By Curt Peterson
Scams targeting seniors is big business, according to AARP Fraud Watch Network volunteer Bill April.
“An identity is stolen every two seconds,” April told an audience at the Thompson Senior Center last Thursday July 21. “Each year 21 million people lose $19 billion through scams or fraud.”
Several in the audience reported they have received scam contacts. Many scams are performed via “robo-calls” — random phone numbers are automatically called until someone answers. Then a recorded voice explains a situation meant to inspire a senior to “press a button to speak to a representative,” a person probably located in another country where the call can’t be traced.
Lisa Jensen, executive director of the Vermont Consumer Assistance Program, a partnership including the University of Vermont and the attorney general’s office, says perpetrators target younger people too, but, as a group, seniors lose more.
Seniors probably have savings and good credit, assume people are trustworthy, want to treat everyone civilly, are less likely to report being cheated, make poor witnesses and tend to go along with anything related to mental or physical health, April explained.
Imposters can present themselves as computer technicians, relatives, investment advisors, lottery agents, debt collectors, magazine salespeople, Medicare or Social Security representatives or prospective romantic partners, all “in urgent need.” If in doubt, tell the caller you will call right back and try to verify the person, department or agency they say they are.
Sometimes there is a request for money, often in the form of “gift cards,” but, April said, most scammers’ ultimate goal is the victim’s debit or credit card information, checking account bank and numbers, Social Security or Medicare account number to gain direct or indirect access to their resources.
It’s very difficult to know a ringing phone has a scammer at the other end, as they use fake caller IDs falsely showing someone known to the recipient.
Questions to help seniors realize someone is trying to cheat them include: Is there scarcity – an offer to sell something very rare? Does the caller indicate there is a sense of urgency pressuring a decision? Is there a promise of surprise money, such as lottery winnings, that sounds unlikely? Do you have doubts about the credentials of the caller? As the conversation drags on, does the caller engage in fear or intimidation?
If a senior has any doubt whatsoever about the validity of the call, there are basic rules to follow.
“Don’t make any decisions in a heightened emotional state,” April said. “Ask pertinent questions. Take time to research the product or service or urgency.”
He also recommends having a “refusal script” ready, that makes it clear the answer is “no”. After all, he said, the scammer is using a script, why shouldn’t you?
If a senior is victimized by a scammer, Jensen said, it’s very important they report it to the proper authorities.
“There’s little chance of getting your money back, because it’s on its way out of the country,” she said. “But if you report the loss within 24 hours there’s a chance to stop the transfer of your funds in time.”
In the case of identity theft, someone may be depleting your bank account or running up debt in your name without your knowledge. If this happens, you may find out too late that your money is gone, you have a lot of unknown debt and/or your credit is ruined.
“You can monitor this by getting a copy of your credit report, which is available to you, without charge, once a year,” Jensen said.
Each of the three major credit reporting companies has to provide this, so you can ask for one each quarter through the year. Another anti-ID theft action is asking your bank to refuse checks on your account over, for example, $1,000. Then go over your bank statement carefully and often to watch for smaller checks that are unaccounted for.
To report identity theft: identitytheft.gov, or 877-438-4338
To report a scam: ftc.gov/complaint or 877-38-4357
To obtain a credit report: 877-322-8228