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Scammers offer tech support to exploit seniors, Senate committee hears

derekGavey | Flickr

While technology has changed, at least one thing has remained constant: Scammers are always looking for new ways to exploit those who are easily victimized.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging says, tech-support scams are “confidence scams, pure and simple.” In comments prepared for today’s hearing, McCaskill says “if there’s one thing many seniors are not confident about, it’s technology. So it makes perfect sense that these fraudsters would cling to a senior’s insecurity about technology to swoop in under the guise of assistance.”

McCaskill invited Lew Polivick, the deputy director of Legal Services of Southern Missouri, to testify on ways to protect seniors from computer tech support scams.

Polivick says many seniors get taken in by scammers who call and say they’re with a computer company and have discovered a problem on the senior’s computer. “They say, we’ve detected a virus on your computer and I'm with Microsoft, and I’m a security expert and I want to fix that for you. I need access to your computer to do it.” Once given remote access to a computer, Polivick says the scammers frequently ask for money to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, or worse.

Scammers can steal sensitive information such as credit card numbers and bank account information and can also plant programs know as malware on a victim’s computer and then cause more problems down road. In such cases Polivick says, it is not uncommon for a person to victimized several times over the course of many months, spending several hundred dollars each time to fix fake problems.

Polivick says the first thing seniors should know is that no legitimate company would make such a call out of the blue. “They can convince people to trust them if you give them a chance. So, the best advice is that if you’re really not positive of who your dealing with, don’t deal with them on these type of issues.”

Some scammers even use high-tech methods of playing the confidence game and can easily fool seniors who don’t know better. “They can have their own websites … you can look them up and it looks like they’re legitimate, but they’re not,” Polivick told St. Louis Public Radio.

Polivick says other versions of the scam involve selling victims computer warranty programs or selling software that is available for free online. Unfortunately, once victims lose money on such scams, it is all but impossible to get it back.

McCaskill says the problem of technology scams has grown to the point where the Federal Trade Commission has created a separate category for them. And she says fighting the problem is no easy task. “On the criminal side, you have anonymous actors who can work from just about anywhere with a computer and Internet access.”

Many of the scammers operate from foreign locations and tracking offenders quickly becomes a tangle of legal issues and competing jurisdictions. Officials investigating such scams run into similar problems when trying to track phone scams. That’s another problem the committee has looked at in recent months.

“A general lack of collaboration makes it much more likely for a criminal to succeed in defrauding victims and (it’s) much more likely that a victim will not recognize that he or she is being scammed,” McCaskill said.

She complimented the Legal Services of Southern Missouri, for bringing together local law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Missouri attorney general’s office, the Better Business Bureau and others to form the Consumer Fraud Task Force of Southern Missouri.

The group meets quarterly and shares information with each other and with the public in an effort to curb such scams.

The hearing is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. and will be streamed live on the committee's website.

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