You’ve probably received one of these calls by now. A computer-like voice offers to lower your credit card debt or warns that you’re about to lose a warranty. A stern man says he’s from the IRS and threatens arrest if you don’t pay tax “miscalculation errors” adding up to $7,912 — but he will accept a prepaid debit card in the meantime. A cheerful woman offers an amazing vacation package deal — just don’t ask for the fine print.

Nearly 50 million robocalls come into the U.S. annually, and experts estimate that up to half may be attempts to defraud consumers. Scam calls  skyrocketed during the pandemic, says Aaron Foss of Nomorobo, a call-protection service for Apple and Android smartphones.

Phone scammers may pretend to be government employees, health care professionals, bank workers, or trusted individuals. Fraudsters sow FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt — to influence their victims, Foss notes. They may promise to give you “free” merchandise or money, refund an overpayment, evoke your sympathy, or threaten arrest or legal action.

The goal? Convincing you to send funds by gift card, prepaid debit card or by wiring or mailing cash. Other scammers may ask for personal information such as your Medicare number, to use later in fraud.

Robocall scams vary by region and demographics. The new “Tip-offs to Rip-offs” website lists top robocalls by Washington region, with short audio clips of each call. The site’s creation was a joint effort spearheaded by AARP. “AARP has joined with the state attorney general’s office, BECU and Nomorobo to provide real-time access to the top calls flooding Seattle-area phone lines,” says Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director.

Scam calls constantly change, with new scripts popping up all the time. In the Seattle-Tacoma area, where the housing market is hot, the top robocall offers to buy your home, according to Nomorobo. Next is the “Amazon Purchase Alert,” followed by an appeal for a donation to “Back Blue Lives Matter.”

Scammers disguise calls in different caller ID numbers and fake caller ID names to mislead consumers, also known as “spoofing” — a violation of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Recently, scammers targeted Puget Sound Energy consumers threatening to disconnect service for an unpaid bill or refund an overpayment.

“It’s a numbers game,” Foss says. The callers need just a few people per day to fall for their trap out of hundreds of millions of calls placed.


Why do scam artists target older adults?

Older adults can be desirable targets, Foss says. After all, many seniors regularly receive calls from physicians, clinics, and insurance companies. Older adults tend to trust phone communication, and scammers focus efforts on seniors by calling landline numbers or buying personal information from data brokers or after data breaches.

During the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, phone scams targeting seniors included the “grandparent scam,” where a deceptive caller pretends to be a desperate relative who needs immediate cash by wire, courier service or gift card.

Older adults might receive more robocalls along these lines:

  • Medicare genetic testing request your Medicare number, which will be used fraudulently.
  • Social security scams state there’s a problem with your account and asking you to pay a fine.
  • Amazon or antivirus purchase scams warn you that you’ve been charged around $400 for an Amazon or antivirus purchase unless you call back immediately.

Hanging up on swindlers

Keeping scammers out of your wallet is a challenge. In the past few years, the Washington attorney general has filed lawsuits against both companies and sham charities for robocall violations. In one recent case, a “charity” called Washington state numbers more than 1.7 million times. It kept 90 cents of every dollar they misrepresented as going to organizations supporting homeless veterans, breast cancer patients and children with autism.

There’s no failsafe way to determine a caller’s intentions, Foss says, so to protect yourself:

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  • Allow calls to go to voicemail, Foss suggests and get a second opinion from trusted friends, family, or others before returning the call.
  • If a caller states they’re from your financial institution, end the call and contact the institution directly.
  • Remember that government agencies won’t call you for personal information.
  • Utility companies are unlikely just to shut off your power, water, or other essential services.
  • Be suspicious if a caller asks you to share information or make a payment immediately.
  • Consider adding apps that block robocalls.
  • When you receive a call demanding money or dangling promises, hang up immediately.

Don’t feel ashamed for falling for a deceptive call. Many Americans of every age and demographic are tricked every day, Foss says. Scammers take advantage of our very human qualities — empathy for others, concern about technology or finances, fear of legal action, and the ability to support our families financially.

Then, they depend on scammed consumers staying quiet. Fight back by sharing your story with friends, calling the Attorney General’s office, or the Federal Trade Commission.

Visit aarp.org/TipOffs for early warning reports on actual calls making the rounds in your community.  You’ll have an opportunity to listen to and familiarize yourself with the scammers’ latest pitches before they have a chance to dial your number.