Scamming (and Spamming) the Geezer

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 2:42 PM EDT

An article in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader this week reported on the latest scam directed against older Americans–-this one with a recession-era twist. According to the paper:

State officials are warning senior citizens and those who collect government pensions to be wary of phone calls asking for personal information in order to get one-time stimulus money.

Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those who collect Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans Affairs and Railroad Retirement Board will receive a one-time payment of $250 added to their retirement checks. The money — set to be distributed by late May — will be automatically added to a pensioner’s account. No additional information will be needed to get the one-time money.

AARP’s “Scam Alert” was already issuing warnings a month ago about stimulus-related cons against old folks, which it dubbed “stimu-lies.” These include “websites, e-mails and online advertisements promising an inside track to get your piece of that $787 billion pie—via government grants”:

Some touted smiling people holding five-figure U.S. Treasury checks, with compelling testimonials of financial struggles … that ended after “I got my stimulus check in the mail in less than seven days.” Others had prominent photos of President Obama to suggest their legitimacy. Less obvious is their real purpose: to steal your money or grab personal information to conduct identity theft.

How come so many of these grifter schemes seem to target old folks? The FBI devotes a whole section of its web site to the subject, titled ”Fraud Target: Senior Citizens.” It offers a number of explanations, including the following:

Individuals who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Two very important and positive personality traits, except when it comes to dealing with a con-man. The con-man will exploit these traits knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the phone.

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I don’t know about this one. I may be part of the Silent Generation, but I’ve actually gotten less polite as I’ve gotten older–-a symptom of simply living too long to put up with a lot of B.S. Here’s another theory offered by the FBI:

Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or do not know they have been scammed. In some cases, an elderly victim may not report the crime because he or she is concerned that relatives may come to the conclusion that the victim no longer has the mental capacity to take care of his or her own financial affairs.

So if gramps gets scammed, it must be time for him to move to an old folks’ home and fork over his power of attorney? But young people fall for cons every day. What’s their excuse? Frankly, it seems to me that in this case it’s the family members who are the real grifters, trying to get control of pop-pop’s bank account.

In general, I don’t think I’m any more likely to be conned in my seventies than I was in my fifties or my thirties. Nevertheless, I have to confess that recently I nearly fell for one type of scam, which I’ll call the Nice Blog Comments Scam.

One day, soon after I started my Unsilent Generation blog, I checked the comments section on my dashboard and found that, lo and behold, I had 52 comments! Unfortunately, 49 of them were flagged as spam. When I took a look at these spam comments, however, I had another brief moment of optimism: Amidst all the gibberish and Viagra ads, there were a bunch of people telling me how much they liked my blog.

But then I took a closer look, and noticed that most of these seemed to be worded rather strangely. For example:

Hello, Thank you! I would now go on this blog every day! Have a nice day
Dirnov

Hello, Thanks for article. Everytime like to read you. Thank you
Eremeeff

Greatings, Thanks for article. AnnaHop

James Ridgeway placed an observative post today. Here’s a quick excerpt…

I want to make it clear that I am not making fun of non-native speakers with imperfect English. I have been studying French on and off for about 60 of my 72 years, and still have difficulty asking directions to the toilet in Paris, so I admire anyone who manages to communicate at all in a language other than their first. But it did seem odd to me that almost all of the people who liked my blog sounded like the authors of Nigerian scams.

So were these comments for real or not? I decided to consult the WordPress forums, where bloggers answer one another’s questions. Sure enough, one user wrote:

Short messages such as generic flattery, “thanks”, “nice post/blog”, [etc.] are almost always spam. They might seem gratifying, but bear in mind that the same guy (or script) just posted exactly the same thing on 5,000 other blogs.

Another user explained why people do stuff like this:

The “point” of such spam is to spray the internet with links to the spammer’s website. I think it’s called linkspam. The idea is that Google will be impressed by all those links and rank the spammer’s site highly. I suspect that such tricks are rarely successful in fooling Google.

Maybe they don't fool Google, but they almost fooled me. I’m sure I’ll feel better, though, once I get that big check from Lagos.

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