Phone scams are on the rise, and officials say these and other scams are targeting the senior population.
Local government representatives emphasize that the elderly need to be better informed about what to look out for and how to avoid them.
On Aug. 20, at the Huntington Senior Center, state Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport),Town of Huntington Receiver of Taxes Jillian Guthman and state attorney general representative T.J. Hatter held a Smart Seniors event. Together they cautioned seniors against handing over large sums of money through phone, email, letter and internet scams.
“These scammers will use fear if they think that will work, they will use kindness and they will use intimidation,” Hatter said. “The important thing is to please do not send these people your money. It is very hard to get it back once it is gone.”
One of the most common scams targeting the senior population includes the sweepstakes scam, which requests the “winner” to send a check or wire money to cover taxes for their prize. Another one is where the scammer will act as a relative, such as a grandchild, and claim to be in danger. Sometimes, the scammer acts as a lawyer or police officer. In each case, they ask for money immediately.
“There are two approaches to dealing with these types of scams,” Hatter said. “Ask for the person’s name and a call-back number.” He also recommends answering the phone only if you recognize the number as a friend or a loved one. “Let everyone else leave you a message,” he said.
“The important thing is to please do not send these people your money. It is very hard to get it back once it is gone.”
— T.J Hatter
Hatter said the scammers are often out-of-the country and can’t be traced.
“These scammers are using something called routing technology,” he said. “The idea is to make the number they are calling from have a ‘631’ or ‘516’ area code to make it look more local and make it more likely someone will answer.”
According to Suffolk County officials, in 2018, there were 68 phone scam incidents reported, targeting the elderly and non-English speakers. Of the 68 victims, 40 were elderly, as reported in a January 2019 TBR News Media article. Between 2017 and 2018, the largest amount of money taken in once incident was $800,000, according to Suffolk County police.
In 2019, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scammers looking to fraudulently gain access to financial information, according to a report from telecommunications firm First Orion.
One of the latest scams to target seniors urges them to purchase gift cards to help a relative in trouble.
“We are finding that [scammers] are asking for those prepaid gift cards and then they will ask you to scratch off the back and read them the numbers,” he said. “That’s the most common one we are finding right now.”
Home improvement scams are also common and often offer “free inspections.” The inspections will almost always find a problem that requires an expensive solution.
“Someone will knock on your door and say they are a repair person and ask if something is wrong with your home,” Hatter said. “They will say they can fix it and even offer you a discounted rate. Do not pay this person.”
Hatter said ultimately you hold the power so if you are not sure that you recognize the caller, you are not forced to answer the phone.
The Office of the Attorney General urges people to use strong passwords and avoid using birth dates, Social Security numbers and mother’s maiden names in them.
If you shop online, be sure the sites you use are secure. A secure site will start with https:// and most use a padlock icon, which will tell you the name of the owner. Also, use only credit card rather than debit or check cards.
“Debit cards, even those with a credit card name and logo, do not carry the same protections,” the Smart Seniors program states. If credit card information is stolen, you are only liable for $50 in fraudulent charges. If your debit card information is stolen and the thief wipes out your bank account, the money is gone.
It’s also important to remember that email scammers often masquerade as a familiar and trustworthy company, such as your bank, online store or credit card company. Sometimes they pretend to be a government agency. These scammers are “phishing” for personal data and often claim that there’s a problem with your account. Do not click on a link no matter who they claim to be. You may be directed to a bogus, look-alike website that spoofs a real company.
“The key to the phishing scams is that they ask you to provide personal information, such as your Social Security number or password, so they can “confirm your identity,” the program warns.
“If you get a call, text or email from a company claiming there’s a problem do not respond,” the Attorney General’s Office states. Instead delete the message or hang up, and contact the company yourself. It’s important to protect your personal information. Papers should be shredded before you throw them away.
New Yorkers donate more than $10 billion to charitable organizations each year, with older New Yorkers being the most generous, the Attorney General’s Office states. It is suggested that you confirm that a charity is registered with the Attorney General’s Office, as required by law and find out if the funds will be used for programs, administrative costs and fundraising. Avoid charities that will not answer questions about its programs and finances.
Residents can greatly reduce the number of unsolicited calls, mailings and internet offerings they receive. The National Do Not Call Registry can be reached at 800-382-1222. You can place your landline and your mobile number on the Do Not Call List. Registration never expires. Political organizations, charities and telephone surveyors are still permitted.
Patricia Wagner, a Huntington resident who attended the session, said she was grateful.
“This was really informative and I’m going to share this information with my friends [who are not here],” she said. “We are getting older … we need an event like this every year.”