Just about everyone with a smartphone has received a scam text message alerting them to some fake crisis with their Debit Card or Social Security Number. While falling victim to these frauds can be costly in terms of time and money, they are nothing compared to scams being perpetrated on the most vulnerable, mainly the elderly, or those physically, socially, or emotionally isolated. Unfortunately, one unforeseen consequence of the pandemic is an increase in the number of people who’ve become isolated, and in the past year we’ve seen a dramatic increase in these types of scams.

Criminals prey upon the emotions of these individuals using fear, friendship, excitement, romance, or a combination. The types of swindles we are seeing include:

  • Eminent Arrest Scams: criminals posing as government representatives or members of law enforcement threatening eminent arrest unless the victim sends money.
  • Lottery Scams: victims are told they’ve won a lottery but need to pay various taxes or fees before the funds can be released. 
  • Grandparent Scams: criminals pose as grandchildren who have had some mishap and need money immediately, and the grandparent is the only person they can turn to for help. 
  • Romance Scams: criminals target lonely individuals making them believe they’ve found their soul mate online. Oftentimes, victims are tricked into getting “engaged” to someone they have never met. Once trust is established, in-person meetings are promised but never occur because of some obstacle that requires money to overcome.

Criminals are incredibly effective at getting victims to trust them, and at convincing them not to talk to or trust anyone else, including family and friends. In every scam other than those involving eminent arrest, the victim describes the criminal as “a friend of theirs”. These scams never end until one of two things happen: 1) the victim gives the criminal every dollar they can lay their hands on (sometimes including their entire retirement savings or equity in their homes), or 2) a family member or friend intercedes on behalf of the victim.

So, what can you do to protect the vulnerable people you care about?

First and foremost, talk to your friend or family member about the types of scams criminals use and techniques they employ to get money before that person falls victim to a scam. 
  • Explain that criminals can easily get access to phone numbers. Immediately delete any text messages from someone they don’t recognize or haven’t done business with.  Government entities like the IRS, law enforcement, and lottery officials do not send text messages demanding money.
  • Tell your friend or family member that government officials and law enforcement never demand payment via wire transfers for cryptocurrency or prepaid gift cards.
  • Never give card numbers, account passwords or login credentials to anyone that contacts them.
  • Legitimate government officials or law enforcement never tell people not to speak to or trust anyone else.
  • Explain to your friend or family member that criminals successfully scam victims out of billions of dollars every year, so always be skeptical of anyone who asks for money over the phone. Tell them there is no legitimate crisis so great that they cannot talk to you before sending money. 
  • Encourage your friend or family member to talk to you before ever sending money to someone they’ve met online. This can be very difficult if the person is lonely because they may believe they have a true friend, and they will be horribly embarrassed by the prospect of being scammed by this person.

While many members contact the Credit Union before sending money or giving away account information, in other situations we only become aware of the scam after victims have sent thousands of dollars to criminals. Usually, by the time this occurs, the vulnerable individual is so deep into the scam it’s very hard to convince them they are a victim. The best way to protect the vulnerable people you care about is by arming them with information about these scams before they occur.