Updated: Feb 28, 2019
Widows are often the target of scams, because scammers see their loss as an opportunity to profit off of their fragile emotional state. Whether it's the Sweetheart Scam, Tax ID Theft or Fake IRS calls, we want to help you protect yourself from frauds with bad intentions. In this blog, we'll discuss how to spot a scam and how to protect yourself before scammers even try to target you. Part 1 offers an introduction to the types of scams, and part 2 will discuss the scams in greater detail.
Types of Scams that Target Widow(er)s
This scam involves a potential "love-interest" attempting to build a (fake) relationship with their victim, so they can prey on them for financial gain. These scammers use the illusion of love & the promise of a blossoming relationship to manipulate their victims into transferring money to their personal bank accounts.
Oftentimes, scammers will reach out using fake profiles of highly-attractive people to peak initial interest. The perpetrator may "catfish" the victim by sending illegitimate photos and providing false-details about their personal lives to build a connection. Other scammers might send genuine photos and may even offer to video chat, but they're "faking" the emotional connection in order to profit. The difference between this scam and other scams, is that the perpetrator is "in it for the long haul" (or rather, "in it for the big bucks") and they dedicate weeks, months or even years to build up trust & facilitate romantic feelings.
The scammers usually email, direct message or call their victims daily and continue the illusion for a long period of time so they can continue to receive big payouts. The relationship will begin like any other, where the perpetrator will share details about their private life, their fears, their secrets...but eventually, they'll come up with a story about a major problem in their life-- and they'll ask for a large sum of money.
Obviously, the victim cares for their new love interest, so they'll want to send money to help them in their time of need. If the victim believes that their significant other will lose their home because they're unable to afford rent, or if they think that they'll no longer able to text or call because their S/O can't afford the phone bill, then the victim will likely send over the money.
The scammer may also ask for extravagant gifts, like a new laptop for "better-quality video chatting" or a vacation so they can "visit in person". The scammer is investing a lot of time into keeping up the charade, so they're expecting to receive multiple payments over a long time period. They won't ask for a single money transfer-- instead, they'll continue their romance charade and devise more and more "sob-stories" to keep the cash rolling in. While online sweetheart scams are more prevalent, these scams can occur in-person as well, and almost anyone can be a target.
"Although almost any age group can be lured into this game of deceit, the number one target of sweetheart scams is usually men and women over age 40; the older the better. Seniors—especially widows, widowers and recent divorcees—are particularly vulnerable to this manipulation of the heart. And it is not gender specific either; both men and women are equally victimized" (Joyce, n.d.).
You never know who you're chatting with online, so you'll want to be cautious about starting a relationship with a stranger. If you discover that you're chatting with a Sweetheart Scammer, it's best to stop all communication with them & report them to the police, if possible.
Tax Identity Theft
Tax Identity Theft occurs when a scammer uses personal information to file a fraudulent tax return to claim tax benefits. When a spouse passes, you are able to claim tax benefits by filing a joint return or filing as a qualifying widow(er). However, scammers will monitor local/national funeral home obituaries & use them to gather personal information about their next target.
"Since many consumers wait until April to file [their taxes], a scammer who has access to compromised personal information (such as a Social Security Number, full name, and street address) can take advantage of the delay to file in someone else’s name" (Tax ID Theft, n.d.).
You'll want to prevent Tax ID fraud by keeping personal information private. Many scammers will use the obituary to contact surviving family members and use phishing techniques to gather data like SSN and addresses.
You can protect your information in a few ways:
Create separate and unique passwords for every online account. You can add extra security measures by using randomly generated numbers and special symbols rather than using personal information (like the names of your pets, your birthday or other semi-public information that hackers could easily find).
You should also keep your SSN private and avoid sending it over email.
Protect against computer viruses by avoiding suspicious downloads/links
Look out for phishing emails (discussed in more detail below).
Check out this full list here for other precautions.
This is a very common scam. While most people are aware of IRS scammers, people still fall for them every day because in the heat of the moment, victims are scared of legal action being taken against them. In this scam, a person calls claiming that they're with the IRS, and they claim that the victim owes money. The scammer will try to intimidate their victims by threatening legal action (i.e. arrest) if the funds aren't sent immediately through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. These scam-artists are getting more clever in finding ways to legitimize themselves, too.
