How to avoid becoming a scam victim

Criminals prey on fear and ignorance to pull off fraudulent schemes.
By Drew Adamek

The IRS impersonation scam seems implausibly successful for the criminals. The premise of the scheme is dubious on its face: The IRS is demanding payment in gift cards for back taxes under the threat of immediate arrest. And yet thousands of Americans were conned out of millions of dollars. Why?

Schemes like this work because the scammer's aggressive, high-pressure tactics create what Amy Nofziger, regional director with the AARP Fraud Watch Network, calls "the emotional ether," a reactive emotional state of heightened fear and anxiety that short-circuits logical thinking.

Then-TIGTA Deputy Inspector General Timothy Camus describes this state in recent congressional testimony: "A senior citizen located in Florida who was so frightened by the impersonators that, following their directions, he immediately drove to his local Walmart, while remaining on the phone with them. During the drive, he crashed his vehicle and continued on foot in order to obtain a MoneyGram payment as demanded by the impersonators."

"You're thinking with your emotions," Nofziger said. "Once you're out of that emotional ether and start thinking cognitively, you're like, 'Wait a second, this doesn't make sense.'"

Along with awareness of fraudulent schemes, fraud prevention experts offer the following advice that CPAs' clients can use to avoid falling under the "emotional ether" of scammers:

Don't pick up

Never answer a call from an unknown number. Don't worry; important callers will leave a message.

"Any time you pick up your phone to someone who you do not know, you are opening yourself up to their scams, to their ploy," Nofziger said.

Hang up

Spoofed calls may trick you into answering the phone. Don't panic if you do answer a suspicious call, Camus said.

"The easiest way, and one of our mantras throughout this, was, if anyone called you out of the blue and demands money and threatens you, just hang up the phone," Camus said. "It's a scam."

Never offer information to a stranger

If you are caught on the phone with a suspected scammer, don't help him or her out. Scammers often exploit Americans' fear and distrust of authority figures to con victims, but government agencies never call demanding information or payment, according to Marti DeLiema, Ph.D., a fraud prevention researcher at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

"Don't give any personal information to anyone who calls you. Never give money to people that you don't know," DeLiema said. "I can't recall any scams where they met face-to-face. There is always some remote element."

Check in with authorities

If you do receive a suspicious call, hang up and call the IRS directly. Even if you know you're in the clear, letting authorities know about an attempted scam will help them monitor and prevent future schemes.


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