Mary helped her husband Steve get comfortable in his recliner after returning from a week-long hospitalization for heart surgery. She was exhausted by the stress of the week and the realization that she would have to be his caretaker until he fully recovered. Before retiring to bed for a nap with her favorite book, Mary decided to take care of a little business first. She had so many things to catch up on, the mail was stacked a foot high on the kitchen table, and she could see that there were eighteen messages waiting for here on the answering machine. The blinking message indicator on the machine encouraged her to take care of that business first. She decided to listen to five messages before her nap. The first three were from concerned friends offering love and meals for the week. The fourth message sent a chill down Mary’s spine. It was a man calling from Social Security who said her Social Security payments would be suspended if she didn’t call back within hours to clear up some suspicious activity detected on her account. She froze for a few minutes trying to figure out when the message was left. It could have been days ago. Her Social Security payments could already have been suspended. The though of that made her nauseous because all of their bills were set up for autopay and if the Social Security payments were suspended, the bills would not be paid. In a panic, Mary called the number left on the answering machine by Social Security.

After only three rings, a man with a thick foreign accent answered with the greeting, “Social Security, how can I help you today?” Mary told him about the call she received and then explained that she hadn’t called earlier because her husband had been in the hospital. He was very kind and told her he would investigate the matter for her. When he told Mary he needed some basic information to pull up her account, she willingly complied.

He needed her social security number, her birthdate, her current address and the city and state of her birth. After a few minutes of hitting keys on a keyboard, the man from Social Security told her that her account had indeed been breached. He told her that someone had tried to divert her Social Security payments to another bank account. Mary’s mind was swirling, and she started to cry. The nice man on the phone told her not to worry, that he would stop the breach on her account and re-instate her payments. He told her if she wanted to expedite the reinstatement of her payments, he would need a $25 payment which she could make with a credit card. Relieved, Mary gave him a credit card number and took solace in his calming words that everything would be corrected within 48 hours.

Unwittingly, Mary just became the most recent victim in a new scheme aimed at senior citizens. Social Security will NEVER leave a message on a voice mail. Social Security correspondence only occurs through the United States Postal Service. Criminals feed on the vulnerabilities of their victims. They make hundreds of calls everyday hoping to get lucky with a few vulnerable people who are tired, stressed, ill, or otherwise compromised. Mary was their perfect target. She, a person who on any normal day, was exhausted, stressed and caught off guard. She provided the very smooth criminal with everything he needed to max out her credit card and open new lines of credit with the personal information she offered him.

So, how do people like Mary protect themselves from being taken advantage of?

  • First, know that government organizations like Social Security, the IRS, and Medicare communicate via mail not phone calls and voice mail.
  • Second, these organizations will not ask for credit card payments to resolve problems.
  • Third, avoid engaging in transactions over the phone when you are tired, stressed or not feeling well. You will always serve yourself better when you have a clear mind, and most situations can wait for that time of perfect clarity.
  • Fourth, consult with someone else about situations that sound threatening or urgent before acting on them. Neighbors, family, friends, or trusted organizations like CSL, can help you identify fraud attempts and help you deal with legitimate situations more effectively.

And finally, tell Mary’s story to everyone you know. Talk about it in book clubs, workout groups, church groups and in any other opportunity to help other people avoid similar threats. Knowledge is power, and the more we share our knowledge, the more we empower each other.

Article by Connie Ward
Board Member: Colorado Senior Lobby