Polite seniors need to be wary of ‘spoofs’

Posted May 09, 2010, at 9:24 p.m.

Last week, we advised caution for when people are visited by door-to-door sellers of goods and services. These traveling salespeople like it when the door is answered by older people, who may be more likely to listen to the pitch.

Scam artists who work by phone also like dealing with seniors. Growing up in the times they did, mature citizens are less likely to hang up in the middle of a sales spiel. If the salesperson has no scruples, that could mean the buyer will get taken.

Phone scammers share information. Once they find a “mark,” con artists circulate details of their conversations; this can help future callers sound familiar and gain trust.

Perhaps the most mean-spirited of today’s scams involves home mortgages. There are schemes designed to steal homes from people who make the mistake of trusting someone who promises a deal that’s too good to be real.

The scammers may have the homeowner sign phony documents, allowing the thieves to take over ownership. Sometimes the scammers ask for a title transfer, promising that a person can stay in the home rent-free until his or her finances improve. Often they don’t, and the people lose their homes.

Other scammers may pose as lawyers and advise people to file for bankruptcy. They simply pocket the fees that the homeowner pays, thinking they are filing for bankruptcy protection. Thieves also may advise ignoring notices the lender sends; this virtually always leads to foreclosure.

The way to avoid such results is to talk honestly with your lender. Creditors will usually work with you if you explain the situation. Don’t sign anything in haste or under pressure. Consult a counselor who is certified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Telephone pitches to avoid include attempts to “spoof” personal and financial information to steal your identity. That was the case recently when some callers pretended to represent Medicare; they asked for personal data “so we can issue a new Medicare card.” When people refused, a phony supervisor came on the line and said the person’s benefits might be cut if he or she didn’t cooperate.

Other recent spoofers posed as Internal Revenue Service agents. They sought personal data “so the IRS can issue an extra refund.” The IRS, Medicare and every legitimate business around uses regular mail — not phones or e-mail — to conduct official business. Be suspicious of anyone you don’t know who asks for personal information.

There are also a host of sweepstakes scams, in which you’re told you need to pay a fee to enter or to collect a “guaranteed” prize. Some websites are designed to look like real charities but are simply ploys to get your donations to “qualify” for a chance to win. Real charities don’t operate that way; look closely and don’t be fooled.

In summary, there are three major rules that should govern your actions as a consumer. The rules apply whether your dealings are in person, over the phone or online:

• Don’t give your financial information to any caller you don’t know.

• Don’t be pressured into making any kind of financial decision.

• Get all information in writing before agreeing to make a purchase.

If you think you’re the victim of a scam, don’t be embarrassed. Report what happened to the police and the attorney general; your action might spare someone else financial hardship.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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