Don’t Get To “Yes”

Fraudsters and scammers are wily pieces of crap who are basically the scum of the earth.  But you have to grudgingly give them credit:  you never know what they’re going to think of next, and when it comes to taking criminal advantage of the decency and kindheartedness of many people, they have no equal.

101386023-183418541-1910x1000Consider what police are saying about the latest scam.  You get a phone call out of the blue from a number that your phone identifies as from your area code, making you much more likely to answer it because it could be a friend or family member calling in an emergency from a strange local number.  The person on the other ends starts yakking, and early in the conversation the person says “Can you hear me?”  Most people, of course, will say “yes” — and that starts them on the road to perdition.

Why?  Because your “yes” answer is recorded, and then used to indicate your assent to some unwanted product or service.  And if you try to argue that you never agreed to get that magazine subscription or internet debugging service, the recording of your “yes” answer gets used as evidence that you in fact agreed.  In the worst case, the scammer has your credit card number and uses the “yes” with a third party to authorize charges for goods that the crook gets but you are billed for.

It’s tough, because many of us are trained to be polite, even in response to an unwanted call.  We listen to the pitch about the charitable opportunity or the policeman’s benevolent fund and look for an opportunity to say, “thanks, but no thanks.”  But now the advice from law enforcement is to not say anything — and if you’re asked “Can you hear me?,” hang up immediately.

In this case, you just don’t want to get to “yes.”

Have A Happy Wi-Fi Christmas

You go to the food court at a mall, a coffee shop, or some other public space over the holidays, open your laptop or power up your tablet, and start checking for available wi-fi.  When you see a “free” network, you click on it with a chuckle, take a hearty sip of your peppermint stick latte, go through your email, and then start making sure your checking account is squared away before you buy gifts for the last people on your Christmas list.

p1264m1066840fWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Pretty much everything, say data security experts.  It turns out that fraudsters love to set up fake “free” wi-fi networks at public spaces over the holidays, hoping that busy shoppers taking a break, or the bored people accompanying them, will use the networks and expose their personal data, whether it’s passwords, bank or credit card information, or personal data that could lead to identity theft.  Many people who routinely use “free” public wi-fi networks are altogether too trusting, and are willing to agree to just about any terms to get the internet access they crave.

In fact, as the story linked above reports, an 11-year-old kid in Texas won his school science fair this year by proving that point.  He set up anonymous free internet access portals in shopping mall food court areas that had the most draconian conditions available — including allowing the portals to do things like “reading and responding to your emails” and “monitoring of input and/or output” — and more than half of the people offered those conditions agreed to them.  That’s a pretty stiff price for something that supposed to be “free.”

Hackers are everywhere (just ask Yahoo!) and are eager to get to your personal data.  So please:  use precautions and common sense.  Don’t go onto just any “free” network and start exposing your most important and intimate personal and financial data to whoever might have set up that network, or hacked into it.  Think about whether the network really seems to be bona fide.   And consider whether some activities — like on-line banking — really should be exclusively reserved for a network you know and trust.

This holiday season, don’t get ho-ho-hacked.

The Fakes And Cheaters World

Sometimes diverse news stories coalesce to sound a deeper, underlying theme.

This week we’ve witnessed the curious ongoing story about Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who says she self-identifies as black, and the disclosure that the FBI and federal prosecutors are investigating the St. Louis Cardinals for hacking into the database of the Houston Astros to obtain confidential player information.  And The Week has a fascinating story about a business in the Philippines where people spend their workdays manufacturing fake people on Facebook — using a “fake name generator” website — and then using those fake people to sell fake likes to people or businesses who want to look more popular on social media than they actually are.

What’s the deeper theme here?  That my grandmother was right when she said “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s a fakes and cheaters world out there, and we all would do well to maintain a healthy skepticism about . . . well, virtually everything.  Even in the sporting world, where you would like to think that hard work, training, and talent on the field of play ultimately will be decisive, teams apparently aren’t above doing whatever it takes to gain an edge.

I’m not a Pollyanna about how the world used to be; I know that there have always been fraudsters and scammers and hustlers who make their living through lies and deception.  But we seem to have crossed a line now, and there is a big difference between throwing spitballs and stealing signs on one hand and hacking into another team’s computer systems on the other.  Falsifying and airbrushing and cheating seem to have become almost routine in everyday life, and distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate has become much more difficult. Can you trust anything you see on a resume anymore?  Should you give credence to any data about Twitter followers or Facebook likes?  What about reported corporate financial results, or government budget figures?  How deep, exactly, does the culture of counterfeiting, and the ethical rot that accompanies it, go?

Rachel Dolezal isn’t apologizing for what she has done, and says she would do the same things again. She says “the discussion is really about what it is to be human,” and she hopes “that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”  Huh?  We’re now supposed to have a “dialogue” about what, exactly?  That we are all “empowered” to “self-determine” and represent ourselves in any way we choose, regardless of reality?

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

Fraud From The Boiler Room

This week a police operation in Great Britain and the EU resulted in arrests of more than 100 people who allegedly were involved in “boiler room” operations, where callers solicit investments in fraudulent financial schemes or sell stock that doesn’t exist. The SEC, too, routinely prosecutes people who are determined to be involved in boiler room schemes to swindle investors. Often these schemes bilk hapless seniors of their retirement funds.

