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Workshop helps seniors avoid scams
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Clearwater Police Sgt. Gregory Stewart leads a workshop to help seniors avoid becoming victims of fraud and scams.
CLEARWATER – Seniors experience the fewest violent crimes compared to the younger population, but they are at the most risk for becoming victims of fraud and scams said Clearwater Police Sgt. Gregory Stewart.

Stewart, the city of Clearwater Office on Aging and the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco/Pinellas recently teamed up to present a crime prevention forum to help older adults avoid becoming victims of fraud. While there are no ways to prevent certain crimes like identity theft, Stewart said it is important to take precautions to reduce one’s risk of becoming victims and catch the crimes once they happen.

Rita Bott, a victim advocate for Area Agency on Aging, said seniors are vulnerable to these kinds of crimes because they are more trusting.

“They come from a generation where they did not expect the people next door or the business down the street to do the things that are happening now,” Bott said. “And they don’t even really believe it after it happened and it’s such a shock to them because they can’t imagine that such a nice person who came to the door and who was well dressed and talked to them about his or her family would all of a sudden be taking money from them. It’s just not the kind of world they lived in.”

Identity theft is an increasing problem, Stewart said. People’s identities can be stolen through stolen mail, intercepted or diverted Internet activity, people rummaging through the trash at home or businesses, stolen wallets or purses containing I.D. and credit cards, by computers getting hacked or countless other ways.

Stewart suggests using cash whenever possible because it is easy for people to scan credit cards through personal scanners to steal the information off of them and then sell that information to people who will start using the card numbers. People should shred documents with any kind of personal information on it, he said, and people should carefully review their statements each month to make sure there are no incorrect charges. Stewart himself caught a scam that way, he said. He saw a $7.99 charge on a credit card he never used, and after some investigation he learned that it was a scam company that slips charges onto people’s credit card bills that usually go undetected.

Bott said people should also not give out their personal information to anyone they do not know, especially over the phone or by e-mail. Scammers try to appear like they are authority figures or legitimate agencies to get information such as social security numbers, names, credit card numbers and other identifying information so they can use it themselves or sell it to others.

“If you get on the telephone and someone starts talking to you about personal things that you don’t feel comfortable with, hang up the phone,” Bott said. “And many (seniors) have never hung up the phone on anybody, and they can’t hardly imagine that, but we encourage people now to be much more suspicious and to hang up the phone on callers if it seems like they’re asking something they shouldn’t or if they’re trying to sell them something they do not want.”

Any business by phone should be deemed suspicious, Stewart said.

“Don’t do business over the phone, don’t do business at your front door, don’t do business by e-mail, and don’t do business by U.S. mail unless you initiate the first contact,” Stewart said.

Even then, hopefully people have done their research about the business, Stewart said. People should be wary of people seeking them out to do business, Stewart said, because if they needed a good, service or product, they probably would take care of it – everything else probably is not needed.

People should also be cautious of deals and businesses that require a lot of money up front, Stewart said. Don’t feel pressured into deals or sales, he added, because a lot of times people are trying to trick you in those situations. Step back from the situation, he said, and don’t feel afraid to call the police for them to help mediate the situation.

One big, local problem is questionable businesses, especially service companies, Bott said.

“I’ve seen lots of problems with roofing that is very expensive but then it doesn’t hold up,” Bott said. “It’s not good roofing material but they charge a fortune for it and then it begins to disintegrate shortly thereafter, and water comes into the house and pretty well ruins the house.”

People should also be wary of other questionable business practices, Stewart said. For example, someone may knock on the door and say they were roofing a neighbor’s house when they noticed a possible trouble spot on your roof, Stewart said. Sometimes the person says something like, “I’ll climb up on your roof for free and if I see a problem I’ll fix it.” Then the person hammers away, climbs off the roof and demands money, Stewart said. The victim may feel confused because all he or she had heard was the word “free” and overlooked that they were going to do work without specifying what and how much first. Often the victim feels pressured to pay, and sometimes the business person threatens to call the police if they are not paid right then. Stewart said to call the police to help mediate the situation because this is an unfair practice.

One common scam that has happened in Clearwater is the bank examiner scam, Stewart and Bott said. In this scam, someone contacts a citizen and claims to be a representative from a bank. Sometimes the scammer has found a discarded bank or ATM receipt from the victim and can quote them what bank they use, their account number and the remaining funds in their account, Stewart said.

The scammer tells the victim that the bank is investigating a potentially dishonest teller and that the bank needs the citizen’s help to catch the teller. The scammer will have the victim withdraw a certain amount of money from his or her account and then meet the scammer outside to count it. Then, the scammer will either say he or she will deposit the money back into the victim’s account for them or he will swap the envelope of money with an envelope stuffed with newspapers or something and give the fake one back to the customer.

One Clearwater woman was tricked this way twice in three days, Stewart said, and lost $10,000 each time before she realized what had happened. She never saw the money again, he said.

Another common scam is the pigeon drop scam, Stewart said. In this case, a tag team of scammers will approach a victim in a public place, such as a park, and pretend to find a wallet or purse full of money. One will make a claim such as they know a lawyer who works nearby who can help them figure out how the group can legally claim the money. However, all supposedly being strangers, the scammers will suggest everyone puts in some of their own money in the pot in order to keep everyone honest. Sometimes they will let the victim hold onto the supposed wallet but have actually swapped them out so the scammers take off with the actual cash.

People should also be aware of the classic water tester scam where people gain access to one’s house by claiming to check their water for impurities. They are either then sold an unnecessary additive or this is a front for someone to get inside to steal things, Stewart said.

Ena Tapia of Palm Harbor attended the fraud workshop at Countryside Library Sept. 3 because she recently became a widow, she said, so she wants to learn how to stay safe. The most important thing she learned, she said, is to listen to your instincts and not to purchase anything at the door or over the phone. She was a victim of fraud before, she said, and though the person is now in jail, it taught her to be more careful.

“My husband was in a wheelchair and I needed to widen the walkway to my house,” Tapia said. “This one man came by and he said he’d do it for me and said he does this for people who are handicapped. But stupid me, he asked for the money and I gave it to him and then he never came. But I was not the only one. So I called the attorney general and they caught him, and he had done this to like 25 other people. That opened my eyes.”

Tips to stay safe

• Use cash as much as possible but do not carry large sums of it at once

• Keep a major credit card for emergencies and cancel any extra cards

• When canceling credit cards, ask for it in writing saying that you initiated the cancellation

• Look at statements item by item each month and look for discrepancies

• Order a copy of your credit report annually

• Read fine print carefully

• Call the police if you are a victim of identity theft

• If you feel pressured for payment or to sign a contract, step back and call the police to mediate the situation

• Ask for written, itemized estimates for services

• Beware solicitation for nonprofit organizations

• If you want to donate funds to a cause, go to the business itself and hand them your donation to ensure they get the entire amount

• At the beginning of your fiscal year, decide what you want to support and then turn everyone else down

• Do not do business at your door, on the phone, through e-mail, or through U.S. mail unless you were the one who made the initial contact

• Check out the Better Business Bureau to learn more if businesses are reputable

• If you need a good service or product, you will normally seek that out – if someone comes to you for one of these, you probably do not need it

• If it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true

• Banks do not come to civilians to investigate crime within their own structure

• Try not to let credit cards out of your sight, even at restaurants and other businesses
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