With public anxiety already sky-high due to the coronavirus pandemic and the surreal scenario of trillions of dollars in payouts flowing from federal coffers, the current environment for U.S. consumers is somewhat like the “Super Bowl for Scammers,” says Brad Anderson, state director of AARP Iowa. 

Consumer fraud, particularly financial schemes targeting seniors, was already an issue of significant concern for both government agencies like the state’s Consumer Protection Division and nonprofit organizations such as AARP before the pandemic. Anderson took part recently in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the National Consumers League that also featured Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller along with other consumer advocacy experts. 

According to a survey conducted late last year by AARP Iowa, 66% of Iowans over the age of 50 said they were afraid of becoming a victim of a scam. Additionally, nearly 1 in 10 of those Iowans polled — 9% — said they had fallen for a financial scam in the past 12 months. And of those who had been scammed, 57% said they didn’t report it to law enforcement or consumer fraud agencies. 

Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about having been a victim of a scam is a real hurdle to combating fraud, Anderson said. “I think people need to know that the more they report it, the more proactive they are in reporting scams, the more that they can protect others from being scammed,” he said. 

Knowledge is an important defense against being scammed, Anderson said. In the AARP survey of Iowans, 14% of respondents either believed that the IRS would potentially contact them by phone about their federal tax return or an audit issue or weren’t sure whether it would do so. (The agency only contacts taxpayers by mail, never by phone, email or text, he said.) 

Over the past few months, price gouging was just the beginning of the wave of consumer scams that have flooded the Iowa attorney general’s Office of Consumer Protection since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Now, with more than 40 million Americans out of work, scammers are shifting their efforts toward “trying to take the last dollar” from already financially distressed households, Miller said. Scammers pretending to be a utility company threatening to shut off electrical service is one of the most common schemes. 

“Almost always that unsolicited call is going to be fraudulent — or for something you don’t want anyway even if it’s not a fraud,” he said. “So be very, very, very skeptical when it’s unsolicited. And when they rush you to judgment, [saying] you’ve got to do it right now, that’s an enormous warning signal to back off and not do it and, and think about it and perhaps talk to someone. Take some time to talk to your children or to your bank or someone you know that knows finances.” 

Miller and Anderson said that seniors and their families should be wary over the coming weeks and months for further scams, particularly as a potential second round of federal stimulus payments puts more checks or payment cards in the mail. 

Miller said no senior should fear losing their financial independence because of admitting to being fooled by a fraudster. 

“Nobody, nobody is smart enough and alert enough all the time not to be taken, and also the fraudsters are very sophisticated and extremely persistent in trying and trying, so people shouldn’t be embarrassed,” he said. 

“They should think they’re doing a service, that they’re a hero in speaking out, and that’s what we always always encourage. And also I think we have to be careful of not putting people in jeopardy of their financial independence if they do speak out. We need to be sensitive to that and reassuring on that. Human nature is such that it’s hard to admit a mistake.” 

The National Consumers League maintains a free website resource, fraud.org, in which individuals can sign up for monthly fraud alerts and report scams. AARP Iowa and the Iowa attorney general’s office also have online resources for avoiding and reporting scams.