, scam season is about to go into full swing. Don’t be surprised by telephone calls from people who claim to be with the Internal Revenue Service, demanding immediate payment “or else.”

These tax-related calls are only one form of fraudulent activity of which citizens – particularly the elderly – should be aware. Local police have reported a number of startling scams in recent weeks. The most egregious was recorded last month, when a local resident was convinced to give computer access to someone who stole nearly $300,000 from their bank account.

“It is definitely a problem,” said Princeton Police Sergeant Tom Lagomarsino, who has been handling reports of the thefts. “One of the things we’re trying to get out on social media and otherwise is that people should be aware. Because most of the time, they come through the phone.”

Among frequent offenders are those who claim to be with PSE&G, claiming power will be cut off if payment isn’t made within an hour. “If they give you any type of immediate deadline, that’s a clue,” Lagomarsino said. “The power company is not going to cut off your power if you don’t pay in the next few hours.”

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received some 1.25 million fraud complaints in 2020 in which a contact method was identified. The average loss from a successful phone scam in 2020 was $1,170, nearly four times the average loss across all fraud types.

“The majority of everyday scams come from those requesting payment with a transferable gift card,” said Lagomarsino. “The larger amounts are fewer. Typically, they will call and say they’re either going to shut off the power, or we’ve arrested your grandson for driving under the influence and you have to send money right away.”

In addition to the incident in which a local resident lost nearly $300,000, recent reports of scams affecting people who live in Princeton have included $24,750 stolen from a checking account via a computer security program scam; $1,800 worth of gift cards someone was deceived into buying for someone pretending to be their boss; and $9,150 worth of Bitcoin that someone was talked into sending.

Advanced technology, such as robocalling, makes criminal activity easy. “Readily available spoofing tools can trick your caller ID into displaying a genuine government or corporate number, or one that appears to be local, to increase the chances that you’ll answer,” reads an article on the AARP website.

While most victims are elderly, they are not the only ones to be plagued by scammers. “But the elderly are the ones that, unfortunately, pay these requests,” said Lagomarsino. “A lot of times, they are just unaware of the situations. Warnings are posted on social media, but a lot of them don’t look at social media.”

Lagomarsino urges awareness of any phone call requesting money. “Services like PSE&G, Verizon, or whatever, will send you a bill,” he said. “The IRS will not call you. They’ll send documentation and letters. If you’re getting calls, that right there is an alert that this is a fraud or a scam. Or if they give you any type of immediate deadline, such as your power will be cut off in an hour, that’s a scam.”

Some learn they have been scammed when they go to file their taxes. “They’ll be told they have already been filed,” Lagomarsino said. “That happens a lot, especially this time of year.”

The AARP recommends not answering phone calls from a number you don’t recognize. Never give out personal or financial data, such as a credit card or Social Security number, to callers you don’t know. If they say they need to confirm it, that’s a trick.

“It goes in spurts,” Lagomarsino said. “Within the next weeks, we’re expecting to see the IRS scams. So people should be aware.”