County officials urge elderly to beware of scams
BY RICHARD ZOWIE
TIMES GUARDIAN STAFF WRITER
For senior citizens living on fixed incomes, small stock dividends or a minimum-wage job, the idea of making more money can be appealing.
Some might receive notification of winning money from an overseas lottery. To claim the prize, though, they are told they must give out the name of their bank and their account number.
Others they receive notification of being offered a generous commission for safekeeping millions of dollars from Africa. All they have to give is their bank account number.
For others, they might receive a phone call telling them they won a large sum of money, jewelry or some other expensive gift. Sometimes they're required to provide a credit card number for verification while others are told they must first buy a product before being able to claim their prize.
For all these above situations and the many more that are similar, authorities have one central message: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Gerry Webb, director of the Comal County Senior Center, said senior citizens tend to be trusting toward other people and look to others for help or advice.
Marie Dawson, board member at the senior center, said elderly widows tend to often be the victims of scams.
"With these women, their husbands usually took care of things and now they feel overwhelmed," Dawson said.
Dawson noted that scammers particularly like to target the elderly since they think senior citizens might have a nest egg someplace. One type of scam commonly done is the promise of doing repairs on a house, she said. They do some or no work, and after they've collected initial fees or collect extra money from unforeseen repairs, they leave.
To combat these problems, there's an organization in the county called the TRIAD/SALT (Seniors And Law enforcement Together). TRIAD/SALT meets on the third Friday of every month at the Comal County Sheriff's Office. The meetings are free.
The American Association of Retired Persons lists nine warning signs to help consumers be aware of potential scams:
* Claims that you've won a prize-but must pay to receive it. The scammer might explain that your payment is related to administrative fees, customs, taxes or other reasons. Legitimate sweepstakes don't ask for payment because it's illegal.
* Pitches that require you to pay right away. It's likely a scam if a caller or salesperson requires you to pay right away to take advantage of an offer. They'll often arrange courier pick-ups or encourage wire transfers to make you feel they're doing you a favor by making payments convenient.
* Callers or salespeople who won't provide written information to help you make a decision. Scam artists are most successful when they sabotage your ability to think through an offer, and so they often claim there's no time to send the materials.
* Offers that promise sizable returns with minimal risk. The old saying remains true: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Most legitimate investments or business opportunities require risk for participants to realize a reward.
* Requests for donations that don't disclose how money will be used or the specific charity that would benefit from your giving. Legitimate charities will disclose the percentage of donations that actually benefit the charity-and how much goes to administrative and overhead costs. They also should provide references to check on their authenticity.
* Offers to "repair" your credit in exchange for an up-front fee. Legitimate lenders do not require up-front payments, and nobody can wipe a bad credit report clean if it contains accurate information.
* Persistent pitches from the same company after you've requested they not call. Legitimate companies will remove you from call lists if you ask. If the problem persists, you can report the problem to the National Fraud Information Hotline (800-876-7060) or the Federal Trade Commission (877-FTC-HELP).
* Offers to recoup money you've lost in another fraudulent scheme. No legitimate agencies perform this service, except for state offices of consumer protection or attorneys general that are pursuing legal action. (Keep in mind that state authorities will never ask for a fee.)
* Requests that you keep the offer a secret. A legitimate salesperson or charitable solicitor wants as many people as possible to know about his offer so that he can close more deals. But scammers ask you to keep the offer under wraps so friends and family won't question the offer's authenticity.
AARP also offers six tips for family members and friends to look for to determine whether or not an elderly loved one or friend has been the victim of a scam:
* Frequent calls during your visits from folks offering moneymaking opportunities or seeking charitable donations.
* Lots of new, cheap stuff lying around. Look for items like watches, pens and pencils, small appliances, water filters and beauty products-all of which often flow from "order to win" or "receive a valuable prize" offers.
* Secretive behavior regarding mail or phone calls.
* Payments to unfamiliar entities or irregular withdrawals. These can show up as checks or wire transfers, and they are often for increasing amounts of money to out-of-state or unfamiliar companies.
* New subscriptions to magazines they don't need or haven't received previously.
* Financial troubles. Watch for a sudden inability to buy food or other necessities or pay bills.
For more information, visit AARP's Website at www.aarp.org and click on Consumer Alerts or visit http://www.fraud.org/elderfraud/eldset.htm. The Comal County Senior Center can be reached at (830) 606-4547.