To help people prevent their identities from being stolen, AARP North Dakota and the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) twice a year offer people the opportunity to shred personal documents for free.
But there are other steps people can take to protect themselves from fraud and scams.
Fraud targeting seniors is a growing concern as millions have fallen victim to scammers. According to a 2010 survey by Investor Protection Trust, more than 7.3 million seniors roughly 20 percent of Americans aged 65 or older have been victims of scams.
Here are six scams that commonly target seniors and tips from the BBB to protect yourself from becoming a victim:
Victims receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a family member stranded far from home. The caller may use the name of a particular family member. They say they are being held in jail, need car repairs or other assistance and need money wired immediately. The scammers may lace the conversation with correct references to other family members, increasing credibility.
Remain calm and confirm the status of the individual by calling him or her directly or verifying the story with other family members before taking any further action. Never provide scammers with information they can use against you. For instance, don't venture a name when callers say, 'It's your grandson!'
Navigating the Medicare system isn't easy and some scammers will look for any opportunity to take advantage of the confusion. Commonly, a scammer will claim to be with Medicare and ask for personal information such as Medicare, Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers. The victim might be given any number of excuses to provide this information including that an error needs to be fixed, that he or she is part of a survey or eligible to receive free products or can sign up for a new prescription drug plan.
Medicare will never call to ask for sensitive personal financial information. If you have concerns about your Medicare notices or suspect fraud, contact the North Dakota Senior Medicare Patrol at 1-800-233-1737.
Scammers will often try to take advantage of the increased vulnerability of seniors who have recently lost a loved one, such as a spouse. They find targets by scouring the obituaries. They call the widow or widower and claim that their spouse had outstanding debts that needed to be paid immediately.
If you are uncertain about owing a debt when collectors call, ask for written confirmation.
--Sweepstakes, lottery scams
Typically, the victim receives a letter in the mail stating they have won a lottery or sweepstakes; it might even claim to be from Publisher's Clearing House or Reader's Digest. The letter instructs the victim to deposit an enclosed check and then wire a portion back to the company to cover taxes or administration fees. While the funds will initially show up in the bank account, the money will be removed when the bank discovers the check is phony. The victim is out whatever they wired back to the scammers - often thousands of dollars.
Never wire money to someone you don't know. You should never have to send money to receive any winnings from a lottery or sweepstakes. Also, participation in a foreign lottery is illegal.
While many scams targeting seniors might not have a face, some scammers will be invited in the front door including technicians, contractors, air duct cleaners and other services. Some professionals will lie about the extent of the problem or claim safety issues and then inflate prices for unsuspecting senior customers.
Find professionals you can trust by researching them at (www.bbb.org) before you hand over any money. Report any deceptive offers to your BBB, local law enforcement and the state Attorney General.
Promises of easy money often target older adults because they may be looking to supplement their income. The pitch might come in the form of an investment opportunity that promises big returns, or as a way to make money at home for an upfront cost. Regardless of the specifics, the victim is offered what sounds like a great opportunity but the extra income never materializes.
Always research any work at home opportunity with the BBB. Beware of investment or money-making offers that seem too good to be true or use high pressure sales tactics to get you to sign up immediately.
If you have questions about an offer you receive, contact the BBB at 1-800-646-6222.
You should report scams to the North Dakota Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-472-2600. The agency also provides helpful information, including current scam alerts and other common scams, on its website at (www.ag.nd.gov/CPAT/CPAT.htm).
AARP also has information about current scams and fraud on its website at (www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud).
Lyle Halvorson, of Bismarck, is associate director of AARP North Dakota.