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Fraud rises in 2020 nationwide and in Montana

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Posted at 12:20 PM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 14:20:54-05

HELENA - While a lot slowed down in 2020, fraud and scammers did not. Data shows fraud reports and dollars lost went up both nationwide and in Montana.

Scammers not only used phone calls, emails, text messages and social media, they also used COVID-19 to convince people to hand over their money.

“We’re talking a lot of money,” Better Business Bureau public relations and communications manager Roseann Freitas said. “(Scams) happen daily.”

The Federal Trade Commission got nearly 2.2 million fraud reports in 2020, resulting in $3.3 billion lost. That’s up more than 452,000 reports and nearly $1.5 billion lost from 2019.

In Montana, the data trend is similar. The FTC got nearly 5,500 reports of fraud from state residents, resulting in $5.6 million lost—both up from 2019.

“Scammers are using telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms and door-to-door to perpetuate COVID-19 related scams,” Area IV Agency on Aging resource specialist Barb Gilskey said. “(Some are) even offering COVID tests and Medicare prescription cards in exchange for personal details and in exchange for Medicare details.”

Gilskey works with the elderly in the Helena area. While numbers show the elderly get defrauded at lower rates than other age groups, when they do, the losses tend to be much higher.

For example, FTC numbers show the median reported loss for 20-29 year-olds in 2020 was $324, compare that to the $1,300 median loss reported for people 80 and older.

While more than 5,000 incidents of fraud were reported in Montana in 2020, experts say there are likely more incidents because fraud and scams are underreported.

“We probably only hear about a tenth of what’s going on,” Gilskey said.

Gilskey and Freitas said scammers have gotten more sophisticated, and scams can be harder to spot.

“When we think of scammers, we think of that Nigerian prince, or we think of misspellings and bad grammar,” Freitas said. “It’s changed. Now, it comes across and it looks so legitimate.”

When it comes to COVID-19, Freitas and Gilskey said scammers offer things like tests or vaccines in exchange for money or personal information. Gilskey said she has heard of Montanans receiving calls from scammers posing as contact tracers.

“Legitimate contact tracers will never ask for your medicare number, financial information, or attempt to set up a COVID-19 test for you and collect a payment,” Gilskey said. “Any of that information should be red flags.”

Some other red flags include someone asking for personal information like social security, medicare or bank account numbers, and insistence on payment through cryptocurrency, wire transfer or gift cards.

Finally, both Freitas and Gilskey said, go with your gut.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it really is too good to be true,” Freitas said.

Reporting scams is an important step to helping stop fraudsters, and keeping others from falling prey.

You can report scams to the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker, or the US Department of Justice. The Area IV Agency on Aging can also help out.