New Survey Shows Consumers are Overconfident of Their Ability to Spot Imposter Scammers

Computer hacker stealing data from a laptop concept for network security, identity theft and computer crime

You get a call from someone who says they’re from the IRS, and you owe back taxes. But do you? A pop-up on your computer warns your machine is infected and you need immediate technical support. Should you be worried? You get a call—”Grandma, I need money for bail.” But is it really your grandchild?

“Imposter fraud” occurs when a scammer poses as someone they’re not—like the IRS, a computer support technician, or a family member—in order to steal your money. These types of scams have reached epidemic proportions across the country. According to the Federal Trade Commission, reports of Imposter Scams have grown by nearly 500 percent in the last four years, totaling more than 400,000 reports nationwide in 2016.

Washington is no exception. According to a new state survey from AARP, the majority of all Washington consumers (79 percent) report being targeted in the last year by at least one of the seven most common imposter scams. But while most consumers (85 percent) feel they could spot and avoid a fraudulent pitch, AARP’s survey revealed that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of Washington consumers failed an “Imposter IQ” quiz.

“With a dramatic rise in reports of imposter fraud, we’re not surprised to see how many residents have been approached with some type of pitch,” said AARP State Director Doug Shadel. “However, we were alarmed to learn how overconfident Washington consumers are in the face of increasingly sophisticated scammers. The illusion of invulnerability can put people in real danger,” said Shadel. “If you think you’ll never be taken, you’ll likely leave your guard down and not take the steps needed to protect yourself.”

AARP State Director Doug Shadel (left) presents Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (right) with the AARP Fraud Fighter of the Year Award. AG Ferguson has joined AARP and others in an effort to protect consumers from imposters scammers

To help Washingtonians avoid imposter scams, AARP has joined with the Attorney General’s Office, Microsoft, the Federal Trade Commission, and BECU to launch the “Unmasking the Imposters” statewide campaign.

“When it comes to scams, awareness and prevention are the best protections for consumers,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “Advances in technology make it easier for scammers to pretend to be someone they’re not. The ‘Unmasking the Imposters’ campaign will help consumers spot imposters before they fall victim and help them take preemptive steps to protect against fraud.”

The new AARP report, “Are You Real?”, included a 10-question “Imposter IQ” quiz about some of the latest tactics used in various imposter scams. The survey included questions about the IRS imposter scam, phony foreign lotteries, the tech support scam and phishing attempts, along with other ways scammers try to gain your trust or access your information.

Nearly half of Washington consumers do not know that technology companies do not contact consumers about viruses on their computers.

There are many variations of tech support scams. Some rely on massive spam campaigns that promise a faster, more secure computer and draw readers to a URL; others use pop-up ads that falsely claim the user’s machine is infected with malware. A common tactic involves unsolicited telephone calls where callers pose as computer support technicians. While the tactics vary, the goal is the same: to gain access to your computer and ultimately your money and personal information. Reputable companies like Microsoft do not contact individual consumers about viruses on their computers. “Consumers should be skeptical of any person who seeks remote access to their device,” said Courtney Gregoire, Assistant General Counsel with the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit. “During a remote access session, fraudsters can obtain personal and financial information, alter device settings, and leave behind unwanted or malicious software,” she said. “You wouldn’t give a spare key to your home to a stranger and you should protect access to your computer or device the same way.”

About three-quarters of Washington consumers did not know that it is illegal to play a foreign lottery when you’re in the U.S.

“When lottery scammers promise that the potential victim has won or will win a lottery in a foreign country, they are telling not one but two lies,” said Federal Trade Commission Regional Director Chuck Harwood. “They are lying about winning and they are lying when they claim a U.S. citizen can legally buy a foreign lottery ticket while in the U.S.”

About three-quarters of Washington consumers did not know that when surfing the internet, a locked box icon does not necessarily mean it is safe to interact with the site.

In the past, cyber safety professionals advised consumers to always check for a locked box. “While it is important to check for a lockbox when you are transmitting secure information, it does not guarantee that the website is safe, only that the transmission of information from you to the website is secure,” said Kyle Welsh, BECU Vice President of Information Security. “As scammers become savvier, they can easily add a locked box icon to their fraudulent site, giving the consumer a false sense of security. If you click (or double-click) on it you will see details of the site’s security.”

In addition to sharing tips on how to avoid imposter scams, the campaign is allowing the public to hear directly from the scammers themselves via taped interviews. “Con artists are becoming more sophisticated in their scamming techniques,” said Shadel. “And just when you think you’ve heard it all, they come up with a new twist or scheme. We’re hoping to keep consumers one step ahead by giving them a unique new perspective heard directly from former and current con artists.”

To avoid imposters, consider these tips on avoiding some common imposter scams:

  1. IRS Imposter Scam—The IRS will not contact you by phone about paying back taxes without first sending you a written notice.
  2. Tech Support Scam—Technology companies will not contact you to warn about viruses on your machine. Don’t give out your financial information, and don’t give anyone access to your computer.
  3. Family Emergency Scam—The goal of this scam is to play on your fears and get you to act fast. Slow down and check with others to make sure you’re really hearing from a loved one.
  4. Romance Scam—Be extra careful when dealing with anyone you’ve met online. Romance scams often start with fake profiles on online dating sites. Be wary of anyone who professes love too quickly, wants to leave the dating site immediately and use personal email or instant messaging to communicate, or anyone who asks for money.
  5. Foreign Lottery Fraud—You can’t win a lottery you never entered. Plus, it’s illegal for a U.S. citizen to participate in a foreign lottery when they are in the U.S.

For more consumer protection tips and to sign up for fraud alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network, visit

Contributor Jason Erskine directs communications at AARP Washington.

Originally appeared in AgeWise King County (August 2017)