BANGOR, Maine — When people talk about the elderly being gullible or prey to scam artists, Francine Wickes counts herself out.
A retired occupational therapist and English as a second language teacher, the 85-year-old Bangor resident lived for many years in Indonesia and parts of Europe and doesn’t mind being described as worldly and wary.
But she understands why Americans, and particularly the elderly, can be victims of fraud.
“People tend to be gullible,” Wickes said Saturday, “and they want to believe that the [scam scenario they are confronted with] is real. I was raised in a more European way. They [Europeans] aren’t as trusting.”
Wickes was among about a dozen people who listened to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills describe during a one-hour presentation at the Bangor library on Saturday some of the latest scams being perpetrated over the Internet and telephone and how Mainers can avoid being victims.
One first step, Mills said, would be to recognize individual vulnerability. The first victim of all scams is the victim’s own goodness — the natural desire to help and be helped, to profit and to be generous, to be worthy and to reaffirm the value of others. Scam artists using telephones and emails to snare victims find a rich vein to tap in Maine.
“Maine is a very rural state and the second oldest [according to the average age of its residents] in the country,” Mills said. “When somebody calls or emails pretending to be a long-lost relative and you’re lonely or living alone, it can be very easy to believe that they are the grandchildren or children you haven’t seen in so long.”
The scams, Mills said, include emails and telephone calls from people claiming to be friends or long-lost relatives trapped by circumstances overseas. Wickes said she knows two people who received emails begging money from friends whose email addresses had actually been hijacked by scam artists. She received one herself, she said. She knew immediately that it was fraud because she recognized that her friend couldn’t be out of the country, as the email purported.
Other scam artists prey on economic vulnerability. They promise lottery winnings, estate settlements or percentages of loans. One of the first tips of a scam, Mills said, is that the scam artists entice victims into doing things that banks, lotteries or other legitimate institutions would not — to wire money or provide sensitive banking information such as credit card numbers over the telephone or via email. Offers often include time-limited options or a false sense of urgency.
Mills advised residents to never release confidential or sensitive information over the phone or via email, to seek names of organizations, physical addresses and telephone numbers of anyone they might be doing business with, and to do Web searches or call organizations such as Maine’s Better Business Bureau to check the legitimacy of potential business transactors.
Pressure from states’ attorneys general helped compel organizations such as Western Union to refuse to cooperate with individuals seeking to wire money to Nigeria, a home of many organized scam efforts, she said. Limited-time-only offers are often scams, she said.
One particularly devilish scam the Maine Attorney General’s Office has seen recently, Mills said, is con artists posing as Microsoft repair technicians calling or emailing victims to fix “problems” found on their computers. Such enticements often come through innocent-looking emails or links that actually provide predators with bank information or log-in data, Mills said.
No one knows how much money Mainers lose to scams annually, but Mills said the best estimate places losses in the millions. Victims often are too humiliated to reveal that they have been taken, Mills said.
Law enforcement agencies cannot legally solicit for contributions in Maine. Other businesses, such as debt negotiation or settlement firms who advertise on TV or the Internet, are actually cons or are selling services state agencies provide for free, Mills said.
Mills spoke about scam artists in Madison and Auburn last month. She said she plans to do more seminars around the state. Her office received 7,000 complaints about scams in 2012 and mediated 2,300 disputes or scams, returning $350,000 to Maine consumers that year.
“There are millions of dollars lost to Maine through scams,” Mills said. “They are the most common complaint we get.”