Sunday, May 3, 2020
Recently a friend of mine, in her 90s, asked me if I had ever heard of a particular company, one well known for its direct mail campaigns. When she said that name, I recognized it as one that often focuses on magazine subscriptions with discounted prices, with a hefty dose of possible "prizes" on the side. I responded affirmatively and explained how I had tried to help a woman years ago who had become caught up in a cycle of purchases and "prizes" that left me with the firm opinion the real business of this company was preying upon people, tempting them with offers of "rewards" into spending more and more money on items of little to no value.
I thought that was the end of the matter.
Two weeks later, my friend asked again if I'd heard of that particular company. This time I responded, "why are you asking?" She explained she had filled out some kind of form or game card, to qualify for some kind of prize, and that she had bought a couple of items to have, in her words, a better chance to qualify for the prize. She explained the form was fun and a bit of a "good mental challenge" -- requiring her to match questions and answers from different columns and paste stickers into the correct slots. She mailed in the completed form. She was pleased when she received notification by mail that she had "won" a prize. She eagerly called what she thought was a "toll free number" to claim her prize (I'd be curious about what her phone bill eventually shows about that call).
When she made the call, a "nice woman" on the phone asked her to re-verify her identity and her award number, and her address and phone numbers, plus certain other personal details. The woman announced the good news, that my friend had actually won two prizes with her submission.
And then the true game began. The "nice woman" on the phone asked my friend for her credit card or banking information (my friend couldn't quite remember which) so that the company could make a "direct deposit" of her prize.
Fortunately, that is when my friend fully appreciated it was a scam. She hung up.
I worry, of course, that my friend's name and other information are now part of a new mailing list, that can be used again and again or sold by that company, as a possible "mark" for an even less principled predator.
We talked about why she had taken the chance. This woman has been a sophisticated business woman for most of her life, and no one would suggest to her that she has any sign of cognitive impairment, other than, perhaps, being a bit forgetful. But she had been living in isolation for weeks, unable to be with other members of her extended family in real time because of health issues in the family, and she wanted something "to do." She initially felt a bit of pride in being able to figure out what she thought was the trick to the game, resulting in her "win."
I wonder how often this scenario -- or a more modern computerized or cellphone variation -- is playing out during the pandemic.