With the downturn of the economy, most people are looking for ways to save a few dollars on the goods and services that they purchase. That makes everyone a prime target for the less scrupulous folks among us — also known as “scammers.” And I’m pretty sure that we all think that we are too clever to be taken in by their cons.
But it happens. The scammers are getting more clever all the time and are focusing more on those things in our life that mean the most to us — family, friends and financial security. They are counting on the shock factor and your emotions to help them break through the protective wall around you. And no matter how clever we may think we are, no one is immune and we are all at risk.
Several years ago I was working in the health care industry in another town when I witnessed first-hand the hold that some scammers can have on their victims and the resulting devastation. The gentleman I was working with had retired 21 years ago from his first career a laboratory researcher and recently had retired from his second career as a biochemist.
So you might think that a person with his background would be above a scammer’s ability to con him. But somehow they had managed to tap into his emotions and his love for his previous professions. By the time I met him, he had managed to “donate” over $200,000 (in two years) to numerous “charities,” believing he was doing some good for those less fortunate.
The end result? He lost his house and ended up moving into a nursing home — a broken man. It broke his spirit, his faith and his will to live. I cried at his funeral a year later. And because the culprits never were caught, you can be sure that they went on to their next victims without blinking an eye.
This can happen to anyone! Today’s scammers and con artists are much more savvy in their methods and their approaches. I could stand on my soapbox for years, but still be unable to protect everyone from having something like this happen to them or a loved one.
1) Predatory lending: Also known as loan fraud, predatory lending involves a wide array of abusive practices that mortgage brokers, appraisers and home contractors use to take advantage of unsuspecting seniors who are in the market to refinance their homes.
Using high-pressure sales pitches, confusing language and elaborate marketing programs, predatory lenders will target senior citizens who are in need of money to consolidate debts or meet an emergency expense, often offering them high-cost and high-fee loans. Some of the main areas of abuse are excessive fees, prepayment penalties, kickbacks to borrowers, unnecessary products, mandatory arbitration and steering.
2) Medicare discount card scams: There is a Medicare drug discount card that is available, but not everyone is eligible for it. Under the program, these private companies can advertise their cards by mail, television, radio and newspapers or other print media. But they are not allowed to call, send e-mails or come to your home to sign you up for their cards unless you asked them to.
Though this is a government-sponsored program, it is private companies, not the government, that offer the cards. Con artists often try to impress people by making their sales materials look like they come from an official government agency. Guard your personal information carefully. For more information, contact SHIBA at your local Senior Information and Assistance Office (Sequim/Port Angeles — 452-3221 or 800-801-0070).
3) Prizes and sweepstakes scams: Never pay to play — it’s illegal for a company to require you to buy something or pay a fee in order to win or claim a prize. Buying something doesn’t improve your chances of winning — no matter what they tell you. Don’t believe that you have to give the company money for taxes on your prize. Taxes will be deducted from your winnings or you will pay them directly to the government.
No legitimate sweepstakes company will ask you for your credit card or bank information. Be on guard for imposters. Some con artists use company names that are identical or very similar to well-known, legitimate sweepstakes operators. Tell them that you’ll get back to them and contact the real companies to ask if there is any connection. Be wary of offers to send you an “advance” on your “winnings.” You’ll just be stuck with a worthless fake check. Legitimate sweepstakes companies will give you written information regarding a contest. Be especially cautious about foreign sweepstakes companies.
4) Home repair, landscaping, handyman services: We all want the best deal and con artists know that.
Beware of the nice-looking young man who comes to your door saying that he just did a neighbor’s repairs and has extra materials left over, so he can give you a good deal on the same repair at your house. Betcha dollars to doughnuts the materials are shoddy, your neighbor didn’t have any repairs done, the nice young man doesn’t return to your house the next day to do the repairs as promised, you have to pay someone to remove the shoddy materials from your yard or driveway and your money has disappeared along with the “nice young man.”
