Scammers Target Virginia Seniors, Using COVID-19 Fears

By Amie Knowles

December 7, 2020

Be careful what you share with someone over the phone.

WAYNESBORO – “I’m sorry to inform you, but your granddaughter, Sally, has COVID-19,” the caller claims.

That’s odd. Sally didn’t seem sick when she visited over the weekend. Still, the words strike fear, especially coming from an unknown source that correctly used Sally’s name. Suddenly, you start paying attention.

“We need to admit her to the hospital immediately to save her life, but her bank card has insufficient funds,” the caller continues.

Sally has been struggling financially lately. She lost her job due to the pandemic and it’s hard enough to keep food on the table. Surely, she wouldn’t have enough for an emergency medical bill.

“She needs help quickly,” the caller informs. “Could you wire $2,000 right now while we’re on the phone to get her the treatment she desperately needs?”

That’s when you start digging through your purse as quickly as you can – anything to help your granddaughter.

“Thank you, ma’am. Now we just need to verify a little information.”

As soon as grandma hangs up, there’s a knock at the door.

“Hey, grandma. Just wanted to bring by these muffins the pastor dropped off at my house. It’s so kind, especially with the job search still going on, but there’s no way I can eat all of these. I wanted to share them with you.”

The grandmother stares in disbelief.

“Sally, what are you doing here? I thought you were going to the hospital for COVID-19,” the grandmother says. “Don’t worry about the money. A nice gentleman from the hospital called a few minutes ago and I’ve already paid your bill over the phone. Now go before you start to feel worse.”

The discussion reminds Sally of a recent scam alert she saw on social media.

“Grandma, I think we need to talk.”

The dilemma

The above tale is fictional, in part. Grandma and Sally are fictional characters. Unfortunately, the circumstance happens across the country daily.

Sometimes people fall victim; other times, people don’t. But when they do, individuals often give out their banking information, full name, date of birth and more personal information without a second thought.

In Sally and grandma’s case, scammers preyed on a grandmother’s natural concern for her grandchild, expounded upon her pandemic-related fears and took advantage of her kind and giving spirit. They used public information to give the call a more personal flair – and it worked.

Sgt. F. Smith with the Waynesboro Police Department experienced a similar scheme secondhand, through his mother-in-law. Thankfully, they’d previously discussed such scams, so she hung up on the fraudster and called Smith to confirm. Other victims aren’t so lucky.

“What they usually do is they usually target elderly folks. What they’ll do is, they’ll say there’s an immediate need from one of your loved ones. It’ll probably be on some type of static-y phone,” Smith said. “And they’ll try to get the information quick. ‘It’s immediate, I need it now.’ And our elderly folks sometimes fall prey to that. That’s just the nature of criminality in America, preying on at-risk community members. That’s what they’ll do. They’ll try to confuse them.”

RELATED: Scammers Use Political Action Committees to Target Virginia Residents

Other phone scams

Health concerns aren’t the only call fraudsters make.

“There’s a couple of ways these scammers get their information or what they want,” Smith said. “They either want your identify or they want money.”

Sometimes, they tell individuals that they owe money on their taxes – and if they don’t pay over the phone that very moment, they’re going to jail.

Other times, they threaten that the party has some sort of serious legal trouble brewing – but if they pay a settlement over the phone, the case won’t go to court.

Some of the most concerning scams occur without any suspicion. That’s because the only thing scammers want are voice recordings of an individual’s name, the word ‘yes’ and the word ‘no.’

“The number one thing that we’ve heard about that, they’re trying to get a voice pattern to record your voice and trying to use that within other scams is what they try to do,” Smith said.

The idea is that with a person’s name and ‘yes’ or ‘no’ consent, scammers use a person’s voice to make purchases over the phone.

“‘Please verify’ – well see, that right there. Anytime they are asking to verify something – corporations don’t do that,” Smith said. “They already know who they are talking to, they already know your account information, they don’t need you to verify anything. They should know.”

For any concerns about an unsolicited call, Smith suggested hanging up and calling the place of business directly.

“Most likely anything that says, ‘Can you verify – and you can insert social security number, date of birth, account information, can you verify your password – any type of thing like that, they’re phishing for the answer,” Smith said. “Anything when they say, ‘Could you verify blank?’ Well, they’re trying to get that piece of information.”

Detecting a fraudulent call

“Scams, they’ve been going on for years. They do hit this valley, but the biggest thing we ask our citizens to do is do your due diligence and check into whatever’s being requested of you,” Smith said. “If somebody’s requesting some type of money exchange from you to them, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it is a scam. It is a scam, it’s a scam. So never exchange any type of money.”

Smith suggested programming regularly used numbers into personal cellular devices for extra protection against scam calls.

“What I tell people is I program my loved ones in my phone. If you come up as a strange number, you get voicemail. I don’t have to have any interaction with you. I can always check my voicemail – ‘That was a scam.’ I don’t have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or anything,” Smith said. “So the biggest thing for people who have cell phones is to program your phone and put the numbers of your loved ones and people that you deal with in your phone and then if it’s not one of those numbers, you can hit voicemail and then you can call the voicemail back and verify who you were talking to without ever having to have any interaction.”

RELATED: Grocery Chain Warns Virginia Residents About Fake Contest

Spreading the word

If someone suspects scammers or fell victim to a scam, Smith encouraged calling their local police department – and for large-scale scams, the FBI.

“If you call your local law enforcement, generally we want to know what’s going on in our community so we can put out information on our social media that ‘this particular scam is going on in our area: be aware,’” Smith said. “Just call your local law enforcement and we’ll get the ball rolling on educating the rest of the community as to what types of scams are operating in our community at a given time because every month, there’s a new flavor of scam that’s going around.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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