Fraud Watch Network protects consumers

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kathleen s. connell

On the Inside by Kathleen S. Connell

A recent article posted on AARP.org has really made me change my mind about consumer fraud as it pertains to older people. I have largely believed in the stereotype sweet talker who gains a vulnerable senior’s trust and then moves in for the kill.

According to Sid Kirchheimer, author of “Scam-Proof Your Life” (published by AARP Books/Sterling), that is no longer the strategy.

“Con artists,” he writes, “have found that fear and intimidation are often more profitable, especially with people 50-plus. Last year, Americans 50 and older accounted for about half of the nearly $11 million in losses from intimidation schemes reported to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

“The $11 million figure is probably the tip of the iceberg. Most victims are too embarrassed to report getting scammed, or too scared when told to keep mum “or else.”

Kirchheimer says tactics have gotten more heavy-handed, and it is pretty scary: You’re threatened with violence, a lawsuit or arrest over supposed missed loan payments; you’re told to pay to avoid a bogus court summons; or you’re told a virus will ruin your

computer unless you pay. Sometimes the bad guys come right to your door.

He provides the following examples:

The hit-man scam: Pay or die

You’re told a contract has been placed on your life, but that you can avoid death with a payoff.

Don’t laugh: In 2012, extortionists collected nearly $2 million from 1,354 people who reported that scam to the complaint center. The crooks use Facebook and other online sites to glean personal information about people and their families to make the threats seem real. The lesson here is to limit what you post online.

‘Official’ ouch: Impostors at the door

In e-mails, by phone and occasionally at your front door, it’s scammers, not bona fide public servants, who seek your personal data or immediate payment of a supposed fine. They may claim to be from Social Security, Medicare, the police or the court. Just keep in mind those agencies don’t dun people way or demand information they already have.

Cold threat: Shutoff shakedown

During winter, be prepared for bogus threats that your utility service is about to be shut off because of unpaid bills. In this longtime ruse, scammers use special software to falsely display the name and phone number of your utility company on your caller identification.

But there’s a new twist, Kirchheimmer adds. The scammers may threaten to send someone to your home to collect overdue funds, and then a scowling accomplice might arrive for the shakedown. Don’t open the door. You should know that most utilities will mail at least one, if not several, past-due notifications before pulling the switch, and they would never send a thug to collect.

I worry sometimes that fear of crime drives people to isolation. But when it comes to lone strangers, you just can’t be too careful. If a utility debt is in question, ask the person to leave and then call your utility company and inquire as to the status of your account. If it doesn’t add up, tell the utility company that a scam artist was at work in your neighborhood.

The good news is that help may be coming. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party have introduced legislation to expand fraud education for older people and improve complaint reporting and federal monitoring.

In the meantime, AARP is working to protect everyone from consumer fraud. If you are online, the Fraud Watch Network — aarp.org/fraud-watch-network — is a tremendous free resource well-worth your time. If you sign up, you will get the latest breaking scam alerts delivered to your in-box. Membership also includes prevention tips based on thousands of hours of interviews with con artists and law enforcement experts, access to resources from our network of experts and a connection to people that are sharing their experiences with scams. You don’t have to be an AARP member to join.

If you are not online, protect yourself the old-fashioned way. Clip this article and pin it somewhere in your home as a reminder. If you let your guard down for even a minute, you could pay a serious price.

Kathleen S. Connell is state director of AARP-Rhode Island. Contact her at kconnell@aarp.org.

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  1. […] one scare tactic variation, Cold Threat: Shutoff Shakedown, be prepared for bogus threats that your utility service is about to be shut off because of unpaid […]

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