How to spot modern scam techniques, from fake remote jobs to check fraud

three women sitting in a studio
MPR News host Angela Davis talks with Marti DeLiema, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and Susan Adams Loyd, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau about scams and how to be a smarter consumer.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Scamming is an industry that seeks to trick and prey on the vulnerable through a variety of platforms.      

Older people have been known to fall victim to fraud, but now younger adults are the targets and they’re losing money to online shopping scams, phishing emails and fake jobs. Even phone scams continue to hit millions of Americans each year, costing nearly $40 billion in 2022.

MPR News host Angela Davis talks about scams and how to be a smarter consumer. We also look at how scam artists have gotten smarter and why their tricks are getting harder to identify.

Guests:  

Here are four key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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What are some types of scams and who do they target?

Marti DeLiema: We're seeing everything from online shopping scams to romance scams and tech support scams. It might not seem that the motivating factor is trying to get money from the victims since the scammer isn't asking for anything right off the bat. Scammers use mass marketing communication approaches like telephone, internet, email, so they really cast a broad net.

There are certain scam types that certain types of people are more likely to take the bait on: older adults might be more susceptible to tech support scams versus young adults, who are more susceptible to online shopping or fake remote job offers. The push to remote work environments made a lot of people go online and look for these jobs. These criminals even do mock job interviews with candidates.

Then the scammer sends you a check, for example, to purchase startup equipment, but then says the check accidentally was for too much money and asks you to send the difference back. You just write them a check, and a week later the bank gets in touch with you and says the check the scammers sent you was fake. A lot of people don’t know about how those bogus checks work.

Susan Adams Loyd: We see examples of that same check scam twisted, not only from a tech scam but to something very unsophisticated, like a refrigerator repair company. It's very simple to get people distracted in situations that they're not familiar with and those fraudsters know very carefully how to get little incremental steps towards you taking action that benefits them.

People feel shame — they go underground and they don't even tell their friends. Maybe they will tell their spouse and their children if they're elderly. If you reported it to the BBB or Federal Trade Commission you might be able to get help, but if you are ashamed you don’t go into a quick mode and therefore don’t respond soon enough and that buys fraudsters time to get out of dodge with your cash in hand.

Tell us about scammers trying to impersonate people, law enforcement, or companies

Susan Adams Loyd: These scammers are good. They're quite sophisticated. They're actors. They're fraudsters. So they use scripts and role-playing, to really get to the heart of it, and they're good at it. They've done it enough times to work through the call, the timing of it, and the tone of it to make it sound real. I'm proud to say that in 2022, there were 87 callers who called BBB right before pressing send or right before responding. And, in real time, we did a rough count and saved $504,000 worth of money. BBB is a nonprofit organization, we're a non-government agency and we're here to help consumers for free.

Marti DeLiema: I want to talk about one limit of consumer education, and this is something that has been coming up in my research. People do not make their best decisions when they're in states of high emotional arousal, when they're feeling deeply fearful, or when they're feeling deeply excited. So the criminals will do everything they can to get you in those emotional states right off the bat. Because then all of the warning signs, the visual warning signs, and even people expressing their concerns will be ignored and you will follow the scammer’s orders.

What’s the federal government doing about scams?

Marti DeLiema: Scams are a lot for just one office to handle a day. So one, they're a little overwhelmed. And two, it's kind of this multiple-pronged approach to fighting fraud. Consumer education is really important and also enforcement. Most of the crimes are international, they're not easy to identify or arrest, and that presents a challenge to law enforcement. Another area that they're working on is legislation: what can they do to enforce legitimate and real companies to do more to fight impersonation scams? I want to empathize with people who feel that nothing is being done. But this is just such a challenging problem, and technology is accelerating faster than we can keep up and enforce.

What organizations can help people who have been scammed?

Marti DeLiema: There is a government agency called the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3. IC3 is an organization that takes your complaints, and they do have the ability to do a rapid response. If you can report within 24 hours, it's possible that they will be able to help you recoup those losses, especially if it's things like a wire transfer. After that, report to the Federal Trade Commission to be part of the consumer complaint.

Susan Adams Loyd: AARP is one of our closest partners with the Better Business Bureau. The consumer education that AARP does on a national basis is tremendous. And we'd love to invite you to a “scam jam” where you can share your story with others. We get together and we figure out how to learn how to fight those scammers before they find us. So we have scam jams a couple of times a year with AARP.

