The message looked real.
“How are you?” it began. “I hope you are safe. Can you be reached by email? I need your help.”
Anne Supple, from Long Beach, told me that she and her husband Charley had no reason to question the recent email from one of their neighbors who they knew was out of town.
The name was right. It was sent from your correct email address.
“I’m exactly where you left me,” Charley replied jokingly. “How can I help you?”
Then came the succession.
“Thanks for the answer,” it said. “I actually need GOOGLE PLAY GIFT CARDS for my niece, who had a heart operation a few days ago and lost both parents to the disease (COVID-19).
“It’s her birthday, but I can’t do this now because I have arthritis in my knees and ankles. You give me problems. I go up and down one step at a time. This method is neither graceful! Or quick! And I tried to buy online but unfortunately no luck with it.
“Please let me know if you can handle it,” concluded the email with a promise to reimburse the supples for the amount they spent on the gift cards.
“We’re doing our neighbor a lot of favors,” Anne Supple, 73, told me. “The first email seemed real. But when they asked for gift cards, we suspected it was a scam. “
Good instincts. Scammers often try to pay with gift cards because once they get their hands on the cards or their numbers, it’s done. Your money is gone.
The emails to the supples re-emphasize how the COVID-19 pandemic was Christmas for scammers who want to benefit from all-too-common stories of suffering and hardship.
“A worst pandemic in a century is a cornucopia for scammers – all major holidays rolled into one,” said Robert Herrell, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2 million consumer fraud reports in the past year, with so-called fraudsters being the most cited cases of fraud.
The number of fraudulent fraud reports reached nearly 557,000 in the first half of this year, an increase of 18% over the same period last year.
In 2020, more than $ 3.3 billion in fraud losses were reported to the FTC, almost double what it was a year earlier. About half of the losses resulted from fraudsters, similar to the supples.
The FTC found that 34% of consumers who reported fraud in the past year had to admit they had lost money, compared with 23% a year earlier – an indication that either people at home have become or have become more gullible the scammers have become more sophisticated.
I would guess it’s a combination of both.
While the hacking of Supples’s neighbor’s email account demonstrates a certain technical skill, the grammatical errors in the second email show that the hacker is not exactly a criminal mastermind.
However, the hacker was smart enough not to swallow the bait when I emailed me how I could help the supples get gift cards for the bereaved, convalescent niece.
The FTC says scammers know that people are very vulnerable and emotional because of the pandemic, and that it could lead some potential victims to lower vigilance.
The agency warned in April that fraudsters in particular were targeting family members of people who had died of COVID-19 and offering help with paying funeral expenses.
There is a real Federal Emergency Management Agency government assistance program that provides up to $ 9,000 in COVID-related funeral expenses. But FEMA will never call you out of the blue.
If you haven’t contacted the agency yourself or signed up for the benefit, every call you receive regarding this is a scam.
The FTC warned in June of escalating incidents of so-called grandparent fraud, in which people, typically seniors, receive a call allegedly from an arrested or imprisoned grandchild.
The call is almost always fake and leads to tedious steps to separate you from your money, either by purchasing gift cards or by making a wire transfer. A Pasadena man lost $ 27,000 to this ruse last year.
I have also heard from a number of readers of fake offers that help secure inheritance money. I wrote about this brawl after a San Fernando Valley resident was told he could receive nearly $ 10 million from a dead relative he had never heard of.
As with claims that you’ve just won a lottery or sweepstakes, it is very unlikely that a complete stranger left you a mountain of money. Keep distance.
The best way to protect yourself from scammers is to be wary of calls purporting to be from a government agency – the Social Security Administration is a popular cover for scammers – or inquiries about money.
The FTC says Caller ID doesn’t necessarily protect you; Numbers can be forged using a technique known as “spoofing”.
The agency also recommends checking the legitimacy of any “official” caller by saying you will call back. Use the number you find online, not the one the caller gives you.
Hang up on any caller who requests payment in the form of gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrencies. This is a giveaway that you will be fooled.
“Consumers need to be vigilant, especially when it comes to money,” said Herrell of the Consumer Federation of California.
“Take an extra moment to find out who you might be dealing with,” he told me. “Find out more about them from credible news sources – not your Facebook feed – and see if you even need a middleman to provide you with the help you need.”
Anne Supple said she laughed when she and her husband saw a real appeal from a friend turn into a fraudulent gift card appeal.
“Which friend would ever ask for gift certificates?” She said. “Who would do that?”
Unfortunately, last year’s $ 3.3 billion fraud loss suggests that many people think differently.