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: The holidays are prime time for scammers — and seniors are their favorite targets

When consumer spending increases, fraud activity increases as well. But you can avoid falling victim to cyber fraud during the holiday shopping season.

“Cybercrime has gotten more sinister and significant,” said Mike Steinbach, the head of Citibank’s fraud prevention unit. “The American public needs to know fraud has evolved. You shouldn’t be waiting on monthly, quarterly reports. You should be checking your accounts regularly.”

The number of older victims has risen at an alarming rate, and the amounts they have lost are staggering. In 2021, more than 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That represents a 74% increase in losses compared with losses reported in 2020.

Among older victims, the most common crimes were tech-support scams, identity theft, and nonpayment for or nondelivery of goods or services, the FBI said. But the crimes that raked in the most money included romance and confidence schemes, which totaled $432 million in losses.

Also read: Tech support fraud is the biggest scam for people over 60, taking them for millions—here are the red flags to watch for

“Fraudsters have cyber tools to target phones and emails en masse and they’re hoping for someone to bite. All it takes is for one person to take the bait,” Steinbach said. “Some are very easy to see. Some are very hard to see. Some sound and look very legitimate.”

“All ages and all demographics are at risk. No one is immune — everyone is a potential target. But the elderly have savings, IRAs and other retirement accounts. Fraudsters go where the money is,” Steinbach said.

Cybercrime results in damage and destruction of data, stolen money, lost productivity, theft of intellectual property and theft of personal and financial data, among other losses.

A 2020 report from Cybersecurity Ventures said that global cybercrime costs were expected to grow by 15% per year, reaching $10.5 trillion annually by 2025.

Related: Scams and cryptocurrency can go hand in hand — here’s how they work and what to watch out for

Javelin Strategy and Research’s “2022 Identity Fraud Study: The Virtual Battleground” found a 90% increase in account takeovers from 2020 to 2021.

Identity fraud losses tallied $52 billion in 2021 and affected at least 42 million American adults as hackers moved more aggressively into “hijacking victims’ online lives,” the study found.

The Justice Department said this month that it was expanding its Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, adding 14 additional U.S. attorney’s offices to the existing six offices in a move to combat sophisticated fraud schemes that target or disproportionately affect older adults.

Here are six tips to help you avoid scams, according to Citi, the FBI and AARP:

Watch out for scammers who have learned how to spell: Be aware that fraudsters have gotten smarter. Emails and text links may closely imitate those from real companies or trusted individuals and may appear to be legitimate.

Be skeptical of unsolicited messages: Be on the alert for emails, texts and phone calls that ask you to urgently provide personal or account information. Don’t click on a link in any email or text that you receive unexpectedly, and delete unsolicited incoming emails and texts. And don’t provide any personal identifying or account information in response to any communication you receive by phone, email or text.

Be aware that the federal government will not call you unsolicited and ask for personal information. The agencies already have details like your Medicare and Social Security numbers. And no federal government agency will initiate a serious contact with you through social media, text or email; rather, most correspondence from the government will come via the U.S. Postal Service.

Use multiple passwords: Vary the passwords you use for your email, online banking, credit card and other financial accounts and, ideally, change them every three months. If you use the same password for everything, a swindler who gains control of your email could quickly find a gateway to all of your financial accounts. So mix up your passwords by using strong combinations of letters and numbers or “passphrases” — random combinations of words, numbers and symbols that are impossible to guess. Never keep passwords in a list on your computer.

Don’t take the call, make the call: If you get a call from an unknown number, don’t answer it or return it. Instead, contact your bank yourself by logging in to its secure website or by calling the customer service number on the back of your card to review your account activity and information.

Even if you get a call from a number that appears on caller ID as your bank’s name and number, do not provide personal information on that call, as fraudsters can easily spoof incoming caller ID information. Legitimate customer service, security or tech-support companies will not initiate unsolicited contact with individuals. Meanwhile, if a “tech-support” pop-up or error message appears with a phone number, don’t call that number. Legitimate error and warning messages never include phone numbers.

Slow down: Resist the pressure to act quickly. Criminals urge their victims to act fast to protect their device or account.

Educate your loved ones: Even if they aren’t tech savvy, you can help friends and family members by explaining schemes that target older adults, such as grandparent scams in which a person calls claiming to be a grandchild or to be calling on behalf of a loved one who needs money in an emergency.

When recently sentencing one of eight perpetrators of a grandparent scam, a federal judge described such scams “heartbreakingly evil.” That group engaged in criminal-enterprise extortion and fraud to swindle more than $2 million from elderly victims across the country.

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