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Scammers are out there: Here are some tips for staying safe

By now, many of us are so familiar with the “Prince of Nigeria” email scam that it is shorthand for a seemingly obvious grift. But enough people are tricked by these ploys to make them a serious threat to people’s financial and emotional health.

People with disabilities have been frequently targeted by scammers. But one of the side effects of the coronavirus has been a dramatic uptick in dangerous scams against people with disabilities, older adults and the population in general.

Over the past two years, Community Connections has encountered numerous incidents of people with disabilities being exploited right here in Southwest Colorado. Historically, scamming has tended to increase around the holidays, so I thought I would share some of the tactics we’ve seen used by professional scammers recently.

A common plot we’ve seen is a con artist developing an online relationship (usually over social media) with the target and eventually asking for money, often in the form of gift cards. In one iteration of this scam, the scammer poses as a member of the military stationed overseas and looking for a romantic connection. Others offer to help with applying for benefits or assisting with claims.

Professional scammers involved in these plots are willing to invest large amounts of time gaining the trust of their target and even research them online to gain personal insights that will help them customize the scam to the individual. It may take weeks or even months before the scammer starts making asks, once they have the target “in the ether” – a term professional scammers use to describe when they have a victim in a heightened emotional state that makes them less likely to rationally assess the situation.

Often, the request for money starts small and escalates to demands for larger and larger amounts. If the target balks at the demands, emotional, mental and even physical threats against the target may ensue.

Scammers also pose as police, the IRS or Social Security as a means of gaining both trust and authority over the victim.

To be clear, it is not just people with disabilities who fall victim to these scams. In fact, the largest group of Americans who are scammed are young adults aged 16 to 34. Billions of dollars are lost to scammers every year.

This holiday season, make sure you, your friends and loved ones are aware of scam tactics. A few top tips to follow:

  • Never send gift cards to someone you met online, and do not use gift cards to send payments.
  • Be cautious about your social media and other online presence.
  • An offer that sounds too good to be true, likely is.
  • If you receive an email or phone call from someone claiming to be with a government agency or organization like a bank, look up a contact for that agency rather than using the phone, email or website provided.
  • Keep up to date with popular scams. It is easy to find information on common tactics online.

Have a happy, safe and scam-free holiday!

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.