How good are you at spotting an imposter?

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 77 percent of Washington consumers failed an “Imposter IQ” quiz.

 â€œWith 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. If you think you’ll never be taken, you’ll likely leave your guard down and not take the steps needed to protect yourself.”

To help Washingtonians avoid imposter scams, AARP has joined with the state 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 campaign will help consumers spot imposters before they fall victim and help them take preemptive steps to protect against fraud.”

The new AARP report, titled “Are you real?”, included a 10-question 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. Some results:

  • Nearly half (44 percent) of Washington consumers don’t know that technology companies don’t 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. Reputable companies like Microsoft don’t contact individual consumers about viruses on their computers, but while the tactics vary, the goal is the same: To gain access to your computer and ultimately your money and personal information.

“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.

“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 (71 percent) didn’t 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 (72 percent) didn’t know that when surfing the Internet, a locked-box icon doesn’t 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’s 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 Unmasking the Imposter statewide 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.”

AARP recently interviewed Jayesh Dubey, a 19-year-old native of Mumbai, India, who worked in one of the largest IRS scam boiler rooms in the world. Jayesh was out of work when he heard about an opportunity at a call center answering calls from America. The job offered a starting salary of 16,000 rupees a month (about $250), plus commissions. Jayesh said it was about six times more than anyone else was offering.

“It was a whole lot of money,” he said.  “In a month I could buy a motorbike. I was really interested. Anybody in Mumbai would be interested to work there.”

Jayesh soon learned the job involved answering frantic return calls from U.S. consumers after they had received stern voice mail messages from fictitious IRS agents telling them they owed back taxes. The goal was to get the victim to pay the phony tax bills by purchasing gift cards and providing the numbers to Jayesh, who called himself “Officer Adam Smith.” He would even stay on the line as the victim drove to the store to buy the cards.

And if the victim refused or asked too many questions, Jayesh had a threat ready. He would say, “As I told you, your case file has already been submitted to the courthouse procedure. Only I can help you now. And if you don’t believe me, then I’ll just hang up the call, and in 45 minutes a local sheriff will be at your doorstep.”

According to Jayesh, the owner of the boiler room would send out about 50,000 voice mails each day with messages claiming to come from IRS agents.

“Out of those 50,000 voicemails, we’d get around 10,000 to 15,000 callbacks, and I’d personally take 150 to 200 calls a day,” said Jayesh.

Jayesh quit working in the boiler room shortly before it was busted by Indian authorities in July 2016, when they rounded up 700 people for questioning. Weeks later, the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments of 61 individuals and entities for involvement in a transnational criminal organization that victimized tens of thousands of people in the U.S. through fraudulent schemes resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars lost.

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

  • IRS imposter scam.  The IRS will not contact you by phone about paying back taxes without first sending you a written notice.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 e-mail or instant-messaging to communicate, or asks for money.
  • 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


Jason Erskine, who wrote this article,

AARP’s state director, Doug Shadel (left) presents Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson with the AARP Fraud Fighter of the Year Award. Ferguson has joined AARP and others in an effort to protect consumers from scammers.

is the communications director for AARP Washington.