If it sounds too good to be true …

Like many seniors whose expenses often include costly medications, Homer resident Kay Jones was on the lookout for cheaper alternatives when she saw an ad that promised significant savings.

Those savings turned out to be a scam that fortunately did not cost her too dearly, but did result in the loss of everything on her computer. She wants to warn others so they might avoid unscrupulous cyber thieves.

A few months ago, Jones said, she saw an ad in AARP Magazine that led her to a Canadian phone number. She said she can’t point to the ad as she no longer has the issue and can’t remember the 800 number she called. The phone call, however, ultimately took her to a person in Mumbai, India, who promised to supply her with Cymbalta, a treatment for fibromyalgia, at $100 for 90 capsules, significantly cheaper than the $400 to $700 she’d been paying. She made the $100 purchase using her First National Bank of Alaska debit card.

“The next day I got a phone call from them saying they were ‘being shut down,’ and that they wanted to refund everyone’s money, she said. 

Things got strange after that.

The person on the phone said that in order to “straighten everything out,” Jones should put $500 on her account, after which they’d “send me $250,” that is, they’d put that much on her card. She told them no one could put money on her debit card but her.

Next, the man suggested sending her the money via Western Union. 

Though she said she does not know how, he led her to what appeared to be a Western Union account application that appeared on her computer screen, which she began filling out online. As it was late, she asked if she could complete the task in the morning.

“He told me he would be glad to fill it all in for me, and then he asked if I could see where he was typing in my email,” she said. “He had control of my computer. I don’t know how.” 

Jones said he appeared to create a password on the Western Union application, though it appeared only as dots or bullets on her screen. She said she never provided her own computer password.

Shortly, she said, she got what appeared to be a Western Union “thank you” for establishing an account. It even included an account number. She said she has not yet contacted Western Union to see if she actually has an account. The person on the phone promised to call her the next day.

“I hung up and shut down my computer,” she said. “The next day I found out I was completely locked out of everything. I couldn’t access anything.” 

Ultimately, her son had to reinstall her operating system. “I’d lost everything,” she said.

As scams go, Jones feels she’s gotten off easy, given she’s only out $100 and computer data. First National has placed a “fraud alert,” she said, on her old debit card and is issuing her a new one.

Jones said she knows of another family, which also includes senior citizens, that also was nearly ripped off for $600. However, their Visa card company put a stop to the transaction in time.

“I called the Better Business Bureau,” she said. “They said you must be careful who you talk to.”

Adam Harkness, of the BBB of Alaska, said shoppers looking for deals can be fooled by fraudulent online sites, sometimes purchasing dangerous counterfeit meds. The BBB gets calls every week.

“The same red flags are always obvious in hindsight,” he said, adding that people should be skeptical if:

1. The prices are too good to be true. If a medication usually costs $10 a pill and an online storefront is offering the “exact same” medication for 10 cents per pill, it should be an indicator that something is not right.

2. The company does not supply any contact information. Legitimate online pharmacies will always provide verifiable contact information — names, addresses and phone numbers; a solitary email address is not sufficient.

3. The website is written in poor English. Statistically, many of the scams that BBB encounters originate overseas and are loaded with recognizable spelling and grammar mistakes.

“The BBB always recommends thoroughly researching any pharmacy, offline or online, before placing orders,” Harkness said. 

As for how the scammer got access to Jones’ computer, he doesn’t know, but noted that the BBB posts stories about scams involving gaining access to people’s computers.

Responding by email to a Homer News inquiry, Michelle Alvarez, with AARP’s press office, said the organization’s advertising staff would like more information about Jones’ experience if she can find the ad she said she saw and the phone number. 

“To our knowledge, we never approved such an ad. Our ad policies team thoroughly vets all potential advertisers,” she said. AARP uses independent business resources to check advertisers for “solid background” and “a record of good customer services,” she said.

Jones told the Homer News the ad she recalls seeing was for general prescriptions, not one specific to Cymbalta. Jones said whether she gets her $100 back or AARP can track down a bad ad should it exist is less important than alerting other seniors to the possibility that they easily could be victims of scammers.

“I don’t want this to happen to someone else,” she said.

Hal Spence is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.

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