Unfortunately, the fear of "being taken" by a con artist is all too justified for senior citizens. Many who prey on limited-income seniors believe that they will not be quick enough or sharp enough to catch on until it is too late. AARP randomly surveyed seniors in Colorado recently and found that many seniors feared being misled by businesses selling services by phone and online, such as mortgage lenders, pharmaceutical companies, home repair contractors and companies selling health insurance. Unfortunately, about 20 percent of respondents admitted they would not know where to turn for help if they were victimized.
"Many of the common frauds directed toward seniors are phishing scams (when cons send you e-mails or letters asking you to update your personal information with them and then they use the information to steal your identity and access your accounts or open new ones), foreign or domestic sweepstakes, foreign money exchange offers, Internet auctions (cons will offer to buy or sell things that don't exist), charity frauds or work-at-home scams," explains Sgt. Kern Swoboda of the New York State Police.
Swoboda offers the following advice: "The best ways to prevent oneself from becoming a victim are: 1) Never give out your personal information, especially if you are being solicited for it. 2) Always second-guess a transaction before you complete it; ask a relative, caretaker, friend or member of law enforcement whether it seems legitimate. 3) Keep spyware and virus scan programs on computers up-to-date. 4) Always get agreements in writing, confirm terms of the agreements and check with someone else before agreeing to purchases, exchanging personal information or giving to a charity. 5) Check out who is doing business with you. Reputable companies always have Web sites and are registered with their local chambers of commerce, properly licensed as required by the local or state government, and willing to provide references."
"Just as savvy seniors are often on the lookout for people or places that might put them in harm's way, they also need to be equally diligent when it comes to con artists and scammers, the most common threats to their well-being," says the public affairs office of the National Crime Prevention Council. The NCPC recommends that seniors -- and everyone else, as well -- request that any business offers made over the phone or Internet be mailed in writing for review; reputable companies are willing to put information in print. Don't give out personal information to any unfamiliar companies, even if you are told it is for identification purposes only. Using direct deposit for regular checks also helps to reduce the possibility of theft. Most of all, don't worry that you might be rude if you insist on your rights and are skeptical of random solicitations.
More and more seniors are becoming Internet savvy and frequenting social networking sites, and the FBI has noticed an increase in "hijacked social network accounts." The FBI's national press office recently noted, "One of the more popular scams involves online criminals planting malicious software and code onto ... victim computers. It starts by someone opening a spam e-mail, sometimes from another hijacked friend's account. When opened, the spam allows the cyber intruders to steal passwords for any account on the computer, including social networking sites. The thieves then change the user's passwords and eventually send out distress messages claiming they are in some sort of legal or medical peril and requesting money from their social networking contacts." The FBI recommends that you be selective when adding friends, be careful about applications and clicking on links, adjust your security settings, and limit your profile access.
Swoboda offers a final very important bit of advice: "If you feel you have fallen victim to a fraud or scam, please immediately call your local police. The faster you recognize that you have been victimized the faster law enforcement can find the people responsible and prevent others from falling prey to the same scam."