Seniors warned of scams

DA Ryan speaks to seniors in Billerica

By Angie Orenstein

Billerica Minuteman

March 25, 2014

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Billerica Police Chief Daniel Rosa have urged seniors to heed the following safety measures: do not give out personal information, do not let strangers into your home, and ignore letters, emails and phone calls asking for money or claiming you won the lottery or sweepstakes.

"There is no international lottery," said Ryan, "and if you haven’t played you haven’t won."

Often times the caller will claim you won the lottery but you need to first wire money to collect your winnings, Ryan said.

Ryan and Rosa were among the guest speakers who addressed a group of seniors at the Billerica Council on Aging during a senior protection seminar last week, sharing safety tips and warnings against frauds and scams, which they said all too often target the elderly.

Be wary of any phone calls or letters seeking personal information or asking for money. Ryan gave an example of a phone call received by a senior where the person was claiming to be a lawyer in the state where the person's grandson lived and said the grandson was in trouble and needed money fast or he’d go to jail. This person knew the senior had a grandson and knew what state he lived in.

"There’s always a little truth in the scam to make it believable. It sounds very real," said Ryan. "I remain convinced there are people out there who look at your information. It’s a common denominator. People listen and chat you up. You have to have your guard up and if someone you don’t know chats you up a little too much, don’t give out too much personal and family information."

Ryan warned against letting strangers into your house for any reason and she said she’s shocked by how many people do it. Sometimes it will seem innocent, she explained, such as a mother and daughter showing up at the door asking for the little girl to use the bathroom. As you lead her to the bathroom, the other person can quickly ransack your house.

Same thing can happen when someone comes to your door to solicit business. Never let anyone inside but also be wary of other techniques. For instance a person can knock on your door and tell you he or she is  removing trees next door and ask you to come outside to take a look at the property line. As you innocently venture outside, a partner could be sneaking inside your house.

If you do hire someone to work in your house – after checking out their credentials carefully, of course – be sure to not leave checkbooks and banks statements in accessible places. If you are not keeping a close eye at all times, they could go through drawers and cabinets for personal information that can be used to steal money from your accounts. A check could easily be stolen from the middle of the checkbook and you wouldn’t even realize it was gone.

"Think about who’s in your house and what they have access to," said Ryan. "It’s terrible to say you have to do it, but you do."

Sometimes it’s not even strangers who steal from you; it can be a family member on a joint bank account. Many people have these types of accounts because they want a trusted family member to be able to have access to their money in case they become sick or hospitalized, but often things change and a trusted person can find themselves in a situation where they are desperate for cash. Make sure you regularly check bank statements and don’t keep your entire life savings in a joint account.

"The number one way people lose money in banking practices is with a joint banking account," said Ryan. "What’s in that account should be money you can afford to lose."

Prema Nagathan, assistant vice president and bank security officer for Enterprise Bank, offered tips on safe banking practices and stressed the importance of getting and reviewing your bank statements each month. She said to keep an eye out for that small dollar amount that doesn’t make sense. Even if it’s a withdrawal for just a few pennies, if you don’t know what it’s from, don’t ignore it; it could be someone trying to tap into your account. She also suggested not mailing checks out from your personal mailbox because they can be stolen, and she advised to never write pin numbers on debit cards. She also recommended using direct deposit so that money gets into your account faster and safer.

Deputy Police Chief Roy Frost also spoke about the frequency of phone scams and financial fraud along with basic physical safety. He said that anytime you are leaving your house empty for an extended period of time it’s a good idea to call the police department to let them know and they’ll keep an eye on your home.

Some common scams that have been reported lately, he said, include phone calls claiming they are from federal agencies looking for back taxes; mystery shopper scams offering to pay you money if you sign up with their agency; and calls from panicked people saying they have been kidnapped in a foreign country and need money to be set free.

"They’re fast and furious. They’re always changing. But if it doesn’t feel right in your gut, it’s a scam. If it sounds too good to be true it is," said Frost, adding, "If you have any questions, call us."

Lucille Mackinnon, 77, was one of about 20 seniors who attended the seminar last week. She said she was glad she came, that it was interesting and she learned a lot. She admitted that she recently became prey to a scam when she received an email stating her computer was hacked and that if she paid $200 they would fix it for her.

"I learned my lesson. I won’t do that again," she said.

Call the Billerica Police Department or contact the Middlesex Elder Abuse Unit at 781-897-8300 with questions or to report any scams, thefts, or abuse.

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