Navigating Phone Scams

You answer your phone and find you are speaking with someone who sounds like a foreign national, but this person tells you he or she is with the Internal Revenue Service and you owe a lot of money and if you don’t pay right now you could go to jail.

Hang up and don’t worry.

“The IRS does not work that way and threaten to have you arrested, but the elderly people don’t always know that,” said Door County Sheriff Steve Delarwelle.

Both the Door County Sheriff’s Department and the Sturgeon Bay Police Department regularly deal with both attempted and successful telephone scams, usually perpetrated on the elderly.

“They’re playing on the good nature of people,” Delarwelle said. “It’s usually the elderly they like to go after because they don’t want to get in any trouble. The biggest one lately is the grandparent scam. They say that their grandson is in jail in Canada or wherever, send several thousand. That seems to get most of the people. We had one last week that they put someone on the phone, said to be their grandson. They say it sounded like him, but they knew it was a scam. Even though this one has been around for a while, it still catches people. It’s heartbreaking that these people are trying to help their grandchildren out and end up sending thousands of dollars to someone in another country.”

He also mentions the sweepstake scam. “The caller says you won several hundreds of thousands of dollars, but you have to send them money to get it. When you have to send money, you know it’s a scam.”

Such as the Nigerian prince email scam that was quite popular earlier in the century. The wealthy prince’s money was ensnarled in some bureaucratic process and he was willing to share it with you – a complete stranger – if only you would send him or his widow or whomever a certain amount of money to clear things up with lawyers.

Sheriff Delarwelle advises people not to give out personal information to a stranger on the telephone.

“Most of the businesses you work with aren’t going to ask for information they already have,” he said.

He also suggests that everyone sign up for the state and national Do Not Call lists.

“It doesn’t eliminate all of them, but it will stop some of them from getting through,” he said.

Here are common scams that target older Americans, according to the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau (BBB):

Sweepstakes Scams: Calls, emails or mailings notify “you’ve won” a large sum of money or a prize. The scammer explains that in order to collect the winnings, you must first send a small sum of money to pay for processing fees or taxes. Don’t fall for it.

The Grandparent Scam: This one has been around for years and shows no signs of stopping. The scam most often takes the form of a phone call in which someone impersonates a grandchild of the victim saying they’re in jail or were involved in an accident outside the country and their voice sounds different because of injuries. They claim to need money quickly, ask that it be wired (or some other untraceable method) and “don’t tell my parents.”

Door-to-Door Sales: People go door-to-door and offer low prices for home improvement work, often stating the offer is only good at that moment. Complaints to the BBB each year include asphalt paving, roofing, tree stump removal and storm damage repairs. Take time to think about the offer; compare prices locally, and ensure you know where the company is located before doing business.

Medicare and Insurance Fraud Scams: Scammers will misrepresent they are Medicare or insurance representatives, stating they’ll be sending you a new card or announcing a new plan, and stating personal information is necessary. Sometimes, they’ll falsely state that an initial payment needs to be made for the new card or plan.

Prescription Drug Scams: High prescription prices drive many seniors to the World Wide Web looking for better deals. But not all online pharmacies are legitimate. Before choosing an online pharmacy, check with and the National Association for Boards of Pharmacy. Its list includes accredited pharmacies called VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites), which must comply with federal and state laws and regulations.

Computer Repair Scam: Swindlers call claiming to be from Microsoft or other “tech support” departments, informing that you have a computer virus and offering to fix it remotely, for a fee. Instead, they gain access and control, making the computer programs no longer accessible.

Investment Schemes: During the senior years, it’s typical to plan for retirement and make financial plans. Scammers target seniors because of this. Be wary of investment schemes promising quick and plentiful returns, foreign letter and advance-fee schemes. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Travel Scams: Travel offers come by mail, phone, fax and email, offering cheap rates, freebies and promotions for travel packages or vacation clubs. They are often accompanied by “free” restaurant gift certificates, gas cards, or other gifts for attending presentations (which obligate you to sit through high-pressure sales pitches). Understand that it is unlikely you will get a refund once you sign a contract. Be especially wary of timeshare sales and resale offers.

Telemarketing Fraud: Telemarketing scams usually involve offers of free or low-cost products or devices, bogus health care products, and inexpensive vacation offers. Never give personal or financial information over the phone to a stranger. Make sure you are registered with both local (866.9.NOCALL) and national (888.382.1222) “Do Not Call” lists and report phone solicitors.

Also note that scammers often look for people who have already been scammed in the past. So, if you’ve been a victim once, chances are you’ll be called again by other scammers.

For more information check out the BBB’s Savvy Senior Scam Center. Report scams and sign up to receive scam alerts with BBB Scam Stopper.