"Some schemes provide an actual IRS address where they tell the victim to mail a receipt for the payment they make. Others use emails that contain a fake IRS document with a phone number or an email address for a reply" (IRS, 2018).
Obviously, the caller is not actually from the IRS because the IRS never demands immediate payment, nor do they try to intimidate or manipulate you into sending money. There are a number of tell-tale signs that the person contacting you is a scammer.
"The IRS will not: ~Call you to demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call you if you owe taxes without first sending you a bill in the mail. ~Demand that you pay taxes and not allow you to question or appeal the amount you owe. ~Require that you pay your taxes a certain way. For instance, require that you pay with a prepaid debit card. ~Ask for your credit or debit card numbers over the phone. ~Threaten to bring in police or other agencies to arrest you for not paying."
If you suspect that an illegitimate person is contacting you, then let them know that you are hanging up & calling the main IRS phone number to discuss any owed taxes. If they protest this and/or demand that you stay on the phone, then this raises the suspicion that you are speaking with a fraud.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace Scams
Let's say you list an item, like a laptop or phone, online. You receive a message from a guy named Joe who is offering to pay twice the amount of your asking price. Seems too good to be true, right? That's because it probably is. Scammers use "phenomenal deals" to grab your attention and prevent you from selling to another honest buyer (because who would sell a phone for $300 when you're offered $1000?). They'll pretend to pay for the phone with a fraudulent check, money order or stolen bank account. At this point, you've received the check and already mailed out the item-- the scam may end there, or they might contact you again requesting that you transfer the additional funds back.
They might try to play on your emotions by saying that they're not able to afford rent because they sent you $700 more than the asking price. They might ask that you send back part of the extra funds (let's say $300) and that way, you still get $400 more than you would've gotten from any other buyer. However, after you send the cash, the banks notice that the check is fraudulent and they remove the total $1000 from the account. Now, you've lost the phone and $300.
Unfortunately, most banks can't reimburse you or do anything to help if you've transferred funds-- they can only assist with fraudulent purchases on a stolen credit card. Even further, if the scammer is located in another country, then the police aren't able to pursue the individual with legal action.
How to Spot a Scam
Phishing & ID Spoofing
While an email or phone call may appear as if it's coming from a friend, family member, bank, social media platform or other sender, it may be coming from a scammer. Look at the example below to see an example of "phishing".
The email says that it is coming from the "United Nations", when in reality, it's coming from a personal email (firstname.lastname@example.org). This email also promises that the recipient will receive a large sum of money from this supposedly legitimate source. In this case, the scammer is trying to trick the recipient into providing personal information so they can steal your identity. Phishers try to impersonate a name that you've heard so that you trust them. The actual United Nation would not mishandle funds nor would they make false promises of of compensation, so hypothetically, the email recipient should trust the email.
However, the sender is not the UN and does not care about making false promises-- they just want to profit off of the victim. Phishing is dangerous and one of the easiest ways to manipulate someone because the scammer makes the email seem legitimate. For example, someone could look at your Facebook profile and find a public photo of your family. They can see that your sibling, "Jane Doe", is tagged. The phisher can then use this information to "spoof" an email from "Jane" requesting a wire transfer for an emergency (i.e. they're stuck somewhere and need money to pay for transportation).
Alternatively, the phisher may pretend to be an employee of your bank, and could send you an email threatening to reset your password unless you log-in to your bank account with the link below. The link might have an extra letter (i.e. "capitalonee.com" instead of "capitalone.com") and could be illegitimate. Once you enter your personal credentials, the scammer now has access to your bank account and will drain your savings.
Read Part 2 of this article here.
IRS Urges Public to Stay Alert for Scam Phone Calls. (2018, December). Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/irs-urges-public-to-stay-alert-for-scam-phone-calls
Joyce, P. (2018, February 01). The Sweetheart Scam: Beware the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://www.agingcare.com/articles/the-sweetheart-scam-169804.htm
Tax ID theft. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://www.fraud.org/tax_id_theft