We explain the most current methods scammers are using to sound legitimate, but steal your money and personal information to enrich themselves, and the steps you can take to avoid being taken in by their tricks.
Around the holidays each year, the activity of professional scammers ramps up ranging from emotional pleas to donate to needy causes to great-sounding offers to double your money to help pay for seasonal expenses. However once the new year begins the fraudulent activity continues with additional people falling victim to swindles. While being scammed is distressing to everyone, it can be especially financially, physically, and emotionally devastating to persons with disabilities.
With nearly 50 million people currently identified as disabled, a large percentage of American families are affected by crimes committed in the area of fraud against the disabled. The number of people in this category continues to grow each year due to our aging population and the fact that more females have been in the workforce the past few decades resulting in larger numbers of women becoming disabled due to illness, accidents, or disease. In fact, the Social Security Administration estimates that today’s 20-year-olds face a one in four chance that they will not be able to work until retirement age due to disability. Disabled people are prime victims of criminals who see opportunities to prey on those who are vulnerable and already at risk.
Financial Scams and Identity Theft
Despite the fact that the average person on disability receives only a few hundred dollars a year above the poverty level, he or she can be seen as an easy target in many ways by unscrupulous scammers. Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent ways this happens is for family members or caregivers who have access to personal and banking information to steal or transfer money from accounts. Often this can go undetected for months and years, especially if the disabled person relies frequently or completely on others for assistance with paying bills, buying groceries, and taking care of other expenses.
Another common tactic is for someone to call or send an email to a person on disability posing as a government agent, from Social Security, Medicare or the Internal Revenue Service. In these situations, the caller typically asks for identification information (such as Social Security number, date of birth, or even bank account numbers) as part of a so-called “courtesy call” to update a person’s records, prevent them from losing benefits, or help them obtain additional benefits they may be eligible for. The disabled persons may feel grateful that someone is looking out of them or scared that something has gone wrong and their benefits are at risk. Of course, armed with this confidential information, it is relatively easy for professional identity theft scammers to gain access to personal financial resources. There have even been instances of criminals gaining access to disabled individuals’ Social Security Disability Insurance accounts and diverting benefits to their own bank accounts.
Other crimes involve offers for participation in special programs, including work from home programs that are advertised as lucrative for people with disabilities who want to supplement their income. The scammer tells the victim about a business or chance for employment that a person can “apply” for by paying a fee for supplies and introductory training for the work. Yet another tactic is for scammers to tell the disabled person that there is a special program where additional benefits can be had if the person pays a fee upfront. Of course, once the upfront fee is paid, there are no additional benefits going to the disabled person or opportunities for legitimate paid work from home. In the meantime, the victim has lost any fees they have paid.
There have been recent telephone scams that relay false information about relatives being in accidents and needing money immediately in an attempt to access funds or account information. One frequent scam features a caller telling disabled people they have won prizes, vacations, cruises, gift cards, or cash asking only for identification information to provide the awards. Again, that information allows criminals to access the resources of the disabled person who never receives any of the promised items.There are also incidences of phone calls where callers pretend to be part of a church, charitable or community organization requesting funds for a cause. These types of calls increase whenever there is a disaster or catastrophe in the news to help make them sound realistic. In addition to calls, e-mails and pop-ups can be programmed to infiltrate a personal computer with alerts that there is a virus on the computer or some other emergency that requires verifying personal information either electronically or by calling an emergency number provided. With all of these crimes, the intent is to steal the disabled person’s identity in order to access personal accounts, financial information and passwords.
Still another common financial scam involves unscrupulous persons who advertise or promote in person their services to provide everything from much-needed insurance policies, repairs to a roof or car for an unbelievably low price, offers of free groceries for allowing them to demonstrate a product, or lifetime free prescription drugs for participating in a study. Of course, there are honest insurance agents and contractors as well as legitimate studies or programs for assistance to disabled persons, but most fantastic offers turn out to be just that–a fantasy, not reality.
Finally, there are instances of identity theft at the time when a person begins the process of applying for disability benefits. In this case, individuals on websites, on the phone, neighbors, and even relatives offer to help with the application process only to take over the application and fraudulently use the identity of the disabled person to collect benefits for themselves.
