Crime Prevention seminar teaches seniors how to avoid scams and prevent fraud
MUNCY – Last Wednesday night Chief Richard J. Sutton from the Muncy Borough Police introduced Joyce O’Brien from the Attorney General’s Office in Harrisburg to over 50 residents who came to learn about ways to prevent becoming a victim to scams and frauds.
Seniors are a high target for these fraudulent activities as criminals usually seek out those who are more dependent and trusting to others. Every year across Pennsylvania, senior citizens fall victim to many kinds of consumer fraud, especially home improvement scams, telemarketing fraud, foreign lotteries and sweepstakes scams according to the Senior Crime Prevention University (a traveling university) that sponsored an interactive video and is part of an education and awareness seminar from the Attorney General’s office.
Ms. O’Brien is the Senior Community Liaison for the Public Protection Division in the Office of the Attorney General with Tom Corbett. She has also worked as a Legislative Aide in the leadership offices of the Pennsylvania State Senate.
She sent Chief Sutton a poster listing all of the possible scams that out there targeting citizens, so he made arrangements for O’Brien to come to Muncy. “She sent me the information 3 months ago, but I wanted to wait until after school started so we could use the school building,” he said. “Rural areas are especially targeted and the information is good to share for everyone.”
“The Attorney General’s office has the jurisdiction to solve these problems. Let’s prevent the crime before it starts,” O’Brien said. “We prevent victims from getting their information stolen. We created the Elder Abuse Association to help,” added O’Brien as she pointed out the toll free number (1-866-623-2137) to call whenever a problem is detected or if one even suspects they have been victimized. “You will get a live, real person when you call this number, not a recording.”
Pennsylvania is the third largest state with a high senior population next to Florida and West Virginia.
The top scams that we fall prey to are charitable contributions, estate planning, home improvements, Power of attorney, sweepstakes, checks and money orders, and account verification. “Crooks know they can get away with these and people can easily fall for these scams,” said O’Brien. “We want you to be protected. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America.”
Ways to prevent fraud and what to look for
We need to look for telltale signs. Watch for phone calls. Learn to say no because once you give to charitable contributions your name will go on a list and they can call again and again. Some of these non-profits are fake and you should never give out financial information over the phone, especially if you are not familiar with the organization. You can always request to have them send something to you in the mail if they are seeking pledges or money. “You can check with the department of State to see if the organization is legitimate,” advises O’Brien. Make an informed decision as a contributor to a well known organization and know where the money is going. Contributions are not enforceable by law and does not affect your credit.
Certain criteria has to be met so know their legitimate name and don’t feel obligated to donate. “You do not need to pledge over the phone. You can send it in the mail,” adds O’Brien.
Avoid sweepstakes and lottery winners. There are some scams out there that say you are a winner but you have to pay the taxes first. “This is a scam and do not make any kind of payments either. I have seniors give away all of their money, much needed money for medications and home mortgages. Don’t fall for this.”
Sometimes con artists will call and say your name is randomly selected to be a winner. Beware of Publishers Clearing House. “They say things in the mail that make you think you can win, and sometimes they send fake checks too. Read the contents of your mail very closely and know the source. We get at least one call a week like this at the Attorney General’s Office.”
It is best to take these letters back to the Post Office because it is mail fraud as well. Home Improvement contractors are another group of potential financial disasters. They may stop and ask you if they can seal your driveway or inform you that your roof needs repaired. Often they want payment in advance but never come back to do the work. “We call these gypsy contractors. They really prey on seniors. They will watch you working outside and approach you saying they can give you a “deal.” They look for signs that seniors may be living there like the American flag or perfect astro turf,” O’Brien explained.
There is new legislation in place called the Home Improvement Contractor Law that requires all contractors to have a registration number on all contracts if they do more than $5,000 worth of business a year. You can check up on them before you hire them by submitting their registration number with the Attorney General’s office. A written contract must be in place for all home improvement jobs over $1,000 and they can’t charge you more than one third of the total costs up front. By law, you have three days to cancel the contract after signing. However, it is best to use someone you know in your community, someone you can trust and has references to avoid contractor scams. “Don’t have people come into your house,” she warns.
Another scam highly targeted to seniors are calls or e-mails asking for account verification. Do not give away security codes on credit cards. People take information from your mailbox. If you have a rural mailbox at the end of your driveway, do not put mail out at night with the red flag up. That is a sure sign for someone to steal information. “All they need is your name and social security number to steal your identity,” she said. “Health care fraud is the biggest form of identify theft. They steal medical access cards too to get medical treatment.” Carelessness is the biggest culprit to get identity stolen. Always know where your purse and wallet are. O’Brien further explains, “Do not carry your social security card or your medical cards. If there is an emergency, hospitals still have to treat you, and you can always get that information to them later.”
If someone gets into your account, we have 60 days to dispute unwanted credit card charges. “The most you can be charged by law is $50, and most financial institutions will waive the $50. 58 billion a year gets written off as bad debt in the United States.”
Do not give personal information over the phone unless you dialed the number. “Fake caller ID’s can be manipulated by crooks too.” Always review your accounts and remain in control. Non-profits can still call you for solicitations even if you are registered on the do not call list. If you are doing business with someone or a company like Verizon, they can still call you.
Emma and Tom DeWald from Muncy said they were worried about Identify Theft because someone tried to open an account at Sears using their name and information.
Mary Jane and Lew Bogart said they came to learn more about transferring a time share without getting their identity stolen. “We got some very valuable information tonight,” they said.
“If you have been scammed or victimized, it is important that you inform the Attorney General’s office, because they will go after them and fine them. And if a senior is victimized, they will be fined even more,” O’Brien assured the audience. “The best protection is self-protection. Be proactive and monitor your credit report periodically.”
You can also remove your name from mailing lists to prevent pre-approved offers and mail solicitations. Write to:
Mail Preference Service
Attn: Dept. 12794780
Direct Marketing Association
P.O. Box 282
Carmel, NY 10512
A free reference guide is available at www.attorneygeneral.gov or call the toll free number at 866-623-2137.