Seniors warned to beware of scams
Police Department has seen an increase in the number of scams affecting the elderly
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.
For many seniors living alone, phone or e-mail can be a welcome access point to friends, family and the outside world. But, as a recent spike in reported scams shows, those modes of communication can also be a way in for scam artists.
How to avoid scams: Police Department tips
While the following is not an all inclusive list, here are some warning signs of common scams:
1) A Western Union transaction is requested
2) You are asked to send money in order to win money
3) Someone contacts you claiming you have “won” money when you have not entered any contests
4) Someone calls you to make bail for a relative who is in custody in another country
5) You receive a check and are asked to deposit the check and send back a portion of the money via wire or into another person's bank account
6) Online transactions are conducted and the buyer or seller is out of state or out of the country
7)Any time you are contacted to be a “Secret Shopper”
8) You receive an email that someone has inherited a large sum of money and needs your help in acquiring it
9) Any time an offer seems to be too good to be true.
(adapted from the Petaluma Police Department scam alert sheet)
Lt. Tim Lyons said the Petaluma Police Department has seen an increase in the number of scams being reported over the last year, particularly in those affecting the elderly. He says it has become common to see one or two reports a month of someone falling victim to a scam. And often, a lot of money is at stake.
One senior recently came to the police department with complaints of a scam he'd fallen victim to, said Lyons. He'd gotten a phone call telling him he'd won a half million dollars in the Canadian lottery. The man, a stroke victim, sent via Western Union what the caller described as “Department of Homeland Security fees” and other fees to the tune of $80,000. However, Lyons said the man hasn't officially reported the scam because he is too embarrassed.
Many elderly scams go unreported for just this reason, said Jane Eckels, who is on the advisory council to the county's Area Agency on Aging.
“The scary part is, the (cases being reported) are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said, adding that many victims are too embarrassed to report the crime. “These are bright, professional people being taken advantage of who want to stay independent as long as possible.”
She added that a common concern among victims is that relatives might think the victim is no longer fit to take care of his financial affairs.
Scam artists targeting the elderly use three basic tools: The phone, e-mail and the doorbell, said Eckels. Each method can take advantage of seniors who may feel isolated and might be glad to hear the phone or the doorbell ring.
Phone scams seem to be the most common among the elderly: On Nov. 8, a woman informed Petaluma police that she'd wired more than $3,000 to the Dominican Republic after someone contacted her over the phone and said a “family member” was having a medical emergency.
In almost all cases, said Lyons, it is too late to stop the transfer of money. Cases are difficult to solve he said, as they often involve many jurisdictions and scammers often use fake identification.
In response to the spike, the Police Department recently created a warning flyer to distribute to senior centers and senior care facilities.
Among scams aimed at the elderly, a few stand out as particularly common, say those who work with the elderly. One is the Canadian lottery scam the senior Petaluma man fell victim to. Another is the family emergency: a “grandson” calls and says he's in jail and needs money, or a family member is in trouble over seas.
Asking to have money sent via Western Union is a common thread among the scams, said Lyons.
At the county level, two social workers have been specially trained to work on elder financial abuse cases. “They're very busy, to put it mildly,” said Gary Fontenot, who manages the Adult and Aging Section of Sonoma County's Human Services Department.
Fontenot clarified that a large number of financial abuse members are not the sort described above, involving strangers, but rather ones where family members are the perpetrators.
Fontenot listed a similar set of scams to those the Petaluma police are seeing: a “grandchild” in trouble and needing money, or a “Social Security agent” calling on the phone and needing the victim's Social Security number to look at a so-called problem with the victim's case.
“Don't ever give out information (like a Social Security number) over the phone,” warned Fontenot. He suggested that people ask for a call-back number instead.
Eckels added some other common scams to the list: Unsolicited home repairs, the foreign man who e-mails saying he's inherited a lot of money and needs to route it through your account, and over-zealous telemarketers who may take advantage of a senior's willingness to listen.
“The good news,” said Eckels, “Is that there's still more good people than bad. But there's enough of the bad, that you have to be careful.”
Police encourage anyone who feels they're being scammed or that someone is trying to scam them to call the police department at 778-4372.
(Contact Jamie Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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