Five Ways to Thwart a Phone Scam

"Hi Grandma Dottie, this is Todd. Please don't tell my wife, but I've been in a car accident and now I'm in jail. Can you send me some bail money?"

Todd went on to describe how he'd been texting and driving, hit a woman with his car, and now sat in jail. He complained about his broken nose, then he turned the phone over to his public defender. The attorney said he needed Dottie to wire over $4,200 for bail money to get Todd out of jail.

"I knew something was fishy because Todd never calls me Grandma," Dottie said later. "But it sounded like him. And I was so worried, I called my son right away to ask for a ride to the bank."

In a way, it was fortunate Dottie no longer had a car. Since she needed to ask her son for a ride, she told him what happened. He knew right away something was off. After calling the real Todd, they realized it was a scam designed to get Dottie to send a stranger a few thousand dollars.

If you think this is an example we made up – it isn't. This really happened to one of my team members last week (we changed the names of those involved). The scammers used the exact script that so many scammers read to prey on the elderly, right down to the plea, "please don't tell anyone." They rely on fear and good details of stories to manipulate folks. We warned readers about it back in 2018 and it's still happening.

We've written about phone scams before, but it's a good reminder to review what you should and shouldn't do... And more important, how to tell your parents to stay safe as well.

1. Pay attention to the number calling. In Dottie's case, the call came from an area code two states away. That made it extremely unlikely to have come from her local "public defender."

However, scammers can mask or switch the way their number appears. That's why we urge you to go a step further and don't answer any number you don't know.If the number comes up without a name you recognize, let it go to voicemail. If it's important, the caller will leave you a message. So again, if you don't know the number, be safe and don't answer at all... just wait for the message instead.

2. If you answer and it's a company you deal with regularly, ask to call them back later, and then look up the company's customer service line and call. If it was legit, they will have a record of the initial call. If it's a scam, you've just saved yourself a lot of potential problems.

3. Remember that the IRS will not call you. They will send a letter if there's anything wrong. Especially with tax day upon us, there will likely be a surge in folks claiming to be from the IRS. They're trying to steal your information – do not give it to them.

4. If you're concerned that it really is your grandchild or relative on the phone and they're in trouble, ask for the codeword. Set this up with your loved ones now. That way if you ever get a call like this, you can simply ask for the codeword. If they can't say it or claim not to remember, hang up immediately. Similarly, ask specific questions. In Dottie's case, she should have asked which jail Todd was supposedly in or where the car accident had happened. Chances are the scammer won't have that information easily on hand.

5. Be aware of social media. Dottie's family has very little information on social media, so her family is stumped as to how anyone connected her name and number with her grandson-in-law. But after poking around, we found a link – you can find her and her granddaughter both listed with full names in a family member's obituary, and by looking up her granddaughter, they were able to find her grandson-in-law.

Dottie's lucky that she called her son to help her get to the bank. Even though afterwards she realized it had sounded suspicious, at the time all she could do was worry. We don't think clearly when we're upset and that's exactly what scammers want.

So if you ever get a call asking for money or personal information, take a deep breath. Don't panic. And remember these five tips. If anything seems unusual, hang up and call your family members. It could save you thousands.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 16, 2020