SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Protecting yourself from scammers

Maureen Wendt

Over the past several years, I have used this column numerous times as a community resource to discuss the latest scams and how to avoid becoming a victim of a scam. It is estimated senior citizens are robbed of roughly $3 billion (yes, billion with a "b") a year in financial scams, healthcare scams and identity theft. Scams such as the grandparent scam or grandchild-in-need scam, US Treasury Scam, and others are perpetrated every day.

Don't fall victim to the latest scams. Scams often begin with a phone call. NEVER give out personal information. Scammers are out there, so I am providing some general information and ways to help you avoid falling victim to scams. Scammers are getting slicker and more daring in ways that can easily catch you off guard.

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The "grandparent scam" or "grandchild-in-need scam" is on the rise. The scam begins with something most grandparents don't get enough of, a phone call from a grandchild — or so the caller says. It almost always ends with a desperate plea for money. Scammers call senior citizens, impersonating a grandchild in distress, begging for cash.

According to a convicted scammer who was asked how a typical call would go, "You just say, 'Hey, how are you, hi grandma, hi grandpa ... I'm in a little bit of trouble right now. If I tell you, just keep it between us, I'm on vacation, I got into a little accident, and I was arrested for a DUI (or some other type of trouble). Things got out of control, and I need you to send me the money'."

It triggers something emotional, it causes you to act. It works because grandparents want to help.

"I was upset, sort of frantic and, of course, sort of shocked," said one grandmother who was scammed. Even when she said the voice on the other end didn't sound like her grandchild, the scammer had an answer for that: "I have a cold." The grandmother said, "I felt there was a desperation and an urgency in his voice, partly because he said 'love you'. I just wanted him to be home with his family." So she immediately sent almost $18,000 to a bank account, thinking it was going to a lawyer. But her grandson wasn't in jail and her money was gone. In hindsight, the grandmother said, "You are blinded by emotion. Totally blinded. You don't think rationally when this happens."

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Another newer scam involves the threat to withhold funds from your Social Security Benefit Payment, via an authentic looking letter from US Department of the Treasury. Scam artists are sophisticated and often prey on trusting victims; their single purpose is to make money. They want anybody's money, including yours! Scammers go to great lengths to make the situation seem legitimate. The Treasury Scam letter is personalized with name and address, making it appear legitimate.

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Aggressive and threatening phone calls by criminals impersonating IRS agents remain a major scam.

Scammers make unsolicited calls claiming to be IRS officials. They demand that the victim pay a bogus tax bill. They con the victim into sending cash, usually through a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. They may also leave "urgent" callback requests through phone robo-calls or via phishing email. Many phone scams use threats to intimidate and bully a victim into paying. They may even threaten to arrest, deport or revoke the driver's license of their victim if they don't get the money.

Alternatively, some scammers may say you are entitled to a huge refund.

These communications all add up to trouble.

Scammers often alter the caller ID numbers to make it look like the IRS or another agency is calling. The callers use IRS titles and fake badge numbers to appear legitimate. They may use the victim's name, address and other personal information to make the call sound official. The IRS reminds taxpayers to guard against all sorts of con games. The IRS Commissioner says, "Don't be fooled by callers pretending to be from the IRS in an attempt to steal your money. We continue to say if you are surprised to be hearing from us, then you're not hearing from us."

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Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. One out of 10 adults has been victimized by identify theft. Presenting themself as a representative of the IRS or US Treasury is not the only way a scammer can victimize you. Garbage pickers routinely set up phony accounts in your name. They get all the information they need from your trash. Be sure to shred or burn solicitations or pre-approved applications from credit card companies.

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The public is invited to an event, "Fraud Scams Targeting Older Adults," to learn more about how to spot and avoid the latest scams. The event is sponsored by Council for Older Adults in Niagara County, HANCI and AmeriCorps Seniors. Expert speakers and their topics include:

— Beth Nelson, New York State senior Medicare patrol director, protecting your health care identity and exploring the latest health care scams;

— Lauren Kirchmyer, marketing and outreach coordinator at BBB of Upstate NY, protecting yourself from senior scams;

— Michael J. Filicetti, Niagara County Sheriff, local trending scams and best practices on how to report or handle a potential scam or fraudulent activity.

The event will take place next Monday (November 8th) from 10 a.m. to noon at the Shawnee Volunteer Fire Company hall, 3747 Lockport Road, Sanborn. Masks are mandatory and no food or drinks are allowed in the hall.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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