Stopping Scams

As more Mainers fall victim to con artists, state and federal officials step up their efforts to combat fraud.

Mary still feels physically sick when she thinks about that panicked phone call she got three months ago. “Grandma, it’s Matthew,” said the tear-filled voice. “I’m in jail.” Her grandson said he’d been texting while driving, looked down for a split second, and crashed into another car. “He sounded so distressed,” Mary says, remembering how Matthew told her he was terrified, fled the scene, and came back just in time to see an ambulance rushing the other driver to the hospital. At that point, Matthew’s public defender got on the phone. He told Mary he could get the hit-and-run charge dropped and Matthew could go home, if she could pay $4,000 in fully refundable bail. The most immediate way to transfer the money, the public defender said, was through gift cards. “I love my family,” she says, explaining how she rushed to a nearby Walmart, bought $4,000 worth of gift cards, and read off the numbers to the public defender when he called back. “I’d do anything for my grandson.”

Except it wasn’t her grandson. Con artists had faked his voice. There was no car crash. The “public defender” was phony. And scammers now had $4,000 of Mary’s hard-earned retirement savings. “It’s the most despicable act I can imagine, taking advantage of someone’s love for their family,” says Mary, who is from southern Maine and asked that we use her first name only, since the perpetrators haven’t been caught and she’s afraid of retaliation. She’s also embarrassed that she fell for it. “His voice was so convincing,” she says. “I’m not easily duped.”

She’s not alone. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce says even though he’s on the front lines, helping Mainers spot scams, he was nearly a victim himself. It happened online. A message popped up from a company claiming to be Apple, saying his computer had been compromised and providing a toll-free number for technical help. Joyce called the number but became suspicious when “technical support” asked for his credit card number. He hung up, called Apple to verify the alleged problem, and realized he had nearly given scammers his credit card information. He now uses his experience to warn others about this common scam, where con artists impersonating Apple or Microsoft put a pop-up message on your computer and direct you to call a toll-free number to remove a virus. “Microsoft and Apple have better things to do than monitor your computer,” he says.

That scam is one of several causing older Mainers to potentially spend money that many can’t afford to lose. “These folks are often making decisions on whether to eat or buy medication or heat their house,” Joyce says. Another common scam involves a telephone call from someone claiming to be a sheriff’s deputy, advising the person who picks up the phone that they failed to appear for grand jury duty, and that there’s a warrant out for their arrest. The caller says the warrant will be dismissed if payment is received immediately. Joyce says law enforcement officers would never place a phone call like that, and he encourages people to report this or any scam to local police. “A lot of seniors think they’re bothering us, but I tell them it’s our job to be bothered,” he says. “Elder fraud is a huge problem.”

Sheriff’s departments across the state have teamed up with AARP Maine in an effort to tackle the problem. Together, they hold fraud prevention talks across the state, at senior centers, area agencies on aging, foster grandparent meetings, and senior living communities. The presentations cover how to spot scams, how to report them, and how to prevent them. “The scammers are experts at targeting your emotions,” says Jane Margesson, AARP Maine’s communications director. “They make you think your grandchild is in trouble, or you’re about to lose all the photos on your computer, or you’ve just won millions of dollars in a lottery, which you’ll be able to leave to your family.” To help combat these con artists, AARP Maine sends out weekly scam alerts, with timely information on how to fight fraud. The organization has also been active in scam-fighting legislation, including initiating a law that lets Mainers put a no-cost freeze on their credit report. Since a credit report contains a treasure trove of financial information for scammers looking to obtain credit in someone else’s name, freezing the report helps protect against identity theft.

Leading the fraud-fighting charge on a national level is Maine’s own Senator Susan Collins. As chair of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Collins prioritizes protecting seniors from scams and has urged the U.S. Justice Department to do the same. In fact, this past February, the Justice Department charged more than 250 defendants with scamming more than one million Americans out of half a billion dollars. Collins and her committee helped expose some of the fraud that led to those arrests. The committee has held numerous hearings, investigating everything from social security scams, to IRS impersonation schemes, to fake lottery fraud.

Online dating scams are another area of focus for Collins, who recently secured the release of a Maine man from a Spanish prison, where he spent nearly a year on charges of drug trafficking. A retired pastor, he’d fallen in love with a woman he met online and flew overseas to help her transport real estate documents. The documents turned out to be two kilograms of cocaine.

Then there’s the IRS impersonation scam, where con artists call and threaten house foreclosure or arrest if back taxes aren’t paid immediately. A Saco resident who lost $8,000 in this scam testified at a committee hearing in February. Federal officials say the IRS will never call demanding payment. “These criminals are ruthless and sophisticated and any of us can fall victim,” says Collins, explaining how she herself was nearly a victim several years ago. She got an email from her nephew, who told her he was overseas and had been robbed. The thieves stole his passport, he wrote, and he needed money for an airplane ticket home. Collins sent him to the U.S. Embassy. It wasn’t her nephew; but it was his email address. Scammers hijacked it in an effort to convince her to wire money straight into their fraudulent account. “The problem is immense,” says Collins, who points out that Maine has the oldest median age in the nation. “These con artists feel like we’re fertile ground,” she says. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging runs a Fraud Hotline to answer questions about how to spot and report scams. In 2017, the hotline received almost 1,500 complaints nationwide. Nearly one-third of those calls came from Maine.

Meanwhile, still reeling from that phone call where she heard her grandson’s voice begging for help, Mary wants other Mainers to learn from her mistake. Her best piece of advice is something echoed by state and federal officials: If a relative calls asking for help, ask a question that only they can answer, like the name of their first pet. “At first I thought I was stupid,” Mary says. “But now I realize that if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.”