The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, as part of our mission of building trust in the marketplace, is making a concerted effort to reach out to senior citizens across the region to inform and empower this group to protect themselves and others from the scams and fraud that are abundant today.
The old phrase "old enough to know better and young enough to be fooled," applies to everyone from 9 to 99. Seniors need to be wise in their day-to-day living and be aware of con artists that are bombarding this age group with phone, mail and e-mail schemes every day. Seniors are targeted for several reasons:
--They grew up in an age where people trusted each other and continue to want to believe the best in everyone.
--They are available to answer the door or pick up the phone and may be happy that someone wants to share some time and attention with them.
--As a group they have resources homes, investments or savings.
And the reality is that living on fixed incomes may leave seniors open to believing in lotteries and "get rich" schemes that might make their golden years a little more golden. The key is to be informed and understand the types of fraudulent offers that are commonly offered to the elderly:
--One of the most prominent scams has been the foreign lottery scheme. You may receive word that you have won a million dollars and all you have to do is pay the taxes or a fee to collect your prize usually by sending money through a wire service to a foreign country. Don't believe it never pay money upfront to claim a prize. Remember, foreign lotteries are illegal in the United States.
--Another common scheme has to do with door-to-door sales. Someone may knock on the door offering to make repairs or improvements to your home. They might say they have material left over from another job and can give you a great price all they need is a small down payment to take care of permits or other things.
The best advice is to tell them that you don't make decisions on the spot and you want to check their company out with the Better Business Bureau and with city building authorities. Don't be pressured!
--Some seniors receive phone calls offering them a great deal on a product, but the caller says they need to act immediately and asks for their credit card or banking information. Don't give personal financial information to any one over the phone unless you are positive you are talking to someone who is credible. You have the power to hang up the phone. And remember, your bank or credit card company will never call you to verify account numbers over the phone.
--One scheme that pops up every so often is the grandparent scam. This is when a grandparent receives a call from someone who pretends to be their grandchild, telling the grandparent that they have gotten in some trouble in Canada and need help. They ask the grandparent not to tell their parents and say they need money. Usually the caller says the money needs to be wired, which makes it very difficult to trace. One of the ways the caller is successful is when they say, "Grandma, it's me" and the grandparent says, "Is this (uses name of their grandchild)?" That gives the caller a name to use. If you receive one of these phone calls, do not say your grandchild's name. Instead, ask the person for their full name and a question only your grandchild would know. This will verify their identity.
--Seniors who use the Internet may get an e-mail from a friend saying they are out of the country and have been robbed and need your help to get home. Don't be fooled. Again, ask the person a question only your friend will be able to answer.
Some scams include letters that look official from the IRS or some other agency asking for personal or financial information. Be aware that legitimate agencies will not contact you in this manner. Do not open attachments from these requests as it may give scammers access to your computer information.
Seniors should realize the people behind these scams are clever and make a living committing fraud. The term "confidence man" tells the story; they can paint a glowing scenario to make you believe they have your best interest at heart when all they really want is access to your purse or wallet. "IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS."
Be empowered! There are resources available to seniors that will help them avoid becoming a victim of predators. Check before you buy, don't give out personal information, report scams to the proper authorities, and caution others to be aware of scams.
Good resources to keep at hand include the Better Business Bureau 651-699-1111 or toll-free 800-646-6222 or the Web site (www.bbb.org).
Gary Johnson is the Senior Outreach Program Manager for the Better Business Bureau of North Dakota and Minnesota.