Your stories of scams

Listeners called into the show and shared their stories. Here are some of them.

An 84-year-old veteran loses $60,000

I was called by the CIA, supposedly. And I had my name come up in an automobile down in Texas that I was laundering money, and that I would have to pay a fine and be in prison unless I cooperated with them. They showed me their badges in a message and said: “In order to try and catch this guy we need you to take $30,000 out of your account. We will give it back to you as well as you help us.” So I sent it to someplace in California. And then I was dumb enough to do it again and sent the other $30,000 to somebody in New Jersey. When they didn’t return the money, I called the number that I previously called to talk to them and that number had been disconnected. When I called the local police, I was quite surprised because they said, “You sent money out of the city so we can't do anything really for you. But go ahead and send me a report.” I called the FBI, called the bank. I’m a veteran, 84 years of age. Those were life savings. If it weren't for Social Security, I'd be on the street.

— Sam from New Brighton

A fake job found on Indeed.com

I'm a young professional in Minneapolis, and I've been looking for a more big-girl job as they call them. I found this company, and it seemed too good to be true because they were offering a really big salary for an entry-level position. And I feel like that's a big red flag for anybody that is looking for a job. I had like three interviews with them and there was that kind of sense of urgency. A lot of times we would end an interview and they'd say, “Well, are you willing to send us this information by 5 p.m. today? it has to be today.” I would say be careful if you're looking on Indeed.com because a lot of fake workplaces actually put out ads on that website.

— Christina from Minneapolis

A fake illustration job may have been money laundering

I'm a freelance illustrator and cartoonist and I was targeted by a checking fraud scam. In 2021, somebody contacted me saying they were an event planner, and that they needed illustrations for a COVID prevention workshop. They were smart. They knew exactly what to say to make it sound like a legitimate illustration job. They ended up sending the check for twice the amount they were supposed to send, and I was suspicious. But they emailed me before I had a chance to even ask about it. The business name printed on the check was a real business, and it had a real physical location. The routing number was from a real bank. I even asked a bank specialist who told me it looked real. After that, they started asking me for a refund. I didn't give them any money and I was waiting for the check to bounce, but it never did. It turned out that they stole the money from a legitimate account. And I guess maybe they were using me to launder it.

— Lupi from Minneapolis

Scams involving bail, jail and courts

I've had a couple of experiences. The first happened to my father, who is in his early 60s. He was called and told that I was in jail and that he needed to send $15,000 in bail. Fortunately, he took the time that your previous caller mentioned, he called me and figured out what was going on. The second one happened to my sister-in-law, who's a medical doctor. She was almost scammed out of $6,000 through quite an elaborate situation where they found out she was a medical witness for patients of hers and they called her saying she was in contempt of missing her court date as a witness and needed to bring this cash immediately to a court station. This apparently happened to several of her colleagues.

— Ryan from Mankato

An Apple Pay scam while borrowing a phone

One evening after work I stopped at the gas station to fill my tank and get some snacks. This gentleman came up to me and said he was having car troubles and if he could use my phone to call roadside assistance. I let him use my phone, and he called State Farm, roadside assistance on speaker. It didn't seem like they were really getting anywhere but he kept passing my phone back to me and it kept getting locked. He was asking me to put in my pin and open it again, and one of the times he passed me my phone to unlock it, the lock screen was white instead of black. After I drove off, I saw that he had attempted to charge $150 from my Apple Pay for his Google Voice number, and I realized that must have been what happened when the lock screen was white.

— Kat from Minneapolis

A potential client ends up being a scammer

We used to live in Minneapolis. About seven years ago, my husband who works as a freelance document translator received an email from a potential client, which is typically how his business works. He spent two days working on a translation for this gentleman, and when the time came to invoice the guy, we got an envelope in the mail with traveler's checks. The man had obviously overpaid and asked us to go ahead and cash the traveler's checks and just return the difference to him. I'm an experienced business traveler and I knew by looking at them that they were fraudulent. I contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation in downtown Minneapolis because I figured this was mail fraud, and the agent who answered the phone basically said, “we get about a dozen of these a day and we can't be bothered chasing down these little things.”

— Kathy from France

Resources for scam help

Throughout the conversation, the guests mentioned some resources that help people who have suffered fraud, or who feel in danger of being scammed. Click on each one to go to their official website:

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