I’ve received “boiler room” type calls. Typically the caller talks very fast with a New York accent (I’ve always assumed the accent is part of the job training, just like being an airline pilot requires that you speak with a certain folksiness), explains they are with an investment outfit you’ve never heard of, and then says they’ve got just one opportunity they want you to consider. There’s always some hook that makes the investment sound plausible and can be described in 30 seconds — development of oil sands, a company that’s about to be awarded a development contract in Qatar — and then the ask that you give them this one chance to show that they can make a huge return for you.

I always listen politely, because I watched Glengarry Glen Ross and felt sorry for the Jack Lemmon character, and then decline. If they start to get especially pushy and belligerent — and that’s not unusual — I just hang up. They’re wasting their time with me, because I would never dream of giving any of my hard-earned money to a complete stranger who calls out of the blue. However, some people do invest, to their eventual regret, which is why boiler room operations have been a staple of the fraudster arsenal for decades.

Many of the victims are senior citizens. Why are so many older people easier to scam? Research suggests that the elderly are more likely to open junk mail about get-rich-quick schemes and interact with cold callers, and that the aging brain is less able to appreciate risk. In short, they put themselves in a position to be hoodwinked, react positively to the promises of outlandish returns on their money, and lack the filters that would allow them to recognize the downside risk and danger that they are being defrauded.

If you’ve ever known an anguished and humiliated senior citizen who was taken advantage of by a boiler room operation, you know that there is a special level of hell reserved for crooks who prey on the elderly, rob them of their life savings, and leave them facing an impoverished retirement.

How Best To Protect The Elderly?

The percentage of our population that is elderly — and often infirm as well — is growing.  As that percentage of the population grows, the number of elderly who are hoodwinked out of their retirement nest egg, neglected, or emotionally or physically abused, is growing steadily as well.

Senior abuse is a tough problem to quantify.  Statistics, surveys, and expert opinions vary, with estimates of victims numbering in the millions, but the reality is hard to grasp because the problem is largely a hidden one.  Many seniors spend their time indoors — due to health or choice — and aren’t seen in public often.  How are neighbors to know if the apparently devoted son who stops by every second day isn’t abusing his confused mother and looting her bank account?  How many seniors are too embarrassed and ashamed by their treatment to confess that their niece or grandson is threatening and assaulting them?  And there is a definitional problem, too.  How do you treat the fiercely independent older couple where the husband insists he can care for his ailing wife, but family friends notice their hygiene and general health noticeably slipping?  Are they being neglected, or is their fervent wish for independence simply being honored?  How are we to know, too, if the money that is vanishing from the aging parent’s bank account is disappearing due to fraud, or to a legitimate wish to help relatives who are down on their luck, or to pay for an expensive form of treatment or drug therapy?

The elderly are a ripe target for crime and abuse.  They often have life savings to plunder, and they receive a monthly Social Security check.  They may be weak, wheelchair-bound, or suffering through the early stages of debilitating mental or physical illness.  Their social support network of friends, family, and co-workers may have fallen away as a result of retirements, departures to warmer climates, and deaths.  If a relative moves in to help Great Aunt Alice, is it a wonderful act of human kindness or a precursor to abuse and financial exploitation?

There’s always pressure for a federal solution, but it’s hard to see how a national bureaucracy could effectively address this problem.  The best answer seems to be vigilant neighbors, friends, and family members who are alert to signs of abuse and willing to report their suspicions to local authorities.  Financial fraud is a crime, as is physical assault, and they should be treated and prosecuted as such.  We should all be observant and sensitive to seniors who may desperately need our help and who deserve not to be terrorized or defrauded in their twilight years.

Gram Scam

Every grandkid knows that if they are in a pinch and really need money, they can always make a discreet withdrawal from the Bank of Grandma.  Unfortunately, fraudsters have learned that same lesson and are using that knowledge to prey on the elderly and bilk them out of their retirement savings.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been warning of scams that follow this story line.  The unsuspecting senior citizen receives a frantic phone call from a young person purporting to be their grandchild or some other relation.  The terrified kid is in an awful jam — maybe he needs money to get out of jail, or to pay a spring break hotel bill because his friends skipped town on him — and he’s counting on Grandma or Grandpa to help him out by wiring some money right away.  He didn’t want to call Mom or Dad, because they’ll never forgive him, and he knows Grandma and Grandpa will keep his secret.  And he’ll pay the money back, of course.  The worried grandparent, secretly pleased to be of help, goes to the bank or Western Union to send the money, and they never see that money again.

It’s pathetic, of course, that crooks would consciously try to cheat older people, but they’ve been doing so since the dawn of time.  What’s really heartbreaking is that the defrauded grandparents are so trusting, and have such strong senses of familial obligation, that they are inclined to send thousands of dollars on the basis of a single phone call from a person whose voice they obviously don’t know and who claims to be a relative they haven’t talked to in months.  Perhaps each of us should call the elders of our families — not only to alert them to this scam, but also to re-acquaint them with the sounds of our voices.