Senior fraud: How to spot it and avoid it

It happens every day, but it doesn’t have to happen to you

You called a handyman about a small leak in your roof, and he tells you it will cost $3,000 to repair. Is the price fair?

Your financial adviser says you could expect higher-than-normal returns from a certain investment. Should you invest?

You gave your Social Security number to a woman on the phone who said she was with your credit card company, and now you’re worried that you made a mistake. Did you?

We’ll give you some hints in a moment.

Seniors can be vulnerable to criminals who sound like authorities

But the big picture that contains those examples is this: It can be confusing for seniors to know what to do when professionals (or professional-sounding people) give them information that sounds like it could be true. And headlines about scams and fraud, sadly, are not rare. They tell of cases where opportunistic people or companies have taken advantage of seniors, perhaps through overcharges, shoddy work, lies about unnecessary repairs or scams on the phone or in email. The money lost – not to mention the self-confidence – can be huge.

These people or companies prey on older individuals who might not be as savvy about the fast pace of change in a technology-powered world. And seniors who have memory loss, are alone and homebound, or have problems with vision or hearing can be even more vulnerable to deception.

In fact, AARP quotes a study by True Link Financial that says older Americans lose $12.76 billion annually due to frauds and scams.

Resolve to never do these things:

You do have some defenses. Just by knowing what information to protect will help thwart those with criminal intentions.

  • Never give personal information out if they called you. Reputable companies will NEVER call you to ask for your credit card information or your Social Security number. That’s a sure sign that something is not right. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network says the No. 1 scam right now is a person who leaves a message saying they are from the IRS and that you own back taxes and must wire the funds immediately or risk being arrested. Delete the voice mail and don’t call back. Another popular scam now is to call seniors and tell them that a virus has been found on their computer. To fix it, they are told to visit a website and follow the instructions. In reality, the website downloads malware – defined as software with distruptive or illegal purposes – onto your computer that can steal your passwords, your bank account and/or your identity.
  • The caution is the same for email. Just delete the email, or report it as spam. Legitimate companies do not send you attachments or links that need to be opened. If there is something they need you to do, they will tell you to go to the site and log in on your own.
  • Understand that the most dangerous combination of information is your name, birthdate and Social Security number. With those few facts, identity thieves can find everything about you, including where you live, what you drive, your credit card information, how much is in your various accounts, memberships, the list goes on and on.

Now, about those scenarios up above:

  • On the roof: Get a second opinion. Don’t tell the second contractor what the first contractor bid on the job; just tell him or her that it’s for a second opinion. If in doubt, get a third.
  • On the financial adviser: Ask more questions. How long have you worked with this adviser? Have his or her recommendations been correct in the past? If so, it’s more likely a safe investment. But if it’s a new relationship, don’t jump in with both feet. Ask if there are references from past clients that you can check.
  • On giving out your Social Security number: Just don’t, whenever you can avoid it. A lot of companies ask for it because it’s an easy form of identification for you in their computer system. But unless their computer system is completely secure, that leaves your information vulnerable. Consumer advocate Clark Howard says the only people who legally need access to your Social Security number is you, any employers who need to pay you, any bank where you have an account, and any transaction where you are giving someone permission to check your finances, as when you are buying a house. Other places like hospitals, medical offices or businesses, health insurers or charity organizations that don’t run background checks do not need your number, even though they want it. Simply leave the space blank. Identity theft of personal facts from medical facilities is up nearly 20 percent since 2012, Howard says.

Know where you can check on scams and fraud:

Even if you aren’t completely comfortable with the internet, there are a few easy places that are updated with frauds and scams as they are taking place:

  • AARP’s Fraud Watch Network has areas where you can check scams in your state, learn how to keep your information safe online, avoid common investment scams, and an ongoing list of real-time frauds. The network also offers quizzes to see if you are “fraud-proof.”
  • The FBI’s Scams and Safety pages has forwarding addresses where you can send emails that you suspect to be involved in fraud and offers a searchable database of scams and frauds where you can search by topic and year. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center lists current scam reports and lets you search farther back by clicking on a specific year.
  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a Bureau of Consumer Protection Page where you can file a complaint, read the latest consumer fraud news or search for additional information, such as how to order a copy of your free credit report or how to get a refund if a product is defective.
  • The Better Business Bureau (BBB) rates businesses (from A+ to F), gives consumer reviews and lists companies that have had complaints made about them. It’s not failsafe, because not everyone who has problems with a company reports it to the BBB; but it is a good way to find some companies you should steer clear of.