Pamela McCarroll doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring phone calls from unknown numbers.
The 30-year old is undergoing treatment for long-term colon cancer in Fairfax County, Va., and never knows whether it could be a doctor, a hospital with test results, or someone trying to schedule an appointment.
Unfortunately, that means she’s fielding up to 20 spam phone calls every day on her mobile phone, adding to her already sky-high levels of stress. Since her diagnosis in August 2019, the number of scam attempts has shot up while the topics have gotten strangely specific, including Medicare or senior benefits.
“I’ve gotten some calls about funeral insurance. That kind of bums me out,” McCarroll says. “I’ve got cancer, but you don’t have to rub it in.”
We’re living in an era of constant scams. The technology and techniques behind them have improved, while attempts to crack down have largely stalled. For the millions of people in the United States dealing with scam attempts like McCarroll, there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful relief in sight.
We mostly think about scam calls and texts in terms of their financial costs to the people who fall for them. Consumers reported $5.8 billion in fraud to the Federal Trade Commission last year, a 70 percent increase from 2020. Falling for or engaging with one scam can lead to an increase in attempts. According to RoboKiller, an app for screening robocalls on phones, an average smartphone owner in the United States will get an estimated 42 spam texts and 28 spam calls a month. Once a number or email address spreads into more spammer databases, it can be bought and sold by the companies involved in the booming scam industry.
Someone could come across any or all of these scams in a week: A text message from UPS with a link promising a delivery. A prerecorded phone call about a car warranty or bank issue. Emails that appear to be from Amazon or Apple customer service asking you to log in to your account. Shady replies on Facebook Marketplace for a chair you listed. Maybe a wrong-number message on WhatsApp from a chatty stranger.
Beyond the financial repercussions, there’s a steep emotional cost for people who don’t lose a dollar, mental health experts say. Constant scam attempts can increase stress levels and strain relationships. Their negative impact on mental health is even worse when the scammers target people based on perceived weaknesses, like advanced age, loneliness or, in McCarroll’s case, an ongoing illness. That anxiety can spread to their worried family members, they say.
Irene Kenyon’s family was in a good position to avoid scams. She’s the director of risk intelligence at risk assessment company FiveBy, and her father has two engineering master’s degrees. But in 2017, she got a panicked call from her mother. Her father had gone out and bought $6,000 in gift cards at Target for a phone scammer who claimed to be their grandson. The man on the phone said he was in jail and needed to be bailed out. By the time Kenyon reached her dad, it was too late. He’d read the gift card numbers out over the phone.
“What these people do is play on people’s emotions, they play on the fact that grandparents love their grandkids more than you can imagine, and all their logic will fly out the window,” Kenyon says. They reported the case to the police, and a special program in their state was able to reimburse them for part of the lost money.
At the time, her parents were embarrassed and she was angry, but now they talk every day and go over anything suspicious. She has taught them to never answer any of the unknown calls they get a day and to look closely at emails. She says they’re still tense about falling for something, and she worries about them day and night.
Many of these scams are easier to spot or screen with a little training, like looking for a misspelled email address or ignoring an unknown phone number on caller ID. Others scams are incredibly believable thanks to technology like spoofing, which lets the attacker fake a call from the number of someone you know, maybe even yourself.
A proud and protective mom of two adult daughters, Renee makes sure they both call her once a day to check in. When it looked like her oldest was calling at 11 p.m. on a recent weeknight, Renee and her husband were confused but answered right away. They were met with the gravelly voice of an unknown man on the other end.
“He was very agitated. He was very angry, very threatening,” says Renee, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used for fear of being targeted again. “The first thing he said was, ‘I’m going to kill her. I’m going to get her. I don’t want to have to hurt her. I’ve been to jail before, and I don’t want to go back.’ ”
The scammer said he was holding Renee’s daughter hostage and wanted money to let her go, asking repeatedly for her Cash App information — an app Renee didn’t recognize. He threatened to slit her daughter’s throat. Renee believed him completely but managed to stay calm and continue talking to him, slowly collecting more hints that the situation wasn’t what it seemed. They sent police to their daughter’s home, where they found her safe and confused. The man was a scammer who had faked her number. When it was over, Renee’s calm broke and she began crying.
“I feel grateful, but I feel like they’ve invaded my space and my peace and that was trauma,” Renee says.
Those feelings are common, says Matthew Mimiaga, a professor at UCLA.
“Scam victims often suffer from a decrease in life satisfaction and are likely to have higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness,” Mimiaga says.
Their lingering anxiety has real, physical side effects including feeling restless, wound-up or on edge, Mimiaga says. It could lead to people being easily fatigued, having difficulty concentrating, or even having headaches and other unexplained pains.
Anyone can be a target for phone and email scams, but the fallout can be worse for people who are older, says Iris Waichler, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Role Reversal, How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.”
“They’re extremely vulnerable and lonely. The reason they’re targets is when someone reaches out, they’re sometimes just grateful to talk to somebody,” Waichler says.
Older people may already be worried about losing independence or appearing to have diminished mental capacity, and are more likely to keep an experience with scammers to themselves out of shame. The adult could be left with lower self esteem and higher self doubt, Waichler says.
There have been some changes to try to help people avoid scams, at least over texts and phone calls. In 2019, large carriers agreed to use technology known as STIR/SHAKEN to authenticate who is calling to reduce robocalls and spoofed numbers. It’s being adopted by smaller cellphone carriers this year. The FTC has also proposed a rule to address robotexts, but it’s still pending. Phone makers are trying to combat the issue on their side with features that label some calls as possible spam, while companies like RoboKiller are making their own apps to screen and block.
Scammers, however, are always looking for new ways to adapt — and new targets to go after.
“As long as there’s billions of dollars on the other end of it, it’s not going to stop,” says Chester Wisniewski, a principal research scientist at security company Sophos.
For now, awareness and a few tools can lower the stress but not make it go away.
Pamela McCarroll’s husband, voice actor Michael McCarroll, has a blocking app from his carrier, but he made sure it was off when his wife was in the hospital for a week this month. Every time he saw a call from an unknown number, his stomach dropped and he thought, “Oh God.” He was thankful it was just spam, every time.
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