Every year, Masonic Villages helps a handful of residents navigate through the process of reporting fraud or attempted scams. Statistically, senior citizens are targeted with consumer fraud more frequently than other demographics. Since Pennsylvania has nearly 2 million seniors (the third highest percentage of all the states), this has been a major focus of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.
Protect Your Information
There’s no hard and fast way to guarantee you won’t someday face a case of fraud, but that should not leave you stifled in fear. Instead, be proactive! Help prevent these cases and prepare yourself if you should ever face one of these situations.
The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions (FACT) Act of 2003 and the Identity Theft Red Flags Rule of 2007 require creditors and financial institutions to write and implement identity theft prevention programs.1 Because of regulations like these, credit card companies can help identify unusual behavior, such as an unauthorized major purchase made with a credit card, and notify the card holder of their suspicions.
Partner with the credit card companies by using some safe practices to protect your personal information. Don’t carry all of your credit cards, forms of identification, birth certificate and social security card in your wallet or purse at the same time. Take these items with you only when needed. Only provide your credit card or bank account number to businesses and organizations you know are reputable. Don’t forget to monitor your monthly bank statements, and order a credit report once a year to check for inaccuracies. Each of the major credit bureaus provides one free credit report per year. For more information about these credit reports, visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.
Keep your ATM receipts, or shred them if you must throw them out. Always shred pre-approved credit applications, credit card receipts, bills and other financial information before throwing them out.3 Since 1997, Americans have also had the option to reduce the number of pre-approved offers of credit they receive by opting out of the major credit reporting companies’ mailing lists. To pursue this option, visit http://www.optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is one of the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agencies. Its mission is to fight criminals who attack the postal system and misuse it to defraud, endanger or threaten the public.5 The agency’s website, www.postalinspectors.uspis.gov, provides some insight into the types of mail you may receive:
- If a piece of mail says “you’re a guaranteed winner” or “there’s no risk involved,” you should be skeptical.
- If you have to pay to receive a prize or enter a sweepstakes, the contest is illegal.
- If you receive a lottery offer that involves another country through the mail, it is illegal.
- When ordering new checks, pick them up at the bank and don’t include unnecessary information, such as your phone number, driver’s license or social security number.
People also have the opportunity to remove their name from mail solicitation lists through the Direct Marketing Association for free at www.dmachoice.org. Or, they may opt out by sending a signed letter with their complete name (including variations), mailing address, telephone number and a check or money order in the amount of $1 for each name to: Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512.4
Finally, consider revamping your passwords or PINs to make them more secure. Don’t use anything obvious, like your birthday, anniversary date, social security number or part of your name. A person who has gained access to some of your personal information will know you value these items and may identify them as possible passwords. In addition, do not carry around a piece of paper that includes your password or PIN. It’s important to memorize your passwords.
Scams Get a Little Too Personal
Many people think that they’re too smart to get conned into a scam. But, remember, con artists have practiced their trade of manipulation to gain people’s trust. As the Office of Pennsylvania Attorney General states: “The clever con artist is a good actor who disarms his victims with an affable ‘nice guy’ approach. Behind this friendly exterior is a shrewd judge of people who can isolate potential victims and break down their resistance to his proposals.”
Empower yourself with these tips:
- If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Free vacations, guaranteed prizes, cures for chronic ailments, door-to-door special offers, low-risk investments with high returns, foreign lotteries and claims of recovering unclaimed money should all raise suspicion, especially if you have to pay money for any of these items up front.
- Take your time, and read the fine print. If you want more time to think about a purchase or agreement, ask for a phone number and call the person back after you have someone you trust review the contract or agreement. The Better Business Bureau can also help you identify a deal from a scam. You always have the right to call a salesperson back.
- You don’t need to provide personal information. It’s illegal for telemarketers to ask for your credit card, social security or bank account number to verify a prize or gift. The only time you should provide this type of information is if YOU initiated the phone call to a company, organization or person you trust.
- It’s alright to hang up or shut the door. If you feel too pressured or are uncomfortable with the “deal” someone is offering you, it is alright to end the conversation. Whether it means saying goodbye, hanging up the phone or shutting the door, you have the right to end the conversation.
- Sign up for the “Do Not Call” list. The number two consumer complaint filed by seniors is telemarketing and sweepstakes fraud. The Pennsylvania Telemarketer Registration Act gives you the option to eliminate many of these calls. You may register online at https://www.attorneygeneral.gov/submit-a-complaint/not-call-verification/ for the state-wide list and at http://www.donotcall.gov for the national list.
- Keep your cool. If someone tries to coerce you, refuses to stop calling you or becomes insistent upon you writing a check or purchasing something, don’t become frazzled. Know your rights and remember there are people willing to help you decipher a good deal from a scam.
Take Action: Contact Authority
If you get a piece of mail, email, phone call or visit from someone who you’re suspicious about, or if you’re concerned someone has gained access to your personal information, contact authorities. The Office of the Attorney General’s toll-free senior helpline, 800-441-2555, can help you determine the next steps to take, including calling the local police.
1. Finklea, Kristin M. Identity Theft: Trends and Issues. Rep. no.R40599. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 5
Jan. 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40599.pdf>.
2. “Elder Abuse Unit: Protecting Older Pennsylvanians.” Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General – Protecting Pennsylvanians. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. <http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/seniors.aspx?id=296>.
3. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Protect Yourself: How to Avoid Identity Theft. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Print.
4. Office of Pennsylvania Attorney General: Bureau of Consumer Protection. Important Information. Harrisburg: Office of Pennsylvania Attorney General: Bureau of Consumer Protection. Print.
5. United States Postal Inspection Service. U.S. Postal Service. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/>.
6. “Senior Crime Prevention University.” Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General – Protecting Pennsylvanians. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/seniors.aspx?id=533>.
7. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Safe Seniors. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Attorneygeneral.
gov. Pennsylvania Attorney General. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://attorneygeneral.gov/uploadedFiles/Consumers/safe_seniors.pdf>.
8. “They Can’t Hang Up.” Fraud.org. National Consumers League. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://www.fraud.org/elderfraud/hangup.htm>.
9. “The ‘Do Not Call’ Law in Pennsylvania.” Attorneygeneral.gov. Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://attorneygeneral.gov/seniors.aspx?id=591>.