Retired con artist explains how to avoid a COVID-19 scam, and why seniors are the biggest target

Laveta Brigham

Ninety-one per cent of older Canadians believe they are the most vulnerable group that scammers target, according to a new Ipsos survey. The world’s most famous con man turned fraud expert says nothing is better than education to put a stop to it. Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed by Leonardo […]

Ninety-one per cent of older Canadians believe they are the most vulnerable group that scammers target, according to a new Ipsos survey. The world’s most famous con man turned fraud expert says nothing is better than education to put a stop to it.

Frank Abagnale, who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, is part of a video campaign, spearheaded by HomeEquity Bank, to teach Canadians how to identify a scam and how to avoid falling victim to one.

Ipsos said 52 per cent of older Canadians polled (55 and older) say they’ve been the target of a scam and 72 per cent of those surveyed say there has been an increase in COVID-19 related scams since the start of the pandemic.

The poll added that one in three Canadians admitted to falling victim to a scam, and Abagnale hopes that the new video series will help Canadians understand how to spot a scam and not be the victim.

Ipsos surveyed 1,000 people aged 18 and over across the country online. The survey was conducted on behalf of HomeEquity Bank, which wanted to better understand older Canadians’ attitudes towards scams, and fraud.

Yahoo Finance Canada talked to Abagnale to get his tips for skirting the scammers.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are scammers looking for and who do they target?

A: Last year, the AARP, the American Association of Retired People in the United States, commissioned me to write a book about all the scams and they wanted me to cover every single scam. Both millennials, seniors financial scams, Bitcoin, etc. And so I wrote Scam Me If You Can.

When doing the research for the book what was most amazing to me is I found that millennials are often scammed more often than seniors, but seniors lose more money because they have more money.

During COVID we have seen, for example in the United States, an increase of 350 per cent of all of these scams. Basically, first of all, you have all of these people sitting at home, all of these people on their computer spending a great deal of time and scam artists follow the headline so whatever is going on at that moment that’s the scams they come up with.

And when you research them and you look back, you find that basically they’re all the same and they’ve been around for more than 50 years. [The scammers] just changed the pitch.

So now, [with] COVID they’re selling you vaccines, telling you they have treatments or selling… whatever it is that they can sell, of course, they’d never deliver. And people are a little anxious and people are a little desperate and they’re a little scared and they play on the fear and, and so on.

I think a big difference today is that 50 years ago you were dealing with a domestic criminal who basically had to see you face to face in order to scam you. Today you’re dealing with criminals all over the world who can be sitting in their kitchen on their laptop with a cup of coffee in Moscow and scam you just as well as the guy next door.

The internet has made it so much easier and you can reach so many people and there’s no emotion involved. You could say that in the old days the common man or woman had a little bit of concern, they may have wanted to rip someone off but say oh I don’t want to take all their money, they were a little bit compassionate about it. Today, these people never see you, you never see them, there is zero compassion.

They’ll take you for every penny. Unfortunately, many times they pick on the elderly and it’s very simple to do.

Q: How can I avoid a scam?

A: I’ve always believed to this day that education is the most powerful tool for fighting crime. If I explained to you these scams and I tell you how they work, then when you get that phone call, you get that email, you immediately say alright I already know this, I’ve read about this, I understand how this works. Unfortunately, we see very little of this.

So I was amazed that it was a bank that was really simply wanting to help educate their customers. I thought that brought tremendous value as a bank that they were concerned about their customers to go spend the money and took the time to create this campaign to make them aware.

The most important thing to do is to educate your customers and educate people on how not to fall victim to these crimes.

Q: What are the red flags in a scam?

A: There are two red flags, they have to be there for the scam to work, and the red flag is very simple. At some point in the scam, I’m going to ask you for money, and I’m going to tell you it has to be immediate and you have to give me a credit card over the phone, you have to give me your bank account number, you have to go down to Walmart and give me a green card and call me back with the number on the back. It has to be right this moment.

The other red flag is that at some point I’m going to ask you for information, so I’m going to ask you what your social security number is, your date of birth, your mother’s maiden name, your bank account number, your credit card number, the number on the back of your credit card. That has to happen at some point.

Q: What is the most common mistake people make that scam artists take advantage of?

A: If you tell me on Facebook, where you were born, and your date of birth, that is 98 per cent of me having the ability to steal your identity, those are what we call keys. And if I have those two keys, I’ve basically got your identity. So I tell people never to say on Facebook where you were born, or your date of birth, otherwise you’re simply saying to someone come steal my identity.

Q: How can I get my money back if I’ve been scammed?

A: It’s very unfortunate but it’s been my experience that once you lose your money, you’re probably never going to get your money back. You know, we may end up catching the person, or they may end up going to jail, but you’re probably never going to see your money. And in most cases, these people are in Russia, they’re in China, they’re in India, they’re in Jamaica.

We don’t really have the jurisdiction to go down and arrest them or extradite them, and sometimes $1 amount is not worth that for them to pursue it. So I tell people once you lose your money you’re probably not going to get your money back and that’s why it’s so important not to risk your money.

The safest form of payment that exists, and whether it’s Canada or the United States is your credit card. I tell people I don’t own a debit card, I do everything on a credit card. I even get cash out of the ATM on my credit card, or I use strictly a bank ATM card, not a debit card. And the reason is, if I get caught up in some roofing scams or fixing my house [scam] and turns out they never do the work, I can always go back to my credit card company, and most of the time get reinstated.

If I got my Visa statement today and it said there were $8,000 in airline tickets and I didn’t pay the bill yet, I simply tell the credit card company I didn’t buy these tickets. I don’t know anything about them. But if you’re taken out of my account, trying to convince the bank that it wasn’t me, the bank says they will have to investigate.

One of the ways I minimize my risk from that is simply to basically use a credit card and never use a debit card.

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