July 1, 2013
By Gabrielle Banks / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Door-to-door scam artists have probably preyed on the elderly for longer than there have been doors to knock on. But the digital age has compounded such abuse, with strangers defrauding their elders with a flurry of "amazing" investments via Internet sites, emails, direct mailers, telemarketing calls and all manner of ads.
And that's not counting con games perpetrated by caregivers, scheming relatives or a new "sweetheart."
Elderly victims reported $2.9 billion in loss to fraudulent investments in 2009. That may be a low-ball figure. The National Center on Elderly Abuse still cites a 2000 finding that only 1 in 25 cases of elder financial abuse is ever reported, which suggests as many as 5 million seniors may be the targets of financial scams.
On June 18, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced the Senior Investor Protections Enhancement Act of 2013, which would impose higher penalties for fraudulent investments involving people 62 and older. At present, fines range from $5,000 to $100,000 for individuals and $50,000 to $500,000 for businesses found guilty of civil penalties. Under Mr. Casey's proposal, fines in civil suits would top out at $150,000 for individuals and $550,000 for businesses if the fraud involved seniors.
In Pennsylvania, which is among the states with the greatest percentage of senior citizens, the attorney general and several agencies supporting the elderly have taken steps to prevent such fraud. This edition of "Know Your Rights" offers a glimpse at some of the scams most frequently aimed at seniors and provides tips on how to avoid -- or help loved ones avoid -- getting lured in.
More complete information can be found in the 44-page "Consumer Reference Guide for Seniors: How to Avoid Scams and Fraud."
The friendly handyman
An unscrupulous contractor knocks on the door and, using high-pressure tactics, offers speedy home repairs or renovations at what seems like a fair price. He may request full payment up front and then neglect to finish the work. Or the contractor neglects to complete the work in a timely fashion. Or his team neglects to show up at all.
Your rights: Get a written contract. Under the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, or HICPA, contractors must register with the office of the attorney general and provide a written contract for home improvements of $500 or more. The contract must state the exact work to be completed, including a start and end date and the cost. The customer must have signed it before work can begin.
For jobs of more than $1,000, HICPA permits contractors to accept a deposit for one-third of the cost plus the cost of "special order materials." Anything more than that exceeds maximum deposit rules.
Remedies: To check if a contractor is registered with the attorney general's office, call the Home Improvement Consumer Information help line at 1-888-520-6680. To file a complaint, call the Bureau of Consumer Protection help line at 1-800-441-2555 or visit www.attorneygeneral.gov.
The bank examiner
A con artist phones, explaining he is a manager or examiner at a local bank. He asks if, being a good citizen, the scam victim would be willing to help catch a dishonest teller in the act of thieving. He asks the senior to withdraw cash from his account so the bank can track any missing serial numbers. The victim meets the "examiner," hands him the cash and the senior never hears about it again.
Remedies: Stop. Think it through. Avoid spur-of-the moment agreements with strangers. Do not withdraw funds at the request of strangers or new friends. If someone claims to be an official, verify the person's identity. And if you're still unsure, call the bank or law enforcement and explain what you're being asked to do.
The relative in distress
The con man phones an elderly person, having chosen the victim from a phone book because she has an old-fashioned sounding name. In a frantic voice -- or sometimes from a place with plenty of background noise -- the caller informs "grandma" that he has had an accident or gotten into trouble abroad and needs her to wire money right away. The caller then thanks "grandma," explains he's embarrassed and begs her not to tell anyone.
Remedies: If you're unsure about a caller, stall. Contact family members to verify if the call is legitimate. Never wire money based on a phone or email request unless you are sure.
SOURCE: The Post Gazette
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