Scam activity in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and the need for a meaningful, broad-based response has never been more urgent.

Much of the problem lurks below the surface, with frauds going unreported and consumers not adequately protected.

Yet by one estimate, identity theft and related crimes skyrocketed to $56 billion in 2020, more than triple the amount from the prior year. COVID-19 continues to stir fear and anxieties that scammers capitalize on.

News headlines about COVID testing, treatments and government benefits have prompted a wave of efforts to deceive consumers, such as false promises to move individuals to the front of the line – for a fee.

Increased stress and social isolation have made people more vulnerable to con artists. When anxiety rises, the ability to think rationally declines. Criminals thrive in such an environment.

The increased embrace of computers for remote work, retail purchases and social connections has created a vast new population to target for online fraud. Such scams jumped 25 percent in the first part of 2021, according to the TransUnion credit bureau.

A recent AARP survey found that 9 in 10 Americans (229 million people) encountered a fraud attempt in the past year and that 1 in 6 (33 million people) lost money as a result. A separate poll found that almost 60 million Americans lost money to phone scams last year.

A multigenerational issue

All generations face risk, including children, who may be targeted for identity theft. Younger adults report losing money to scams more frequently than their seniors. But we also know that when older adults are exploited, the impact can be especially severe.

The personal impact

Egregious as these numbers are, the personal price cannot be measured in dollars alone. Nearly 2 in 3 fraud victims report at least one serious health or emotional impact. And how can we put a price tag on the sense of shame and guilt, or the loss of personal dignity, that may go with being victimized?

Victims may not tell family members, fearing questions about their ability to manage their financial affairs. Even if they want to report the scam, they may not know where to turn. Sometimes, individuals don’t even realize they have experienced a scam.

Tackling Consumer Fraud Head On

Consumer education is an important part of the answer, and the AARP Fraud Watch Network is leading the way in this space.

AARP has cautioned the public about porch pirates who steal items outside your front door, online shopping scams, gift-card frauds and an array of COVID-related swindles, including fake offers to help people get funeral benefits from the government.

Consumer fraud is a complex and growing problem. We still do not know its full extent. The status quo leaves millions vulnerable as scammers continue to refine their techniques and become even more dangerous.

Thank you to Nancy LeaMond from AARP for this content.

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