By Jean C. Setzfands, vice president of the Financial Security team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP
Joyce H., a 59-year-old unemployed grandmother raising four grandkids, could barely believe her luck. A London barrister had emailed her, claiming to have finally located her, because he was administering the will of someone who was distantly related to her.
After exchanging several emails which he used to stoke her excitement, he eventually called her at 4:00 one morning. “Joyce, are you ready to get this money?”
She was half-asleep, but of course, she was ready! In her own words, she describes herself as a “poor person,” struggling to pay the rent. All she had to do was wire him $350 “as a show of good faith.”
Having entered countless lotteries and sweepstakes, she’d never won a single prize. “I used to think, ‘What is wrong with me – why can’t I ever win anything?’ I see people winning all the time – at the casino, playing the lottery.”
Fortunately, whether because she smelled a rat or just didn’t have the money, she balked. “Why would I need to wire you $350 when you have all that money right there? Take $350 out of that!” she told the barrister. “If you scam 100 people for $350 each – that’s a lot of money!”
Indeed it is. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission estimates that foreign-based lottery fraud alone bilks Americans out of billions of dollars a year. Moreover, the FTC estimates that more than 90 percent of lottery scams go unreported because the victims are too ashamed to file a complaint.
They shouldn’t be ashamed; they are hardly alone. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population falls for one kind of scam or another each year. Studies show that the average fraud victim is 55 to 65 years of age. People with higher levels of education are often more likely to trust their own judgment and fall prey to scam artists.
Joyce summed it up well. “We elderly people are often scammed by these things. They always try to work on us, because they know we are vulnerable and need the money.”
AARP colleague Doug Shadel offers 10 tips for spotting and avoiding scams of all types, including fraudulent lotteries, “business opportunities” and Ponzi schemes:
1. If anybody asks you to pay a fee to collect a “prize” you have won, they are trying to scam you.
2. If anybody invites you to play a foreign-based lottery or says you have won such a lottery, they are trying to scam you because foreign lotteries are illegal in the United States.
3. Fraudsters will try to whip you into an emotional state of excitement. When you are in that state, you literally cannot access the rational part of your brain.
4. Do not provide personal data to anyone attempting to sell you an investment opportunity or “process your winnings.”
5. Make sure the person trying to sell you an investment product is licensed and registered. Also, beware of investments sold by friends or members of an affinity group to which you belong.
6. Before investing, fully understand what the company does to earn the return it is promising. It may be a Ponzi scheme.
7. Never buy coins from a telemarketer, and never put an excessive amount of your investments in one type of vehicle – like gold.
8. Even if you meet salespeople and find yourself impressed with their offices and marketing materials, it could still be a scam. If you’re bilking people out of millions of dollars, you can afford a pretty glossy façade.
9. Learn more about how scam artists work their black magic. Read Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Protect Yourself from the Most Clever Cons.
10. Watch a free archived AARP-produced webinar about protecting your finances from fraud.
All that said, all you really need to remember is what your parents always told you: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.