Purcell: Scammers are cruel as they prey on our beloved elders

Published 12:51 pm Friday, June 4, 2021

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I just got another scam phone call from someone pretending to be from the Social Security Administration, and my blood is boiling.

When I answered my phone — from the 480 Area Code in Arizona far away from Pittsburgh — a recording said, “Your Social Security number has been compromised. Stay on the line and an agent will be right with you.”

When the agent, speaking in broken English, asked for my name and address, I got even madder.


First, having done cybersecurity assessment and communications work the past few years, I knew that the Social Security Administration will never call me or anyone — unless you’re having an ongoing discussion with a legitimate government employee.

Second, another telltale sign that it was a scam was that the scammers had no idea what my name or address was.

Third, I knew that elderly Americans are more likely to fall for such an obvious phone scam.

For example, my heart broke recently when I read about a 79-year-old Pittsburgh woman who got taken in by scammers.

According to the Triblive article, she received a phone call in June 2019 from a person who identified himself as an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The “agent” told her that her identity had been stolen and that she was inadvertently involved in an international drug trafficking and money laundering scheme.

The dirty rat then persuaded her to wire massive sums of her life savings to a second fake DEA agent or “she would be investigated by the DEA and would lose her Social Security number.”

According to the lawsuit that the victim has filed against her bank for not questioning her about her huge transfers, she was taken for $4.3 million.

Look, we all have to step up our understanding of the growing risk of cyber-scammers — and we need to help our elders learn how to protect themselves from rapidly increasing threats.

The FBI reports that since many older Americans have large nest eggs and homes that are paid off, they are ripe targets.

Many elderly persons who are friendly and trusting — and wary of being rude to anyone who calls on the phone — are especially at risk in our era of smartphones, email and social media.

They are victims of identity theft, charity fraud, health care scams, “You’ve won” scams and government-imposter scams of every kind.

Scammers use fraudulent smartphone texts, spoofed emails that appear to be from people you trust, or robocalls and other phone scams using spoofed phone numbers.

I called back the 480-area-code number that had called me with the Social Security scam. It was the number for a construction firm in Arizona.

The scammers were able to spoof that legitimate phone number, as they do millions of other numbers, to fool their victims.

Helpful resources are available to help all of us learn to better identify scams and, most important, to help us protect our vulnerable elderly family members and friends:

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations offers useful tips on how to stop scammers who prey on the elderly dead in their tracks. So does the Cybersecurity Information and Security Agency. They publish a brochure that offers useful cybersecurity information to older Americans.

And the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Pass It On Campaign enlists people 65 and older in an effort to recognize and report fraud and other scams.

Various websites also can help us make sure our elders are alert to the dirty tricks of the rotten scammers and know how to avoid them.

Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood,” a humorous memoir available at amazon.com, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. Send comments to Tom at tom@tompurcell.com.