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May 15, 2013

Stave off schemes that scam seniors

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

The Michigan Consumer Protection Division offers these tips to protect yourself from fraud:

• Never provide personal information to anyone that calls you or emails you out of the blue.
• Don’t agree to deposit a check from someone you don’t know, then wire money back, no matter how convincing the story.
• Give only to established charities. 

The Charitable Trust Section of the State Attorney General’s Office says to look out for the following warning signs:

• A caller who insists you make a pledge or donation without the organization first sending out information.
• A caller who will not, or cannot, tell you how the money will be used.
• A charity name that sounds or looks like a widely recognized organization, but isn’t.
• Charities or fundraisers that use emotional appeals without providing financial information.

Source: State of Michigan Attorney General Office

Sometimes it starts with a phone call.

A common fraud perpetrated against the elderly preys upon the natural impulse to help a loved one in need.

The caller poses as a grandchild in trouble, out of the country, and asks that money be wired for bail. The senior responds to this and loses, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars before learning it’s a scam.

In one case reported to Troy police, an elderly couple received a phone call April 15 from someone who said he was their grandson, in trouble in Mexico, and needed them to wire him $1,424. They did so, and then got another call from someone who said he was the grandson’s lawyer, asking the couple to wire $1,425, which they did. When the couple received another request for money, an employee at a grocery store refused to wire the money for the couple and told them they had been scammed.

Glenn Clark, presenter for State Attorney General Consumer Protection Division Senior Brigade program, said the scams often have a “Windsor” angle. The Senior Brigade program provides seniors and their caregivers with information on financial matters, common senior scams and health care. The program offers free, in-person Senior Brigade presentations, to any size group, on home repair and equity scams, identify theft, investment fraud, online safety, phone and mail scams, and residential care choices. 

“Resist the pressure to act immediately,” Clark said. He spoke at a Senior Brigade program at the Troy Public Library April 16.  “Call a trusted family member, friend or local police. Don’t wire money. You can’t recapture it.”

In some of these cases, the senior citizen fills in the blanks for the thief. The caller says, “Hi Grandma, it’s your favorite grandchild,” and the grandparent guesses a name of the grandchild that sounds most like the caller.

Another common scam involves the victim being informed that they have won a foreign lottery and need to send money in order to collect winnings. Clark said scammers also ask for credit card or bank account numbers over the phone.

According to Troy police, an elderly Troy man got a call from someone April 3 who told him he’d won $1 million and should buy a prepaid debit card, load $250 onto it, and give him the card numbers over the phone. Police said he was asked to purchase two more cards that day, for $160 and $390, and to give the caller the numbers over the phone, which he did. It wasn’t until the person called the next day and said the man had actually won $5 million and a Mercedes, and should wire $390 to Jamaica that the man realized it was a scam, police said.

“It’s illegal to participate in a foreign lottery if you are in the U.S.,” Clark said. “It’s different if you travel (to that country).”

Fraud is also widely perpetrated over the Internet. “One big fraud we see is an ‘IRS’ email,” Clark said. “The federal government does not send out random emails.”

Also, ask questions of callers who solicit for charities. “It’s important to do research before you write the check,” Clark said. The Charitable Trust Section of the Attorney General’s Office website lists the percentage of donation dollars that goes directly to help. It’s available at www.michigan.gov/AGCharity Search. The online listings include the organization’s statement of purpose and if it is a 501(c)3.  Donations to 501(c)3s are tax deductible. For instance, at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, 90 percent of donations goes to program services.

“We consider that high,” Clark said. In some cases, less than 10 percent of donations remains with the charity, with the rest going to pay costs of fund-raising.

Also, beware of names that sound like charities but are not. Fake charities may send out fake invoices, Clark said. He said sometimes seniors don’t remember so well, and they believe the caller when the scammer says the victim has given to the charity before, or seniors may think the invoice is something they previously committed to.

Clark said it’s not illegal for representatives from charitable groups to call homes to solicit donations. “If you prefer not to receive calls, ask the charity to stop calling.”

If you do believe you’ve wired money to a scam artist, call the money transfer company immediately to report the fraud and file a complaint. The AG’s office advises people to ask that the money transfer be reversed, although that’s unlikely to happen. Reporting the fraud can protect others and help the money transfer companies take appropriate action against agents who do not take steps to reduce fraud transfers.

“Report it to local police immediately,” said Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham. “Don’t be embarrassed.”

He said, with the warmer spring weather, “contractor” scams increase.

Wickersham explained that in these cases, someone knocks on a homeowner’s door with the ruse that they are in the neighborhood doing roof repairs and noticed a problem with the roof of that home.

“They get the homeowner out of house, in the backyard, and someone rips off their house,” he said.

Wickersham gives presentations to senior groups throughout Macomb County. He said that, on average, 70 percent of the senior attendees at his presentations use the Internet.

He said the “Nigerian” scam perpetrated online states that millions of dollars must be moved out of that country and that victims get a percentage if they help to do this by providing their bank account numbers. 

“It’s (the Internet) a new way of committing crimes,” Wickersham said. 

Report fraud with the Federal Trade Commission online at www.ftc.gov/ or call (877) 382-4357. If the request involved wiring money to Canada, Canadian officials ask victims to report the fraud by phone at (888) 495-8501 or www.phonebusters.com. Contact Wickersham’s office at (586) 469-5151.

Check out charitable groups at www.michigan.gov/agcharities or call (517) 373-1152. For information or to set up a speaker through the Senior Brigade program, visit www.michigan.gov/ag and click on seniors, then senior brigade. Contact the Michigan Charitable Trust Section at (517) 373-1152.