BRIDGING GENERATIONS TO BATTLE SCAMS
September 24, 2020
QUESTION: What do you get when you combine a determined Girl Scout with a seasoned and scam-savvy acting group, each aiming to keep seniors from becoming victims?
ANSWER: A generationally synergistic solution using social media to shed light on a prevalent problem.
Meet Geneva Eisel, a candidate for the Girl Scouts Gold Award which, per the organization's website, is earned by "the dreamers and the doers who take 'make the world a better place' to the next level." She is an impressive young woman on a mission to protect seniors from fraudulent schemes, her grandparents having been affected by one.
To carry out her plan, Geneva researched the internet and found the right group in the Stop Senior Scams Acting Program (SSSAP), a collaboration in which the seniors write the skits based on firsthand accounts of the scams as well as the experiences of their relatives and friends. It was created by Adrienne Omansky, who is on the senior advisory board for Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager. "They cover Culver City, their office is in Culver City, and they support SSSAP's mission," Omansky said.
"The Stop Senior Scams Acting Program was recognized for its
peer-to-peer education program by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging during a 'Stopping Senior Scams' hearing on March 7, 2018," Omansky said. "During this hearing I testified about the importance of peer-to-peer messaging in scam prevention."
Omansky was delighted that her visit to Washington, DC resulted in the U.S Senate designating May 15th as National Senior Fraud Awareness Day. "Senior scams are on the increase, and our program, to my knowledge, is the first program in the United States that uses theater in peer-to-peer education in senior fraud prevention," she said. "Although peer-to-peer education is very important, I think it is also important for senior fraud prevention to include intergenerational conversation, as this will bring more awareness to the community about these scams. Geneva's video is an extraordinary example."
But the original plan was for SSSAP to present its program in person in Huntington Beach to educate seniors in Geneva's community. "Geneva worked hard for months getting prepared for us to visit the Huntington Beach Senior Center," Omansky explained. "She had already made all the arrangements to organize our visit for April and even got a hospital as sponsor to pay for our transportation. Our program was all rehearsed and ready."
And this is where that quote from Robert Burns about the best laid plans of mice and men oft going awry comes to mind. The pandemic caused upheaval in everyone's plans, and an in-person April visit before a large group of seniors became completely unfeasible.
However, Omansky's ingenuity surfaced. She suggested that a video be created instead with Geneva interviewing Ann Stahl, who had retired after a 44-year career as investigator for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
"Ann was the logical choice to do the video because she is the expert in the field," Omansky said. "She was very giving of her time and knowledge. Ann has participated in our video series which we are doing in order to continue our peer-to-peer education program. And she was also a Girl Scout!"
Additionally, Stahl is an SSSAP educator, which means that she follows each skit performed by the actors with a summary of how the scams are carried out and how to avoid becoming a victim of them.
Geneva, a very modest young lady, opted to have this article focus on educating the public rather than taking up space detailing her personal efforts and activities, and Stahl was very gracious and forthcoming in providing helpful information.
"One of the last investigations I worked on during my FTC career involved a tech support scam company, Universal Network Solutions (UNS)," she said. "Based in Denver, with a call center in India, UNS tricked consumers into believing their computers were infected with viruses and malware, and then charged them hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs. The victims I interviewed received pop-up 'security alerts' on their computers warning that their computers had been infected with viruses, and were urged to call a toll-free number for assistance."
"When the consumers, a majority of whom were seniors, called they were connected with telemarketers who claimed to be affiliated with Microsoft." Stahl continued. "The scammers gained remote access to the victims' computers by saying that they needed to diagnose the problem, and then after a series of phony 'diagnostic tests' were told their computers were compromised and needed to be repaired by the company's technicians. After paying hundreds of dollars for unnecessary 'repairs' and service plans, some consumers complained to the FTC when they discovered that UNS had no affiliation with Microsoft and that they had been scammed. The FTC filed a complaint in Federal Court, which in 2017 resulted in a permanent injunction and a $547,087 judgment."
During her lengthy career with the agency, Stahl worked on numerous other cases involving companies that primarily preyed on seniors, such as "false advertising investigations of companies touting 'miracle' cures and other bogus products and treatments for ailments such as cancer, AIDs, and other serious diseases; investment scams that targeted the life savings of consumers for phony investments in rare coins and stamps, oil and gas drilling ventures, and 'rare art' that turned out to be cheap copies; and charity scams that enticed well-meaning consumers to donate to organizations that used the funds for personal gain rather than to help the intended beneficiaries."
She noted that "scammers are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to peddle bogus treatments and cures, commit identity theft through various forms of stimulus payment related fraud, file false Medicare claims for unprescribed test kits and other items, and sell phony investments in purported developers of vaccines, test kits, etc. Many identity-theft scammers posing as IRS representatives used the stimulus payment lure to extract Social Security numbers from victims."
Stahl provided the FTC's warning about avoiding coronavirus stimulus payment scams: "Scammers are using these stimulus payments to try to rip people off. They might try to get you to pay a fee to get your stimulus payment. Or they might try to convince you to give them your Social Security number, bank account, or government benefits debit card account number."
She included four tips for avoiding a coronavirus stimulus payment scam:
1. Only use irs.gov/coronavirus to submit information to the IRS – and never in response to a call, text, or email.
2. The IRS won't contact you by phone, email, text message, or social media with information about your stimulus payment, or to ask you for your Social Security number, bank account, or government benefits debit card account number. Anyone who does is a scammer phishing for your information.
3. You don't have to pay to get your stimulus money.
4. The IRS won't tell you to deposit your stimulus check then send them money back because they paid you more than they owed you. That's a fake check scam.
I fully expect that even on the final day of Earth's existence, scam artists will still be calling, emailing, texting, or communicating via the methodology then in use in order to separate folks from their assets. Crooks and cockroaches always seem to survive and often thrive (at least the crooks do) during times of disaster and uncertainty. And the scary thing is that when stress levels are high – and navigating through a pandemic is no picnic – the scams seem to proliferate.
We can therefore be exceedingly grateful to engaged citizens such as Geneva Eisel for her desire to educate seniors via SSSAP, and to Adrienne Omansky and Ann Stahl for their invaluable roles in having Geneva's concept actualized via the YouTube video called "Preventing Senior Fraud During the COVID-19 Pandemic." To view it, go to YouTube or to SSSAP's Facebook page, a treasure trove of helpful videos and information including links to articles by member Dr. Sherry McCoy, PhD. For more information regarding SSSAP, contact Adrienne Omansky at SSSAP4U@gmail.com.
In these times that are so risky not only to your physical but also to your financial well-being, please stay safe and remember, as SSSAP always emphasizes to its audiences, "You may be a target, but you don't have to be a victim!"