Awareness is key in protecting yourself against scams, according to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
Atwater launched Operation SAFE (Stop Adult Financial Exploitation) in 2014 to help protect Florida’s elderly population from financial scams and fraud.
An Operation SAFE workshop, presented by the San Antonio Citizens Federal Credit Union, was held on Jan. 18 at Zephyrhills Cinema 10.
There, a group of mostly senior attendees learned about spotting fraudulent behavior, common scams that target seniors and ways to fight identity theft.
Savannah Sullivan, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Financial Services (DFS), counseled the dozens in attendance to first be wary of odd behavior. She said seniors should tread carefully if someone is “becoming a little too friendly” or “shows up out of nowhere and wants to move in.”
During the presentation, Sullivan pointed out senior women, typically, are more vulnerable than their male counterparts to becoming a scam victim.
“A lot of women are a little more trusting, nurturing, caring, and may find themselves in a position where they want to help somebody more,” she explained.
Those attributes, Sullivan said, makes them particularly susceptible to what’s known as a romance scam.
In romance scams, a con artist pretends to have romantic intentions to gain affection and trust, often claiming to be from another country. The scam artist will then begin asking for money, claiming it’s for airplane tickets, medical bills or other expenses.
Those scams, Sullivan noted, are becoming more prevalent with the rise of online dating sites.
It’s also becoming one of the most costly.
Sullivan said romance scams wound up costing older Americans about $82 million in 2014; the average cost was over $100,000 per person.
“It really does wrap people in it,” Sullivan said, “because it uses that place where we are at our weakest — our hearts and our love connections.
“If they’re asking for money, and you haven’t met them, it’s a bad sign.”
The overall rate of scams against seniors is staggering.
According to the AARP, 80 percent of fraud victims are 50 and older.
Moreover, one out of every five adults, 65 years and older, has been the victim of a financial scam.
One explanation: seniors control about 70 percent of the disposable income in the United States.
“(Seniors) have so much control over the nation’s wealth,” Sullivan said, “and that is why scam artists are targeting them.”
Yet many scam artists, surprisingly, aren’t even strangers.
About 79 percent of scams against seniors over 65 occur by a family member, a DFS report shows.
“It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes it’s the people you least expect,” Sullivan explained. “It’s often the people who are closest around and may have access to personal financial information…”
Det. Bruce Cohen handles economic crimes for the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
He said many scammers claim to be an authentic government agency, such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and then proceed to ask for payment via a prepaid debit card.
Requests for green dot cards, he said, are one vital clue to filtering out a scam.
“No legitimate business or government agency will tell you fill out a green dot card; if you hear that, it’s a scam,” Cohen said.
Cohen also instructed seniors to never place mail in mailboxes for pickup.
Doing so creates an easy opportunity for criminals to access financial statements, like credit card accounts and bank statements.
“If you’re going to deal with mail, go to the post office and drop it off at the post office box inside,” Cohen said. “The red (mailbox) flag is just an indication to all the thieves to steal your stuff.”
Seniors, too, should be wary of various intimidation scams, like the jury duty scam.
Fraudsters, posing as courthouse officials or police, telephone in claims that jury duty was missed.
Because of that, scammers threaten you’re going to be arrested, unless a fine is immediately paid.
“It’s a doubly whammy,” said Zephyrhills Police Sgt. Reginald Roberts. “You’ve given them money and your (personal) information.”
Roberts noted those types of scams have also become more frequent because of spoofing, a technique where scammers manipulate the Caller ID feature to masquerade as courthouses or law enforcement agencies.
“They’ll use official names. They’ll use the names of judges, the sheriff, the police chief,” Roberts explained.
He continued: “Caller ID was the gospel at one time, but nowadays, there’s just too many spoofing apps that you really can’t trust that.”
If you suspect a sham call, Roberts advised, “hang up and call the jury clerk.”
Unfortunately, Roberts said, these types of scams, along with other fraud schemes, are constantly getting tweaked and fine-tuned by criminals.
It makes law enforcement’s job even tougher, he said.
“These scams are going to change daily,” Roberts said. “They’re going to try to find a way to get better.”
Yet, experts agreed that knowing the telltale signs of scams and applying common sense can help to avoid getting caught up in a money-draining plot.
“Scam artists are using information that you don’t know,” Sullivan said. “They’re banking on you not knowing something.”
For more information, visit MyFloridaCFO.com.
Common tactics used by scam artists
- Phantom riches: The scam artist will dangle the prospect of wealth, perhaps a guaranteed monthly income, if you purchase a certain product.
- Source credibility: The scam artist will make it appear that his or her company is reputable, or that they have special credentials or experience.
- Social consensus: The scam artist will want you to believe that people you may know already have invested or purchased the product, such as your neighbors, or well-known community leaders.
- False affiliation: Similar to source credibility, the scam artist works for a company whose name gives the appearance that they are a part of, or affiliated with a senior advocacy group, such as AARP, or a government agency to gain your trust.
- Sense of urgency: The scam artist will try to get you to buy now by saying the offer is extended only to the next 10 people who purchase today.
- The person uses broken English and/or poor grammar during the interaction.
- The person requests money or personal information.
- A stranger tells you that he or she knows you.
- The person makes threats that you will be arrested or will be forced to pay a penalty, if you don’t pay a fee.
Ways to avoid being scammed
- Practice safe internet use.
- Protect your Social Security number.
- Destroy private records.
- Secure your mail.
- Check your credit report for suspicious activity.
Published February 8, 2017