dollar eyes

By Joel Dresang

With trust in government at an all-time low, there’s one group still desperately relying on public-sector authority: Scammers.

The social media and websites of government agencies are plastered with warnings of impostor scams. Swindlers masquerade as Social Security, the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, to prey on people’s familiarity with those organizations. They seek to steal not only money but identities.

The money alone is considerable. Victims lost $509 million to government impostor scams in 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And that’s only what was reported. Often, victims are too embarrassed to tell anybody.

Our family has received its share of messages claiming to be from Social Security and the IRS. A recent alert from Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General warns consumers of official-looking letters, emails and texts from Social Security or other agencies. The tactics vary, but typically the fake notices mention an urgent problem that needs to be addressed immediately with some sort of payment or account number.

Where I work deals with individuals’ financial information, so our staff has regular training sessions to stay alert to signs of scams. At one recent meeting, discussion arose around how best to protect clients. One suggestion was to dedicate a scams tab on our website. Another was to use the website to prominently display the number for the National Elder Fraud Hotline.

On average, we post a Money Talk article on avoiding scams every few months (the most recent recounts how Kyle Tetting foiled a scheme by detecting something fishy in a client’s email). We also have a series of Money Talk Videos on how to be safe online.

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

But only so much can be done to protect people from rip-offs. And scamsters know it. They count on inclinations to respect authority and avoid conflict. Despite where warnings are displayed or how often cautionary tips are shared, some people are always at risk of falling for a con job. Older consumers are particularly vulnerable because of cognitive losses that come with aging and overconfidence in financial knowledge.

But there’s hope. Research based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that consumers can develop a prevention mindset by seeing examples of scams.

Behavioral technology researchers with the UW’s Center for Financial Security conducted a sort of inoculation experiment. They exposed a sample of individuals to examples of bogus Social Security appeals. Afterward, those who learned about the scams were more likely to discern between actual and fraudulent communications. And what they learned persisted.

Like being exposed to a weakened dose of a virus, the researchers said, consumers who learned about the sample scams were better able to resist real ones.

Because impostor scams undermine their credibility, government agencies are keen on generating consumers alerts and tips. They also produce helpful videos, many of which offer examples of the sorts of swindles to avoid. Here are some links:

Whether for your own awareness or that of a loved one, occasional exposure to such exposés could help build immunity to the ongoing epidemic of scams – impostor and otherwise.

As we did at our staff meeting, viewing a video together and discussing it afterward can boost resistance to scammers. To subscribe to consumer videos from the Federal Trade Commission, go to the FTC Videos page. Also, the AARP Scams & Fraud page includes coverage of recent scams, tips for consumer protection and a sign-up for a periodical update on fraud.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
How to avoid a government impersonator scam, from the FTC
Government Impostor Scams on the Rise, from AARP
Beware of IRS Imposter Scams, AARP interactive video
Investor Alerts & Bulletins, Securities and Exchange Commission
(initially posted March 31, 2023)

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