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Experts sound alarm over online scams against the elderly

Experts sound alarm over online scams against the elderly
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Advocates are sounding the alarm over online scams that leave senior citizens particularly vulnerable, urging lawmakers and administration officials to take more steps to protect unsuspecting Americans.

Experts say that threat is heightened during tax season as online options for filing have grown in popularly, opening the door to more scams aimed at obtaining sensitive information or money from victims.

"Consumers should be especially vigilant as we approach tax season," said Bill Versen, chief product officer at Transaction Network Services, a data services provider.

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While there are a slew of scams at tax filing season, experts say that the elderly face a higher risk of being ensnared and experiencing financial hardship.

The most common kinds of tax scams are phishing and calls where a scammer impersonates an IRS official, according to Monique Becenti, a product specialist at cybersecurity firm SiteLock.

Phishing is a tactic used by hackers to get access to private information using fake emails, text messages and social media posts.

These communications are designed to bait unaware users, often the elderly, into giving up their personal information or clicking on links that can download dangerous malware onto computers and phones alike.

But the most common scam between 2014 and 2018 was fraudulent IRS calls, according to a yearly report released by the Senate Committee on Aging.

In those calls, the scammer impersonates an IRS official, demanding payment or sensitive information. In some cases, scammers have been known to threaten to suspend licenses, close businesses or even arrest individuals if they fail to pay fake bills.

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“The overall goal is cyber criminals trying to file taxes on behalf of that person,” Becenti told The Hill. And once an individual falls victim, scammers can run further schemes. “Ultimately, they have their Social Security number. … Now they have the ability to open up fraudulent accounts on behalf of that individual.”

Such activity ramps up early in the tax filing season, according to the IRS. The agency in recent years has taken more steps to alert the public.

"The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information," the agency says on a webpage to inform the public on how to identify such scams.

Data services provider Transaction Network Services (TNS) said the tactic also spikes as the tax filing season ends. Tax Day 2018, for example, saw the highest number of robocalls for that entire year.

"It is important to never let your guard down when callers are asking for personal information," Versen said last year, when TNS released that data.

The Trump administration has been tracking online scams and has detailed the troubling impact they have had.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Americans have reported roughly 7,700 IRS imposter scams — be it calls or fake communications — since 2014, causing $2.2 million in total losses. 

The typical victim loses $1,000 in these imposter schemes, according to the agency. That includes money lost through scammers stealing tax returns or by using personal information to obtain new lines of credit.

And while relatively few scams target the elderly specifically — experts say most perpetrators cast a wide net as they look for potential victims — they are at a higher risk of falling victim to these schemes.

FTC data shows that people aged 70 and older report much higher median losses from such scams than any other age group.

"Fraudsters target the elderly, as they may be lonely, willing to listen and are more trusting than younger individuals," according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

Lawmakers have also taken note, urging agencies to release more data to inform the public and by pushing legislation to address tax scams affecting seniors.

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Sens. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Two Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Healthcare, retirement security seen as top issues for older voters, lawmakers say MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) and Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLobbying world This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes MORE (R-Kan.) last year introduced the Stop Senior Scams Act, which would create a group dedicated to raising awareness of scams among retail, financial-services and wire-transfer companies.

Over in the House, lawmakers last year passed the Senior Security Act on a bipartisan vote.

Introduced by Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerTrump fuels and frustrates COVID-19 relief talks Trump's illness sparks new urgency for COVID-19 deal House approves .2T COVID-19 relief bill as White House talks stall MORE (D-N.J.), it establishes a task force at the Securities and Exchange Commission that would be required to report on financial trends affecting seniors.

The Senate has not moved a companion bill.

Much of the action, though, has targeted robocallers. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE signed the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act in December of last year.

The act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, is aimed at reducing all kinds of robocalls, including ones impersonating government agencies. 

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And social media platforms have also taken steps to address the issue.

Twitter last September banned posts intended to deceive others into sending money using phishing or other deceptive tactics.

At the end of the day, stakeholders said educating people about the risks of tax scams may be the most effective method to preventing them.

“Educating people, particularly older Americans who are more likely to be the targets, is key to defeating this scam,” Senate Aging Committee Chairwoman Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump autographs pumpkin at Maine campaign event: 'It'll be on eBay tonight' Trump makes rare campaign stops in New England in closing stretch MORE (R-Maine.) said at a hearing earlier this year.

“The best way for us to prevent this scam from ever again robbing seniors of their hard-earned savings is to prevent the scam from happening in the first place,” she added.