Asking questions can protect seniors from financial scams

Posted May 31, 2012, at 10:37 a.m.

There is no shortage of scams circulating right now designed to separate you from your money. At a Penobscot County Triad meeting recently, I heard of an elderly gentleman who was scammed out of $4,000, money he could ill afford to lose. Another woman hit the brakes just in time before losing substantial funds.

If you receive a phone call congratulating you that you have won a large cash prize and all you need to do is give your bank account number, don’t do it. The same advice is true for the check cashing scheme where you’re asked to deposit a forthcoming check in your account. If you agree, the caller then asks that you send back a personal check for a smaller amount than the original check. Of course the original check turns out to be no good and you are on the hook for the money you sent back.

In another scam, a caller claims to be a family member detained in Canada or other countries and needs money wired to a certain location to facilitate the release. Some seniors who may be hard of hearing don’t recognize the voice but are afraid of letting the family member down.

Some thieves obtain your personal information by rummaging through the trash looking for receipts (so shred important papers), stealing mail such as credit card offers, filling them out in your name and then running up high bills before you are even aware of it. Sometimes they pose as a legitimate business person or government official on the phone when asking account numbers. Remember neither your bank nor the Social Security office will ever call you and ask for your personal information because, if they are legitimate, they will already have it on file.

Once a crook has your personal information in hand and new credit cards have been issued, the bills for which have been routed to a different address so you will never see them, the shopping and cash advances begin.

There are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Contact your creditors if your bill does not arrive in your mailbox on time. It could signal that someone has hijacked your account and has changed the billing address. Of course, the perpetrator is not going to actually pay the bill.

Conceal personal information in your home, especially if you have lots of company or workers. You just never know for whom the temptation would be too much.

Memorize passwords and PIN numbers. Use your debit card as a credit card. The money still comes directly out of your account but you won’t need to enter your PIN number into the swipe machine. Also, get creative with passwords and don’t rely on maiden names and birthdays.

Get a copy of your credit report from one of the three credit bureaus and check it for errors. In Maine, people can receive one free credit report per year so be careful of companies that attempt to charge you for your report. For more information, you can go to the Consumer Credit Protection page on the Maine.gov website. If you find inaccuracies in your credit report, act immediately. Contact the credit bureau.

Beat these thieves at their own game by staying informed on the latest scams, being careful, diligent, and notifying the authorities immediately if you think you have been defrauded. Even if you are unsure, call the police anyway. It is better to alert them early than to wait and have an even bigger mess on your hands.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. E-mail Higgins Taylor at chtaylor@eaaa.org. For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, toll-free 800-432-7812, e-mail info@eaaa.org or visit http://www.EAAA.org. TTY 992-0150.

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