Published Date Written by Dan Miller
Ed and Rita Nagy of Lower Swatara Twp. already do a lot of things right when it comes to protecting themselves from scam artists.
They don’t answer the phone if they don’t know the name or number of the caller. They throw out that junk mail from the sweepstakes promoters. They don’t go to any of those free investment seminar dinners.
But the Nagys figure you can never know too much. So they were among about a dozen older folks who ventured out on a frigid night on Tuesday, Nov. 18 for a “Senior University” event presented in the township building by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office.
The program is to make senior citizens more aware of the many different scams that are out there – and that the scammers often target older folks.
“You are the generation of FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, when someone’s handshake or word was a binding contract. That’s what a lot of these unscrupulous individuals are preying upon – your trust,” said Jerry Mitchell, an education and outreach specialist with the Attorney General’s office, who gave the presentation.
Here are some takeaways from Mitchell’s overview of the most common scams:
Charitable Contributions: You get a call from someone claiming to represent a very worthy cause, such as wounded soldiers or the local police department, asking you for money.
They always want you to wire the money – so it can be anywhere in the world within seconds – before you have a chance to even think about what you are doing.
“Never give on impulse,” Mitchell said. Never give until you check to see if the charitable organization is registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State. If not, that should be “a red flag,” he said.
If you make a pledge to a charity, you are not legally bound by that pledge.
The Internet has expanded exponentially the reach of scammers. Within five hours of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, 439 fraudulent Web sites had been set up seeking to exploit the tragedy, Mitchell said.
Sweepstakes and lotteries: The pitch, by phone or e-mail, is that you have won some sort of international lottery. All you have to do to claim it is send in the money to cover the taxes.
Don’t. For starters, if you are a U.S. citizen you can’t win a foreign lottery, Mitchell said.
Those estate-planning free lunch seminars: Some of these are legitimate. But don’t sign anything until you have a chance to research the product. You may not need the product, or “it may not be a good fit for you,” Mitchell said.
The people who hold these seminars will first hit you with a “charm offensive.” If that doesn’t work, they play on your fear.
“They make themselves the sole voice of authority,” telling you that you don’t need to talk to anyone else, Mitchell said. But don’t do anything until you first talk to someone whom you can trust about your financial situation – be it a friend, family member, or your attorney.
Checks and money orders: You can get scammed by selling something online. Mitchell calls it “the advance fee scam.”
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you have a motorcycle you want to sell online for $1,000. A buyer contacts you and says he will send you a check for $1,000.
A day or two later, the buyer calls you back and says he sent you a check for $1,300 by mistake. Instead of sending the check back, he asks that you donate the $300 to his “favorite charity.” Being the trusting soul that you are, you go ahead and wire the $300 to the address the buyer has given you for his “charity.” The $1,300 check you get in the mail bounces – and you’re out $300.
The Grandparent Scam: This one’s been around for awhile. You get a call from someone claiming to be your grandson or granddaughter. They got in trouble in Mexico and you need to wire them money right away.
There’s a new twist, Mitchell said. These days, the scammers figure you’re too smart to be fooled by someone impersonating a close family member. So now, the phone call comes from someone claiming to be the attorney representing your loved one. Don’t be fooled.
Home Improvement: Another oldie but goodie. You’re outside working on your driveway, your roof, gutter, whatever. Someone who looks like a handyman saunters up and tells you they just happen to be in the neighborhood and can do the job for you. All they need is a couple hundred dollars up front. You give them the money, and you never see them (or your money) again.
First, all home improvement contractors are supposed to be registered with the state Attorney General’s office, Mitchell said. If your so-called handyman is not, don’t do business with him. Even if a contractor is registered, it’s a good idea to check references and get bids from other contractors.
Never agree to have home improvement work done without first getting a written contract. All work to be done should be itemized, and the contract should identify any subcontractors to be involved. You never have to put down more than a third up front for any contract over $5,000, Mitchell said.
If you are uncomfortable with a contract, you have up to three days to rescind it after signing. Just call the contractor within 72 hours and tell him you have decided to cancel.
Identity Theft: Protect your credit card numbers and your Social Security number. Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Shred any financial-related documents before they go in the trash.
Be aware of scammers who call claiming to be your bank, and asking you for information to “verify” your account. Don’t tell them anything. They’ll give you an 800-number to call, but the only 800-number you should call regarding your credit card is the one on the credit card, Mitchell said.
Products that say they will protect your identity are a hot item these days. These products may be legitimate, but in many cases your own bank or financial institution is already providing these services to you at no charge. Check first, Mitchell said.
Anytime you are traveling out of the country – including Canada – it’s a good idea to tell your bank or financial institution ahead of time, Mitchell said. This will alert them to any otherwise suspicious-looking charges on your card. If the bank knows everytime you travel overseas, the bank will be alert to any bogus charges from outside the country that occur on your card when you are home.
Power of Attorney: There are many misconceptions regarding POAs. Sadly, some family members see a POA as “a license to steal” from their elderly loved one, Mitchell said. First, only allow to be your POA someone who you trust and who is “financially secure in their own right,” Mitchell said. That makes it far less likely that they will be tempted to take advantage of you financially.
You can pick more than one person to be your POA. Two POAs means that both of these people – and you – must agree on any action taken regarding your finances.
You have the power to revoke any POA at any time. You can name someone as your POA on a Monday, and revoke it the next day if you are uncomfortable with the arrangement.
NUMBERS TO CALL
If you think it’s a scam, call the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Tipline for senior citizens: 1-866-623-2137. You should also call your local police.
To check if a charity is registered in Pennsylvania, go to http://www.charities.pa.gov/ to see if a charity is registered with the Department of State. You can also call the department at 1-800-732-0999.
To check on whether a home improvement contractor is registered with the Pennsylvania Attorney General, go to https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/Consumers/Home_Improvement_Consumer_Information/ Or call 1-888-520-6680.