Fighting fraud: Tips for seniors

When it comes to scams, senior citizens are a targeted demographic.

Computer consultant Paul Lourd recently told The Bulletin he had a couple of clients scammed by phone callers claiming to be from Microsoft or some other reputable company.

“They state that they have detected problems with your computer, and then get you to install some nasty software, and then take your credit card number to ‘fix it,’” Lourd said. Not only was one victim charged $249, the scammer also got a valid credit card number.

With May being Older Americans Month, Bankwell in Wilton offered some information regarding common forms of fraud that prey on the elderly.

One of these is known as the “grandparent scam.” This is when scam artists impersonate seniors’ family members in order to get at their personal information.

“Seniors will be contacted by a variety of methods, whether it be email or phone, saying that a relative of theirs — usually a grandchild — is in trouble, or is in jail, and they need to wire X amount of dollars in order to help their grandchild out,” Bankwell in Wilton branch manager Ann Mitrione told The Bulletin.

The American Bankers Association (ABA) lists these four tips to combat the grandparent scam:

  • Confirm the caller.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

  • Never give personal information to anyone over the phone.

  • Never rush into a financial decision, and trust your instincts.

Then there’s the “lottery scam.” This is when seniors are falsely told they’ve won a lottery or sweepstakes raffle. They’re issued a check and then instructed to pay taxes and fees on their winnings before receiving lump-sum payments.

“They never get the sweepstakes winnings, because there was no sweepstakes in the first place,” Mitrione said.

To avoid falling victim to the lottery scam, the ABA says:

  • Don’t be fooled by the [convincing] appearance of the check.

  • If a stranger wants to pay you for something, insist on a cashier’s check for the exact amount, preferably from a local bank or one with a local branch.

  • Verify the requester before you wire or issue a check.

  • Be sure to ask if the check has cleared, not merely if the funds are available before you decide to spend the money.

  • Report any suspected fraud to your bank immediately.

In general, the ABA lists 14 red flags for elder financial abuse:

  • Unusual activity in an older person’s bank accounts, including large, frequent or unexplained withdrawals.

  • Changing from a basic account to one that offers more complicated services the customer does not fully understand or need.

  • Withdrawals from bank accounts or transfers between accounts the customer cannot explain.

  • A new “best friend” accompanying an older person to the bank.

  • Sudden non-sufficient fund activity or unpaid bills.

  • Closing CDs or accounts without regard to penalties.

  • Uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money.

  • Suspicious signatures on checks, or outright forgery.

  • Confusion, fear or lack of awareness on the part of an older customer.

  • Checks written as “loans” or “gifts.”

  • Bank statements that no longer go to the customer’s home.

  • New powers of attorney the older person does not understand.

  • A caretaker, relative or friend who suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of an older person without proper documentation.

  • Altered wills and trusts.

Here are some pre-emptive tips from Bankwell.

Mitrione advises seniors to shred, shred, shred.

“We always say to shred any sensitive papers,” Mitrione said, “which doesn’t mean rip them in half and throw them in the garbage. It means shred them with either your own personal shredder, or Bankwell has shred days free to the public twice a year. Also, Wilton Library occasionally has a shred day. The Wilton Go Green Festival this past weekend had a shredder as well.”

Mitrione also warns the elderly to monitor their mail delivery. “People actually do steal credit card statements out of mailboxes, so our recommendation to them is if you know that you’re due a monthly statement and you don’t get it, to either call the bank or the creditor that you have a credit card with.”

Most importantly, however, Mitrione said that to beat fraud, a senior should trust his or her gut above all else.

“Trust your instincts,” Mitrione said. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and if it doesn’t feel right or sound right, it probably isn’t and you should consult with a trusted adviser.”