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Kentucky sees explosion of scams during COVID-19 pandemic


When LaDonna Koebel, head of the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office of Senior Protection and Mediation, started her job at the end of 2019, her office had received 622 scam reports, equating to $1.6 million in lost income.

But in the pandemic years that followed, Koebel’s office has seen an “explosion of scams hitting people.”

“What we saw was a significant uptick,” Koebel told the Herald-Leader Wednesday.

In 2020, the number of scam reports to the state more than doubled, growing to 1,700, with more than $5 million in losses. Fraud boomed again in 2021, when there were 7,000 scam reports made to Koebel’s office, reporting that duped Kentuckians lost almost $13 million that year.

And so far – as of this August – the amount of dollars Kentucky residents have lost to scams this year is on track to double, with more than $26 million in losses, Koebel said.

“And that’s just what’s reported to our office,” she added, estimating the number could in reality be much higher.

The increase is partly mirrored by a national trend, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2021 Elder Fraud Report noting a 62% increase from 2020, costing Americans older than 50 nearly $3 billion last year, according to USA Today.

An easy target for scammers

Older adults are generally at a greater risk for loneliness and social isolation because they’re more likely to live alone, experience the loss of family or friends, chronic illnesses and hearing loss, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

Research has shown the social isolation many seniors experience can make them vulnerable to related health issues – cognitive decline, depression and heart disease, for example. But they’re also more vulnerable to financial fallout wrought by scams, too, Koebel said.

“Very often seniors are the ones who lose the most,” she said, adding they tend to lose larger sums at a time than younger targets because they have accumulated wealth, like home equity or retirement savings.

Seniors are also less likely to report fraud than their younger counterparts, Koebel said, in part because of confusion about how to report it and the shame they feel around being a victim.

“They’re embarrassed or they’re afraid of losing their independence,” Koebel said, adding that only 1 in 44 seniors will ever report being a victim of a scam.

Figures from the Federal Trade Commission bear this out. According to the FTC, while 44% of younger people aged 20 to 29 reported losing money to fraud, only 20% of older people ages 70 to 79 did the same.

Moreover, Koebel speculates the coronavirus pandemic created a “perfect storm” for scammers to exploit.

“People were isolated during the pandemic,” Koebel said.

“They were meeting people and having friendships more online than they ever were before … So we saw this huge explosion,” she added.

Romance cons are among top earners for scammers

Romance scams – in which the scammer gradually befriends and tricks the victim into believing the online, romantic relationship they share is genuine – are consistently among the most lucrative scams, Koebel said.

“Except last year, romance scams were the No. 1 for dollar loss,” she added.

Koebel estimated it’s not uncommon for victims of romance scams to report losses of anywhere from $20,000 to upwards of $100,000. This is because perpetrators in these cases go for the long con.

“The scammers will usually keep it going as long as they can until the person is completely out of money,” Koebel said, adding that could mean the victim pulling money out of their retirement savings or borrowing against their homes.

When it all comes crashing down, victims are left to contend with more than just financial ruin.

“They’re dealing with the emotional toll,” Koebel said. “They are devastated in different ways than just financially.”

Fighting fraud: An uphill battle for watch dogs

Koebel believes the boom in scams in Kentucky will continue to rise in the coming years, in large part because of the growing variety and sophistication of scam techniques.

“Scams don’t just occur through emails anymore,” Koebel said.

Her office coordinates a range of outreach efforts, including educational workshops and webinars with seniors, but she admits “it’s hard to get ahead of the curve.”

“Anyone can fall for them,” Koebel said. “People don’t need to feel foolish in reporting scams.”

She reminds people to be skeptical of payment requests by phone or those asking them to purchase gift cards or send money.

If you have been a victim of a scam, time is of the essence. The quicker you report it, the greater the chance of minimizing your losses, which Koebel’s office can assist with.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of a scam, you can report it to the attorney general’s office at ag.ky.gov/scams.

Tips to avoid getting scammed

The FTC recommends the following tips for avoiding falling prey to a scam:

  • Block unwanted calls and texts.
  • Don’t give your personal or financial information in response to an unexpected request. Legitimate organizations won’t call, email or text you to ask for your personal information.
  • If you get an email or text message from a company you do business with and you think it’s real, it’s still best not to click on any links. Contact them using a website you know is trustworthy. Don’t call a number they gave you or the number from your caller ID.
  • Don’t do anything in a hurry. Legitimate businesses will give you time to make a decision. Anyone who pressures you to pay or give them your personal information is a scammer.
  • Notice how scammers tell you to pay. Never pay someone who insists you pay with a gift card or by using a money transfer service, and never deposit a check and send money back to someone.
  • Stop and talk to someone you trust. Tell someone — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — what happened. Talking it through can help you realize it’s a scam.

Do you have a question about scams in Kentucky for our service journalism team? We’d like to hear from you. Fill out our Know Your Kentucky form or email ask@herald-leader.com.

Aaron Mudd is a service journalism reporter with the Lexington Herald-Leader based in Lexington, Kentucky. He previously worked for the Bowling Green Daily News covering K-12 and higher education. Aaron has roots in Kentucky’s Fayette, Marion and Warren counties.
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