And then there is the emotional, heartstring tug approach that con artists use to make you want to reach out and help — whether it be family or a cause.
1) The “grandparent scam” has gained momentum lately by scammers sinking to the depths of the pond scum by posing as phony grandkids who desperately need financial help. The scam usually works like this: You receive a phone call from someone who greets you with, “Hi Grandma.” “Hi.” “Do you know who this is?” “Jeremy?” “Yeah!” Without knowing it, you just made a mistake. Instead of saying, “No, I don’t know who this is,” you supplied the scammer with the name of a grandchild. He then proceeds to impersonate that grandchild.
Your “grandchild” claims he’s gotten into some kind of trouble — auto accidents, overdue rent, minor brush with the law — and needs money to fix the situation. “Can you please help? But don’t tell Mom.
She’d kill me if she found out!” Although it may seem obvious to us, this scam has fooled a lot of people — mostly because the scammers are good at what they do by choosing their targets carefully, tugging on the heartstrings and keeping other family members “out of the loop” until it’s too late.
If you are the recipient of one of these calls, DO NOT fill in any “blanks” for the scammer. For example: “Hi Grandma.” “Hi.” “Do you know who this is?” “No, I don’t. Who is this?” “It’s your granddaughter.” “Really? Which one?” The next sound you hear will most likely be a click followed by a dial tone. Congratulations! You have foiled the scammer!
2) The “Your son/daughter needs help now!” Here’s a story that was sent to me by a friend of mine that actually had happened to her elderly neighbor. The stranger who knocked on the older woman’s door wasn’t wearing a mask or carrying a gun. In fact, he looked perfectly respectable, even sympathetic.
He told her that her son was in trouble and needed $300 immediately. When the woman said she had no cash on hand, the man offered to take her to her bank to make a withdrawal. There was no time to lose, he urged. He drove her to the bank and waited outside while she withdrew the money, then drove her back home. When the woman’s son called later that day to check on her, she worriedly asked him if he was all right. “I’m fine,” he assured her. “Why are you asking?” Then she told him the story.
3) Charity scams: Most of us want to feel that we have done some good for others less fortunate or in need. And the scammers are banking on the fact that you won’t check on whether it is legitimate or not. For every legitimate charity, there is a copycat imposter. Check out every request before contributing. Police and firefighter charities are two of the charities most prone to unscrupulous imposters. Ask for written information. Beware of sound-alikes. Ask about the caller’s relation to the charity. Be especially cautious after natural or other disasters.
4) Identity theft: We hear about it all the time. A person is contacted by phone or e-mail and asked to “update” their account or that the “company” had an infiltration of the computer system and they need to verify your information by having you supply key information such as an account number, Social Security number, driver’s license number or PIN. DO NOT DO IT! Contact your account holder and tell them about the call or e-mail you received.
5) Saddest scam of all: When caregivers, family members or trusted friends prey on the trusting senior with stories of hardship, etc. Or offers of helping to clean the house/garage by moving things to “storage.”
Protect yourself. Remember: If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is; when it comes to a “now or never” opportunity, choose “never”; keep account numbers, codes and passwords private; shred bills, junk mail and receipts when discarding them; don’t be afraid to report your experiences; con artists lie; if you feel uncomfortable, tell someone.
The trusting nature of many older persons, combined with the fact that many own their homes and have accumulated savings and other assets, make them an attractive target for financial abuse, from family members, caregivers or strangers. Factors like loneliness and dementia can make them even more vulnerable.
The Met Life Mature Market Institute published a 2009 study on financial exploitation, in conjunction with the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances” reports that financial exploitation costs older American at least $2.6 billion dollars each year.
The Internet and reliable local resources can provide you with more information and details on these and other scams as well as ways you can protect yourself.
For more information and resource assistance, e-mail Pam Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 683-7047. Scott is community relations director for Discovery Memory Care in Sequim.
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