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Older people more vulnerable to scams

Generally speaking, older adults have high levels of trust with regard to strangers, telephone salespersons, contractors, workers, officials and others they deal with. Therefore, they become an easier target for home invasion, dishonest contractors, fraudulent banking transactions, identity theft and other scams.

It’s not only crime of a financial nature that poses a threat to older adults. Though less common, older adults are also victimized by violent crime, including mugging, sexual violence, physical and mental domestic abuse, neglect and intimidation. Memory-impaired older adults are even more vulnerable to these crimes.

Americans are getting older, more diverse, and they are living longer. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 38 million Americans were 65 or older in 2007. Of these individuals, 5.5 million were over the age of 85. By the year 2030, there will be about 70.3 million Americans over the age of 65.

The most common and most dangerous fraud that gets reported to us is often telemarketing fraud. When you send money to people you do not know personally or give personal or financial information to unknown callers, you increase your chances of becoming a victim of telemarketing fraud. Telemarketing fraud targets victims of all ages through phone calls, emails and internet websites.

Some tips to evaluate the legitimacy of sweepstakes or other promotions:

• Rules and entry instructions for the promotion should be easy to find and understand. If you can’t understand what you must do to be eligible, don’t respond.

• You never have to pay to play when the contest is legitimate.

• No legitimate prize company asks for your credit card number, bank account information or social security number to declare you a winner.

Some common warning signs of telemarketing fraud. If you hear these or similar lines from a telephone salesperson, just say “no thank you” and hang up. If they call back do not answer.

• You must act now or the offer won’t be good.

• You’ve won a free gift, vacation or prize, but you have to pay for postage and handling or other charges.

• You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by courier. You may hear this before you have had a chance to consider the offer carefully.

• You don’t need to check out the company with anyone. The callers say you do not need to speak to anyone including your family, lawyer, accountant, local Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency.

• You don’t need any written information about their company or references.

• You can’t afford to miss this “high-profit, no-risk” offer.

Tips for avoiding telemarketing fraud:

It’s very difficult to get your money back, or to initiate criminal charges if you’ve been cheated over the telephone. Before you buy anything, remember:

• Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company. Legitimate businesses understand that you want more information about their company and are happy to comply.

• Always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity. If you get brochures about costly investments, ask someone whose financial advice you trust to review them.

• Always check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, the National Fraud Information Center or other watchdog groups.

• Obtain a salesperson’s name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address, and business license number before you transact business. Some con artists give out false names, telephone numbers, addresses and business license numbers. Verify the accuracy of these items.

• Before you give money to a charity or make an investment, find out what percentage of the money is paid in commissions and what percentage actually goes to the charity or investment.

• Before you send money, ask yourself a simple question. “What guarantee do I really have that this solicitor will use my money in the manner we agreed upon?”

• Don’t pay in advance for services. Pay services only after they are delivered.

• Be wary of companies that want to send a messenger to your home to pick up money, claiming it is part of their service to you. In reality, they are taking your money without leaving any trace of who they are or where they can be reached.

• Always take your time making a decision. Legitimate companies won’t pressure you to make a snap decision.

• Don’t pay for a “free prize.” If a caller tells you the payment is for taxes, he or she is violating federal law.

• Before you receive your next sales pitch, decide what your limits are — the kinds of financial information you will and won’t give out on the telephone.

• Be sure to talk over big investments offered by telephone salespeople with a trusted friend, family member or financial advisor. It’s never rude to wait and think about an offer.

• Never respond to an offer you don’t understand thoroughly.

• Never send money or give out personal information such as credit card numbers and expiration dates, bank account numbers, dates of birth or social security numbers to unfamiliar companies or unknown persons.

• Be aware that your personal information is often brokered to telemarketers through third parties.

• If you have been victimized once, be wary of cslld offering to help you recover your losses for a fee paid in advance.

• If you have information about a fraud, report it to state, local or federal law enforcement agencies.

Sweepstakes and prize scams:

Every day, Minnesota consumers receive sweepstakes promotions by mail, phone or Internet. If you have to pay to play or pay to receive “winnings,” the promotion is a scam. You never have to pay to enter a sweepstakes. That includes paying shipping and handling fees, taxes or buying a product to receive your “prize.” Those sweepstakes that notify you by a postcard that you’ve won a free prize are run by con artists whose sole purpose is to rip you off. And that “free prize” could end up costing you thousands of dollars.

If you would like to report a scam, but have not suffered a financial loss, please contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-382-4357 or or visit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at

Tom Burch is the Cass County Sheriff.