Seniors learn how to recognize scams

Ten million U.S. senior citizens were the victim of a financial crime or scam with the victims losing in excess of $58 billion last year.

Emelina, a local grandmother who asked that the Tribune not use her last name — she is listed in the phone book and is afraid she’ll receive more scam calls — was nearly one of them.

Emelina answered her phone last week and heard a young woman crying and pleading for help. The girl said she was Emelina’s granddaughter Erin and was in trouble. She begged Emelina not to tell anyone that she was in jail and needed Emelina to send money.

By now Emelina is shaking and crying, thinking her granddaughter was not only in trouble but also hurt. She agreed to do whatever was needed.

The girl’s “lawyer” then took the phone and gave specific instructions on how to send two payments of $900 to cover a fine. Emelina enlisted the aid of her sister, Gert, and the two went to a Western Union to send the money. Gert, however, stopped and wouldn’t let Emelina out of the car.

“You aren’t going to do this,” she told Emelina. “We are going to the police station.”

They then went to the Meadville Police Department, where officials helped her discover Erin’s begs for help were a scam.

No money was sent. Her granddaughter was not harmed or in trouble.

Still shaken, Emelina tells her story to warn others of the scam. “I’m ashamed I fell for it,” she said, noting the scam artists target the most vulnerable.

She was one of those who attended a seminar about scams on Monday at the Crawford County Community Center.

“I’m glad I went,” Emelina said. “It was very educational.”

Jack Ogden of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General gave approximately 80 seniors in attendance advice and tips on how to prevent becoming a scam victim. Ogden, an education and outreach specialist, has been with the AG’s office since August. He previously was a prevention specialist for drug and alcohol abuse.

His boss, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, opened the program via a taped video. She noted Pennsylvania has the third largest senior citizen population in the country. She said seniors are often the most vulnerable to scams and are also humble and embarrassed, so they often don’t report a possible scam to police. Thus, the annual number of crimes could be much higher than what state officials report.

Ogden’s program featured the most prevalent type of crime committed against seniors and told of “red flags” that will alert seniors so they don’t become victims.

The video, which accompanied Ogden’s presentation, showed re-enactments of crimes committed against seniors, starting with charitable contributions.

A son was reviewing his mother’s checking account and noticed a lot of donations being made to a particular charity. His mother had been contacted multiple times — many more than once a month — asking her to make more contributions. “Persistence” of callers trying to get more money is one “red flag,” Ogden said.

“Don’t give personal information,” Ogden stressed. That includes date of birth, Social Security number, credit card numbers — particularly the three-digit security number — to anyone, particularly if you didn’t initiate the phone call.

A second scam that is popular, Ogden said, is estate planning. He said estate planning is a good idea, but it should be done with trusted professionals.

“Never let emotions get between you and your money,” he said. One example was that after attending a seminar, the person immediately made an appointment and went to the senior’s home. He then advised her after reviewing her financial information that he could get her a better rate of return if she would invest in his company. It, too, was a scam.

A third scam is home improvements, Ogden said. One woman noted a “nice young man” stopped at her home. He told her that her roof needed repaired and he could do it with leftover material from a nearby job. She gave him half of the payment, and he gave her a receipt on the back of his business card. He promised to return the next week, but she never saw him or her money again. She was the victim of a scam artist, Ogden said.

The AG’s office has a list of approved contractors for work in excess of $5,000. A call to a (888) 520-6680 can verify the validity of the company. In addition, Ogden said all contracts should be made in writing.

Another issue seniors need to be aware of is giving power of attorney rights to others, Ogden said. A woman told a hypothetical story of giving POA to her daughter. The daughter used it to withdraw money from the mother’s bank account — with her mother’s knowledge.

It was only after her son was reviewing his mother’s financial information that the theft was discovered. Ogden noted that half of these types of crimes are done by friends and family. He stressed the importance of knowing who can be trusted before giving that power of attorney.

Sweepstakes are another big scam area, Ogden reported. Many sweepstakes letters note, “You could be a winner.” One sweepstakes is an international lottery, which advises that the winner must send the “taxes” on the winnings before the money can be sent.

“Always confirm who you are dealing with,” Ogden said.

Ogden stressed the importance of ignoring any types of winnings which call for payments to be made up front, noting that should immediately raise the ”red flag.”

He advised that everyone be aware of their surroundings when revealing personal information to ensure others don’t hear it. Ogden also advised seniors to not carry their Social Security cards nor any credit cards that won’t be needed with them.

Concerning the three-digit security number on credit cards, “the three digit code is a golden ticket,” Ogden said. Without having the credit card in your hand, no charges can be made without that code. That is why it is so important not to reveal it, Ogden said.

His advice was simple and straight forward. He advised them to check their accounts on a regular basis to be aware of any irregularities. If any are found, they should immediately contact the bank or credit card companies. 

“Never let strangers in your home without proper ID,” was another suggestion by Ogden.

Ogden said PayPal is a great resource. The program is designed to allow people to pay through that program with confidence of the security of the information. He advised them to become involved in neighborhood watch groups, to stay active and be skeptical of anything that sounds too good to be true.

How to get help

Think you’ve been scammed or have any questions relating to a financial crime or scam? Call the elder abuse helpline at (866) 623-2137 or Older Adult Protective Services at (800) 490-8505.

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