The Physical Toll of Identity Theft and Scams
When a disabled person adds crime victim to their personal description, the effects on health can be immediate. The physical toll can begin when the fraud is first committed as the victim is pressured or harassed to provide information at the risk of losing money, benefits, security, or even loved ones. That stress magnifies as the fraud continues until the loss becomes evident and the victim worries about what might happen next. Added stress can be extremely harmful to people as many diseases, conditions, and disabilities are magnified by stress and anxiety.
In addition, many disabled and elderly scam victims feel physically weakened and diminished by the loss of financial resources. This may cause them to avoid seeking medical treatment or purchasing food, medicine or therapies needed to maintain their health and viability. And while most fraud crimes are not conducted face-to-face with the victim, there are cases where people with disabilities have been harmed with physical violence when they did not comply with a criminal who confronted them in person. All victims of crime experience physical consequences but for people with physical or mental disabilities, their world may become overwhelmingly fragile after an incident of fraud.
The Emotional Impact of Identity Theft and Scams
The emotional consequences of scams on a disabled person can be devastating. One reason is that these crimes are extremely personal and the victim feels it is his or her own fault that they trusted someone else or believed something that was, in retrospect, ridiculous or stupid. Diminished self-confidence can add to feelings of depression and even loss of independence, as victims now second-guess many aspects of their life they thought they could control. Embarrassment about falling victim to a scam often outweighs any anger towards the criminals who instigated the scam. When the betrayal involves a family member or someone they know well, there can be an enormous void in the victim’s social circle that limits involvement and normal relationships.
Often when fraud occurs, the victim also loses a sense of security wondering if anyone can be trusted. When this happens, it is easy for a person to stay home, avoid interaction with people, and create barriers of isolation for protection and safety. Again, an atmosphere of fear and seclusion can wreak havoc on a person’s emotional stability, which in turn can affect taking care of important aspects of living related to health, well-being and financial security.
Feelings of hopelessness can also accompany fraud crimes because the disabled person’s resources are fixed and limited. While state or federal prosecutors may investigate identity theft crimes, many of the scams are not even reported because victims feel it is insignificant to law enforcement or that somehow it wouldn’t have happened if only they had been less foolish. In many cases, there is little chance to recover the financial losses or obtain a favorable outcome from an investigation or prosecution.
Steps to Take to Avoid Scams
The perpetrators of fraud seem to find new ways each year to swindle people, especially those who are most vulnerable. But there are actions people can take to avoid becoming scam victims. The Federal Trade Commission recommends several things disabled people can do to avoid fraud. These include:
- Be skeptical of anyone who calls, texts, emails, or comes to your house to conduct official business with you. This is especially true if you have no warning that you would be contacted. There is nothing wrong with asking people to verify who they are or to provide you with a number you can call to check they are who they say they are. This also applies to people who are offering free trials or gifts for trying their product or service.
- Be knowledgeable about the many ways that fraud criminals operate. Caller ID numbers are not necessarily correct and are relatively easy to fake or “spoof.” You can also search online by typing in a company name or product to learn whether it is legitimate. Using key words “Social Security Scams” or” IRS calls” can also provide information about current scams as well as tips to prevent falling victim to these frauds.
- Avoid providing any personal information, including banking, Social Security, or other government accounts without consulting or telling another person unless you initiate the conversation. If you are being rushed to provide information to someone you did not contact, calmly shut down the conversation and call or ask someone you trust to advise you on how to handle the situation. If the caller is legitimate, he or she will not mind having you call back with information and will provide you with some way to verify their call.
- Be vigilant about checking the status of your assets and benefits by checking your accounts. It is easier for criminals to deplete your resources if you are unaware of what you have or should have in your accounts.
- Be aware of the fraud protection available from your credit cards. Do not provide checks, bank account information, or cash without feeling 100% sure that you are dealing with legitimate businesses or organizations. Avoid wiring money if you do not know the person or business you are sending the money as it is almost impossible to get money back that has been wired.
- Report any suspicious activities to your family, friends, trusted service providers or agencies as soon as possible. Your health, financial well being, and peace of mind are the most important things you can preserve to maintain a quality life.