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July 28th, 2015

The Elderly & the Scam Masters

It always happens to someone else. Right? I mean, what are the chances it will happen to me? Or you? Be it winning the lottery or developing a debilitating disease. We all know someone who knows someone who…well, you know how it goes. It will happen to someone else.

And it did, two days ago. Across the street from me.

scammerClaude and Jane are good folks. Both in their mid 70s. They live on their combined retirement funds and spend their time keeping busy with kids, grandkids, and from what I hear, a great-grandchild in a matter of months. They come over for coffee or tea at times, and we always see them at community center events. They are not well off by any standard, but they do okay…until last Saturday.

Jane answered the phone and a pleasant young man identified himself as an internet technician with Microsoft. He told her they’d received a report that something was extremely wrong with their computers and he was calling to help.

And yeah…you know where this is going. But Jane did not, and she told me why.

“He was such a professional young man. He knew exactly about how my computer had become slow and that he could fix it. He told me that I was in jeopardy of losing all my files and maybe my banking information. He even guided me to a website that would identify him as a Microsoft employee. The website looked exactly like the Microsoft website is supposed to look.”

The “nice young man” asked for permission to take control of her computer. Jane, without hesitation, allowed him to do so. Claude, listening in the background, told her to just hang up, but she did not.

From here it gets crazy. There was a $200 payment made to this “tech expert” and then he calls back and says that payment wasn’t necessary. In fact, an error was made and a draft of $2,000 had been made and not $200. He needed to take his $1,800 back. Of course, the “bank statement” Jane looked at did indeed show $2,000 instead of $200, so Jane was being asked to refund the $1,800.

While this was all happening, Claude jumped into his car and motored his way to the Taylor City Bank, maybe a five minute drive away, and that’s in traffic…this is a small town to say the least. He raced into the bank and rolled up on the next available teller to breathlessly tell him what was going on. In less than five minutes, all of his bank accounts had been frozen, to include his money market account. Every debit and credit card he had was cancelled in twenty minutes.

Back at their house, the “nice young man” was growing frustrated with Jane because the information she was giving him wasn’t correct. Jane said she would find out what the problems were and would call him back. He became adamant that she not hang up the phone. It was then that Jane did just that, because his angry tone frightened her.

Minutes later, Claude came into the house. He was not happy. If Jane had listened to him and had hung up the phone in the first place, this whole mess would not have happened.

And no…Claude and Jane did not lose any money. They were lucky. But the inconvenience of changing all their financial records is huge. It will take them days, if not a couple of weeks or a month, to get back to normal.

I sat at the small table that divides their open kitchen and dining area and shook my head as I heard the story. They were lucky.

And that’s when I realized I had a choice to make. I knew I had to do something.

happy coupleI made my way down to the retirement community manager’s apartment and explained what had happened. I suggested that we put out a flier to warn the rest of the community about this. She agreed and 30 minutes later, she had copied the flier I made and we began letting our neighbors know about this scam and what to do if someone attempted to run it on them. And sure as sugar is sweet, in the next two days eleven of our neighbors were called.

Eleven of our neighbors hung up their phones.

Please. This isn’t chest-beating or image-polishing…it’s an example of what we, as computer technicians and geeks can do when presented with an opportunity. We can chose to be there for people who might expose their weakness by way of their trust. That’s what pisses me off more than anything; that these maggots choose to pick on folks 60 and over because we tend to be more trusting.

“He even guided me to a website that would identify him as a Microsoft employee. ”

To be honest, I ended up making more work for myself. Tomorrow we are meeting for a late breakfast at the community center, to see who wants Linux as a dual boot option for their computer. It seems that one of our resident’s sons has sold mom on the merits of Linux and the much smaller chance of any malware working on her computer. I’ve already had three neighbors knock on the door and ask me to put their names on my list. Well, I really didn’t have a list at the time, but I do now. And I will go to the brunch meeting tomorrow.

It’s a matter of knowing when to be there.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

12 comments to The Elderly & the Scam Masters

  • Twice I have had the same scenario in the last 6 months here in the UK. Also a friend of mine. We are both retired and over 70. What worried me was that he knew my full address, but, thinking about it, that could have been obtained from anywhere. I kept him on the phone for about 20 mins saying that the key combinations he was asking me to press did not work. Then he swore at me and hung up. I did not tell him that I was running openSuse.
    Keep up the good work Ken.

  • Uncle Ed

    Would you consider putting the text of the flyer online somewhere so we can use it for ideas? We have a Senior Citizens’ Center in my town and I’ll bet at least some people would read it.

    Thanks!

  • Richard, thanks. I can be a real ditz at times. You might want to take a look at the flier. It looks much better after downloaded than it does on Google Drive.

    http://tinyurl.com/pdtu6ec

  • yo

    Interesting if we keep in mind that we all had prizma on Microsoft operating systems.
    Not, so sure about Linux.
    They have been … doing that thing for a long time…
    a long long time.

  • Sven

    The irony is that these scammers often live in dead-beat countries where the average life expectation is well below the 70. No amount of money is going to give them the health care and social security that we have, because it takes more than money to make a country work. It takes honor, courage, respect, dignity and integrity to make a country work so they literally die because of their stupidity there. They have lost the day they were born. Sure, it is sad to see old people getting scammed, but the desperation shown by the scammers is beyond funny.

  • Wzrd1

    I’ve gotten those calls before. None offered to “prove” Microsoft affiliation, but I played along.
    After a few minutes of “That key doesn’t exist”, “it didn’t work”, “nothing happened”, “Error 3xf34 came up” and other creative non-events, I would be asked what computer I’m using.
    A Cray.

    One brighter chap asked me what OS I was using, CatOS.

    For the non-technical folks, a Cray is an old supercomputer, CatOS is an obsolete OS for Cisco enterprise switches.

  • Thanks for this article. I’m a 70+ retired Computer, plus Literacy Studies college instructor. Because of my background, I’m still asked to help, or explain, various computer “troubles.” In doing this, I’m often amazed at how naive, and/or uninformed people in my age group are in regard to security, and scams. So… your story and the poster you made prompted me to use your poster as a template to make a more generic one that I can post in my area, and, particularly in the local Senior’s Centres, one of which I attend. My concern is that I’m using your initial work, and wonder if you would like to see what I’ve done before I start posting it. (I did credit you at the bottom.:-)

  • Wes

    Hi Ken,

    What a coincidence, I live in England and was contacted by a lady on the phone today with more or less the spiel. She asked me to let her take over my computer but I just said no firmly and the phone went dead.By the way, I am also 75+.

    If you don’t mind I will email a copy of the flyer to all of my friends.

    Best wishes.

  • Wzrd1

    Linda, age isn’t an exclusive factor.
    I’m aware of an incident where a worker for a Fortune 200 computer services company saw a dialog box instructing that worker to call an external number.
    The “operator” at the external number then had the worker type in commands that the worker was unable to recall, to then observe a dos window open and directories being listed.
    The worker than called a supervisor, who pulled the network cable.

    One should always be wary of social engineering attempts.

  • Linda, use it as you see fit and there is no attribution necessary. The first thing I learned as a member of the greater Linux community is how to be humble. The second thing I learned is how to write a bash script to help me find my car keys. I can never keep track of them…

    =:^))

    You are more than welcome to use it Linda, it is my pleasure.

  • Linda_P

    Ken, Thanks permission to use some of your work, and for responding so quickly.
    Wzrd1, I appreciate your story. Thanks.