Seniors warned of scams at forum

Posted Nov. 06, 2008, at 8:39 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:54 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — As it turns out, the golden years may not be all they’re cracked up to be. On Thursday, about 135 area senior citizens turned out for a free, daylong review of hazards they should recognize and avoid if they hope to live long and prosper.

Dangers ranging from slippery scatter rugs and downed power lines to identity theft and elder abuse were on the agenda, along with a complimentary lunch, a winter coat collection for low-income families and the opportunity to turn in unused medications to the Penobscot County sheriff. Exhibitors offered information on legal services, health care, housing and other resources.

“Seniors are hungry for this information,” said Carol Higgins, communications director for the Eastern Agency on Aging. “This is a very savvy group and they want to know how to protect themselves.” The event, sponsored by a coalition of area agencies, was titled “Building Safer Communities for Our Seniors.”

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross showed off a zippered nylon gym bag stuffed with vials of prescription drugs that he collected at the event. Another cache nearly filled the locked wooden box where attendees deposited their unused medications. Ross said all kinds of drugs were turned in anonymously with “no questions asked” as to who brought in which medications or why the medications had not been taken as prescribed.

Without even looking, he said, “I can guarantee you there is Vicodin and Percocet in there”— naming two frequently abused prescription narcotics that seniors are encouraged to get out of their medicine cabinets if they’re not being used.

Margie Higgins, 81, of Bangor brought in several old prescription vials.

“I won’t throw them away in case someone goes through my trash,” she said. “And I don’t want to flush them because I love fish and people tell me eventually it affects the fish.”

Ross said all the drugs collected at the event would be incinerated.

Michael Desrosiers, a Portland-based inspector with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, detailed a harrowing, real-life case of stolen identities and fraud. The cautionary tale of a Maine couple who in 2005 scammed more than $53,000 over the course of two days generated a flurry of questions about protecting credit card and banking information.

Desrosiers told his rapt audience about an electronic device known as a “skimmer” — a pocket-sized device that can copy credit or debit card information for later use in making a false card. Similar technology allows scammers to booby-trap an automatic teller machine to copy information off cards inserted into it.

“There are a lot of high-tech schemes out there,” he said.

Orono police Sgt. Scott Scripture emphasized the importance of destroying any papers that contain financial information, such as bank statements. “A shredder is the best investment you can make,” he said.

Scripture also warned of telephone scams targeting older people, such as a recent call received by an Orono man from a bogus “grandson” pleading for $5,400 to get him out of legal jam in Canada.

Rick Mooers of the state Office of Adult Protective Services told the group that physical and emotional abuse and financial exploitation of seniors are all too common in Maine, with 15,000 cases reported each year and many more that go unreported. Even family members and caregivers can take advantage of the elderly, he said. He urged elders to enlist the services of their own attorneys before signing any legal, medical or financial documents.

Mooers also encouraged the group to contact his office with any suspected cases of abuse. People reporting abuses needn’t have a lot of information before making the call, he said.

“We’ll do the investigating,” Mooers said. “We’re the opposite of Fox News — you report, we’ll decide.”

Sheriff Ross also cautioned the seniors to be vigilant about door-to-door handyman services, warning them to insist on solid references and a formal contract for any work to be done.

Ross said the goal of Thursday’s program was not to frighten or intimidate senior citizens, but to provide them with the information and resources they need to protect themselves. For example, he said, referencing a common e-mail scam, he had just received a message informing him that a distant aunt he had never met had died and left him $24 million. The e-mail instructed him to reply with his Social Security number and bank account information so the money could be deposited.

“This morning, I would have fallen for that,” Ross facetiously told his chuckling audience, “but now I know better.”

Seniors who missed Thursday’s conference may want to mark their calendars for a similar elder-oriented event in the spring. The annual Senior Expo is scheduled for Friday, May 14, at the Spectacular Event Center in Bangor.

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