Financial scams target trusting, older Mississippians

Criminal minds find many ways to steal money and information from those they target. Consumers must take precautions to avoid becoming victims of fraud.
Criminal minds find many ways to steal money and information from those they target. Consumers must take precautions to avoid becoming victims of fraud. Mississippi State University Extension Service

King Solomon wrote thousands of years ago that there is nothing new under the sun, a truth played out daily by unscrupulous people putting modern spins on the age-old practice of fraud.

The Federal Trade Commission reported 20,588 Mississippians fell victim to some type of consumer fraud in 2016. Another 2,378 were victims of identity theft.

Susan Cosgrove, family resource management area agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service in Newton County, said Mississippians’ trusting nature is partly to blame for the number of fraud victims.

“A lot of people committing scams target the elderly, knowing they probably have assets they have accumulated and regular income, and knowing they are trusting and polite,” Cosgrove said. “Mississippi is known as the hospitality state, but we have to learn that we can’t be so nice all the time, especially when it comes to our finances and personal security.”

Cosgrove said many of the people abusing others financially today are family members, caregivers, friends or neighbors.

“It’s hard to determine who you can trust if the people closest to you are committing fraud,” she said.

Starts with a call

Many instances of fraud still begin with a phone call. A modern twist is that scammers find ways to make their telephone numbers appear to be local. They also claim to represent a business with which the victim is likely to be interacting.

Cosgrove’s advice is to just hang up.

“I’ve been getting calls that seem to be local, giving a name and saying they’re calling about my inquiry into health care. Maybe I called my doctor recently, and this call will be just close enough to make me think it is legitimate,” Cosgrove said. “People are taking these calls and getting sucked in. Some people are too polite and talk to them to get rid of them, but that is not wise.”

Cosgrove urged all Mississippians to protect personal information. One vital precaution is shredding documents rather than throwing away papers that contain personal details. Take special care with Social Security numbers, using other forms of identification when possible, offering just the last four digits or writing it down rather than saying it aloud if the number must be given.

Guard your info

Even when taking precautions, it is wise to keep a close watch on financial accounts.

“Check financial statements to make sure there are no charges that are not your own,” she said. “If you have someone coming into your home, such as a caregiver, worker or even a guest, don’t leave things lying around where people can see account numbers. And check your credit report once a year.”

The FTC reported that debt collection scams were the most prevalent in Mississippi last year, accounting for more than one-third of those reported.

“If somebody calls you saying you need to confirm your account number or something like that, don’t give it out. Look up the phone number for that company on your own and call them back to verify if something needs to be done,” Cosgrove said.

Becky Smith, director of the Extension Center for Economic Education and Financial Literacy, said anyone can become a victim of fraud.

“I fell victim in January to a scam when updating my computer’s operating system,” she said. “A window popped up that looked to be part of the update but was not. It took off my antivirus software and installed a bug that had access to everything.”

Restoring her information on the computer and removing fraudulent charges was a lengthy, multistep process. Smith reported the scam to the FTC, a step she urged others to do when they detect an attempt at fraud.

Stay vigilant

Consumers should operate on high alert, as many scams are sophisticated and difficult to detect. Financial institutions watch for fraudulent charges, but mistakes also happen.

Smith said it is consumers’ responsibility to remain vigilant to protect their assets.

Report suspected fraud to the Mississippi Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division at 800-281-4418. A wealth of information is available online to help consumers battle fraud. Be sure to use reputable sources, including the MSU Extension Service and government entities.