Scammers on the prowl

By LIA MARTIN

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jill Woster cautions seniors gathered last week at United Methodist Church for the ID Theft and Scammers seminar in Sun City Center.  Lia Martin Photo

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jill Woster cautions seniors gathered last week at United Methodist Church for the ID Theft and Scammers seminar in Sun City Center.
Lia Martin Photo

“If you want something done on your house,” Deputy Judith Woster of Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said to a crowd of 100 seniors, “do not ask the guy standing on the ladder next door trimming bushes.”

Woster addressed the standing-room-only crowd gathered to learn how to protect themselves. They were attending the HCSO Identity Theft and Scams workshop at United Methodist Church in Sun City Center last Thursday.

The “guy next door” is probably not licensed, bonded and insured. If he falls, he could sue you and you could lose everything you own. It happens, Woster said.

Then she asked if anyone had ever parked their car outside their garage. You probably have your garage full of stuff, right, and there is no room to park your car inside? She then asked if the garage door opener was left inside the car. Hands across the room went up.

“You’ve just given them (thieves) entry to your home,” Woster said with emphasis.

“What if you lock your car door?” someone shouted from across the room.

“Have you ever heard of a brick?” Woster asked. “Have you heard of an ice pick? Tinted windows hardly make any noise when they break.”

Woster is giving the seniors much-needed information to battle fraudulent vendors, contractors, scammers, thieves and predators trying to take their property and money. Why are they targets? According to the National Association of Triads, a partnership of law-enforcement agencies promoting senior safety, retirees are available to scam more often than the general populace because they are home during the day. These seniors are often isolated and away from family members who could be looking out for their welfare. A senior is often lonely and friendly, which leaves them vulnerable. Because they are elderly and may have chronic health issues, they need help maintaining their property.

Money is another reason. They have more disposable income at their age, after a lifetime of saving and managing their assets.

According to Det. Tangelia Jackson, who is on the team working on fraud cases, someone only needs two forms of some identification about you to open a bank account or credit card account. That could be your name and address, your name and date of birth, or your name and phone number.

“Who has a flag that no one can change your Social Security information unless you go in person?” Jackson asked.

Only one person out of the 100 gathered raised their hand.

“Go to the Social Security office and tell them no one can change your information unless you are there in person,” Jackson said. “You have to find ways to safeguard your identity.”

The top senior scams reported are listed, with a few of the examples:

1. Telemarketing that includes the Internet, phone and mail. Scammers might send out an email on bank letterhead and say there is a problem with the account and that the senior needs to update their information, password and account number.

2. Fake charities. You get a call from a charity saying they are supporting a reputable organization. What they don’t tell you is that as little as 3 percent is going to the organization, but 97 percent is going in the scammer’s pocket.

3. Sweepstakes. You receive an official-looking check. The account number is fraudulent, but the routing number is correct. The bank reads it as a valid check. What the sweepstakes will tell the senior is, “Cash the check, you get the bulk of the money and send $5,000 to us for processing.” Fifteen days later, that check bounces and the senior is liable for that $5,000. Some checks even come looking like IRS refunds.

4. Healthcare fraud. Scammers can find out a senior is a diabetic, call him up and say, “Give us your Medicare card number and we can send your supplies through the mail.” Or they can obtain free treatment by assuming that older adult’s identity.

5. Identity theft. A senior gets the call: “We need to verify your account number. Give us the last four digits of your Social Security number.” They can match that with the phone number, last place of employment and home address. Once they have that information they can take out a loan on the victim’s home, open credit cards, go to stores and open an account, or get a $5,000 line of credit. The senior gets the bill, and the scammers get the goods.

6. Financial exploitation, including online investment and securities fraud. Scammers will sell seniors long-term securities or stock. They have no problem selling a woman 80 years old a certificate that doesn’t mature for 20 or 25 years. They are relying on the senior’s inability to understand the fine print.

Art Smith, a volunteer with the organization Seniors vs. Crime, takes his role very seriously. He is particularly worried about the tradespeople who are preying on property owners in Sun City Center.

“Beware the roving contractor,” Smith cautioned listeners at the seminar. “It is one of the biggest problems we have here.”

It is interesting to note that Smith felt the demise of the Consumer Affairs Committee, which served under the Sun City Center Community Association, will impact staff at Seniors vs. Crime because the residents need to find another resource to help them.

“We expect to take up the slack where [the] Consumer Affairs [committee] left off,” Smith said.

Seniors vs. Crime was formed 25 years ago and has local offices to help protect seniors against fraudulent crimes. Because of crimes against the elderly, the Florida Legislature ordered a task force to be formed. Seniors vs. Crime was formed as a special project of the Florida Attorney General’s office.

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