ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Scams are a common way for criminals to steal money from innocent victims by using scare tactics and fake stories in a variety of different ways — phone calls, emails and even just dropping notes in mailboxes. According to the Insurance Information Institute, there were 1.2 million reports of fraud in the United States along with 490,220 reports of identity theft, a 3-percent increase from the previous year. While scams are unfortunately common because of the number of people they can reach at one time, there are several ways they can be spotted before consumers fall victim to them.
“They happen year round,” Steve Lee, the director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said in a phone interview on Aug. 25. “But scams are really common around tax time and if there’s a natural disaster, when people need help. Scammers look for their opportunities.”
According to Lee, when Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, the Division of Consumer Affairs saw a spike in fraud reports.
The division’s advice to consumers being asked for money or personal information is to think critically and to be aware of the scare tactics that are used.
“Never fall for scare tactics or the sense of urgency that is a hallmark of scams,” read the guidelines from New Jersey Consumer Affairs. “This is true especially dealing with a sales pitch or threat that says ‘you must act right away.’ And even more so if you are told, ‘Keep this confidential and don’t tell anyone.’”
Some scammers will try to convince people they’ve won a prize or sell them products that consumers will never receive. Fake websites can appear online that have no connection to a real business.
“No one gives away money for free,” Lee said. “If it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is. You can’t get something with nothing.”
Lee said that the government does not call consumers to threaten them, and such calls are scams.
“We tell people that if someone threatens them from the government, they won’t call and yell at them,” he said. “If folks are telling you to send money in unusual ways, that’s a huge red flag.”
Lee also said that charities and businesses asking for money is another warning sign of scam.
“The Red Cross will wait for you to come to them, they don’t ask you for donations,” he said. “Stick with only the charities that you know.”
Senior citizens are one of the most popular targets for scammers, because their financial situations are often stable.
“Senior citizens — individuals 60 and over — are targeted more frequently by financial fraud and scams than any other age group,” according to the state Consumer Affairs guidelines. “Today’s seniors are prime targets of fraudsters for several reasons, starting with their financial assets. Members of their generation are most likely to have a substantial ‘nest egg,’ own their homes or have excellent credit. Moreover, seniors are less likely to report a fraud, either because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed or don’t know they have been victimized.”
In addition, Lee said, sometimes senior citizens are isolated and can be reached easily by phone.
“Seniors are a lot more vulnerable,” Lee said. “They have some money saved up because they’ve been working and now have a retirement fund, and sometimes they’re isolated and don’t have a lot of people around them, which can be perfect for a scammer.”
According to Lee, the most common scam aimed at senior citizens is the “grandparent scam.”
“A lot of seniors get calls from people saying that their grandchildren are in trouble or need money, and to send it to an account or wire it somewhere,” he said. “That won’t ever really happen.”
Lee’s biggest piece of advice to consumers to avoid fraud is to stick with what and who they know.
“Watch what you’re doing,” he said. “And only go to who you trust.”