As March is upon us, we have an almost-perfect storm, as all of us are preparing our taxes and will soon be taking the U.S. Census. Be ready and alert — impostor scams continue to target large numbers of Americans, and as the federal government launches the 2020 Census, a majority of us are susceptible to phony Census correspondence or telephone calls, according to results of a survey released by the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
The study, “The Imposters: Stealing Money, Damaging Lives,” focused on government impostor scams in which criminals pose as representatives of agencies such as the IRS, Social Security Administration or Census Bureau; and relationship scams, when fraudsters pretend to be a relative or someone seeking a romantic relationship online. Researchers also probed the effects of fraud schemes on intended victims.
Nearly half of U.S. adults (47 percent) reported that they have been targeted by an impostor scam, according to the AARP survey. The Federal Trade Commission received 647,000 reports of imposter scams during 2019, more than any other type of fraud; the FTC says government impostor scams increased more than 50 percent over 2018.
The Decennial Census presents a new opportunity for criminals who impersonate government officials, and AARP’s survey shows that many consumers might be at risk:
- Seventy percent of respondents were incorrect or unsure about whether the Census Bureau would contact them via email. Invitations to participate in the 2020 Census will actually be sent via U.S. mail.
- More than a third (35 percent) expect or are unsure whether the 2020 Census questionnaire will ask for their Social Security number. The Census Bureau says it will never ask for sensitive information such as a Social Security number, bank account information or passwords, or request payment of a fee. Additionally, the Census Bureau will never ask for money and donations or anything on behalf of a political party.
“We’ve learned that scammers are very shrewd and adept at capitalizing on current events,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP. “The census has been in the news, so most people are expecting to hear soon from the Census Bureau. Scammers will use that to their advantage as they aim to deceive people into sharing sensitive information or handing over money.”
Invitations to respond to the Decennial Census will be mailed to U.S. households in March. Responses to the 2020 Census questions may be submitted online or via mail or telephone. By May, Census takers will begin visiting or contacting households that have not yet responded.
The toll of impostor scams goes beyond the financial impact, according to the AARP survey. Among those who have been targeted and/or victimized, 18 percent reported that they experienced health problems or emotional distress as a result of the encounter. People ages 18-49 reported health or emotional issues at a higher rate than those age 50 or older.
Among other findings of the survey:
- Forty-five percent of people age 50 and older have been contacted by a government impostor, as compared to 35 percent of those ages 18-49.
- Two in five U.S. adults use dating websites, apps or online social groups to find potential dates or romantic partners. Of those, half encountered one of the “red flags” of romance fraud, including requests for money.
- The majority of U.S. adults are at least somewhat familiar with government impostor scams and relationship scams (including romance fraud and the grandparent scam) — indicating that efforts by AARP and other consumer advocates to increase public awareness are working. However . . .
- Fifty-five percent of survey respondents failed a 10-question fraud safety quiz.
The AARP Fraud Watch Network launched in 2013 as a free resource for people of all ages. Consumers may sign up for “Watchdog Alert” emails that deliver information about scams, or call a free helpline at (877) 908-3360 to report scams or get help from trained volunteers in the event someone falls victim to scammers’ tactics.
The Fraud Watch Network website provides information about fraud and scams, prevention tips from experts, an interactive scam-tracking map and access to AARP’s hit podcast series, “The Perfect Scam.”
JACL family, be warned and be ready.
Ron Mori is a member of the Washington, D.C., JACL chapter and manager of community, states and national affairs — multicultural leadership for AARP.