Too many people in Tennessee have fallen prey to scammers. And, with the increasing sophistication of digital technology, scammers are more devious than ever. That is why I have worked to pass legislation during my legislative tenure to protect Tennesseans from a number of schemes to defraud consumers in our state.
Unfortunately, many of these criminals prey on the good faith and humanity of some of our most vulnerable citizens – our elderly. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually nationwide to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams. These modern-day snake oil salesmen now have technology to aid them as they glean information to make consumers feel like they have knowledge that only a legitimate source could secure.
These scams come in many forms: For example, the “grandparent scam” has been around for a while, but has recently gotten bolder according to the Federal Trade Commission. This scam starts with a telephone call from someone pretending to be the attorney of the targeted victim’s grandchild, who they call by name. The deceitful caller says the grandchild is in jail and asks for money to be wired immediately to get them out and clear their name. Many panicked seniors have fallen victims to this scam believing they are saving their grandchild from a perilous fate. More recently, scammers have appeared at the door to pick up cash from the victim.
Seniors are also targeted for fraudulent investment scams. Many elderly citizens are polite and have difficulty saying “no” or feel indebted to someone who has provided unsolicited investment advice. Knowing that seniors worry about the adequacy of their retirement savings, these fraudsters pitch schemes that appeal to the need to be financially secure by offering unrealistically high rates of returns. Whereas in the past, scammers had to cast a wide net to catch a fish, the Internet and social media has made that search much easier. Our General Assembly has passed several bills over the past few years to help protect our seniors from financial exploitation.
Then there are phishing emails and fake websites that resemble legitimate companies that frighten or entice a person into clicking on a link that delivers the victim to a counterfeit web page. Industry experts estimate that 500 million phishing emails appear in user inboxes every day. Identity theft is a common scam which Tennesseans of all ages have suffered. Once identity thieves have the victim’s personal information, they can tap into bank accounts, run up charges on credit cards, open new utility accounts, or even get medical treatment utilizing the victim’s health insurance. These complex identity fraud schemes are leaving record numbers of Tennessee victims in their wake.
Our General Assembly passed a new law this year to protect consumers from phishing schemes by clarifying that text messages sent and received on smart phone or devices are subject to the state’s Anti-Phishing Act regarding Internet scams. This is the act which makes representing oneself as another person while online a crime. The new law ensures these same offenses apply when a person uses text messages to defraud Tennesseans.
Yet another common scam capitalizes on a victim’s respect for our government institutions – the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the U.S. Treasury. Scammers call victims claiming to be from the IRS or law enforcement threatening arrest unless payment is made immediately through a wire transfer or gift card. In other cases, victims are told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private information.
Not to let any opportunity pass by, scammers are even taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct phishing and imposter scams offering COVID relief funds. Typically, they will ask for your bank account information or a registration fee that the victims might provide through a prepaid debit card or gift card. Legitimate government grants do not require a fee and are not offered to individuals to cover personal expenses.
Other common scams include an auto decal scam where consumers are told they will get paid to advertise a well-known company, a home repair scam which starts with a fake contractor knocking on the victims door, and a Medicare brace scheme which promises a “free” back, neck or knee brace to entice those who need such devices. A list of schemes are enumerated on the Tennessee Consumer Affairs Division website.
We will continue to do everything in the General Assembly to ensure swift punishment for these scammers but consumers must stay vigilant. Certainly one major tip is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. To file a claim or to receive consumer tips and resources, please visit the state’s Consumer Affairs Division in the State Attorney General’s Office at www.tn.gov/consumer.