Nestled between the magazines, bills and credit card offers that normally populate your mailbox is an official-looking letter. You open it to find that you’ve won a prize. But before you can claim that prize, you have to mail some money to the official-looking address that’s printed in the letter.
What do you do?
If you’re like many older Americans, you’re probably questioning the offer. At the very least, you’re trying to remember if you entered some kind of contest for the prize. You also may be weighing whether it’s worth it to send your money away.
The official-looking letter is just one of a handful of scams targeting older adults. These letters can request small amounts of money, or they can ask for bigger sums in exchange for a “prize.” When you mail in your hard-earned cash though, you won’t receive anything in return.
At a recent Healthy Aging Day for Kendal at Home members, Bob Davis, a representative from the Ohio Attorney General’s office, provided some tips on how to spot—and avoid—elder fraud.
Why Are Seniors Targeted?
Davis says seniors make an attractive target for scammers because they:
- Are trusting and have been raised to be polite
- Likely have a nest egg or some kind of savings
- Don’t want to bother their children or other family members questioning the validity of offers
Kinds of Scams Targeting Seniors
Scammers don’t just rely on postal methods to get victims. Common senior scams occur:
- Online (via social networking or email)
- Over the phone (telemarketing)
- In-person (door-to-door salespeople, or someone offering to “inspect” something)
The grandparents scam
A scam that’s growing in popularity, according to Davis, is the grandparents scam. Thanks to social networking sites like Facebook, scammers can go online, view pictures and names of family members, then call or email you claiming to be a grandchild in trouble. The “grandchild,” Davis explains, is usually stuck in a foreign country, urgently needs money and asks you not to tell his or her parents. If you receive a call or email that sounds similar to this, always “call their parents and check,” Davis advises.
Door-to-door or service scams
If you’re considering doing business with a repairman or other kind of service provider, consider what they’re asking for financially before making a deal.
“When someone comes to you and says, ‘I need half down so I can buy materials,’ that's a hobby, not a business,” Davis says. “People who are in business have lines of credit. They have suppliers and they don't have to come to you and ask you to pay them so they can buy what they need. Business people will be able to provide you with their services before you pay them.”
Do due diligence
There are several ways to avoid senior scams. When you receive a letter requesting money, a questionable email, door-to-door solicitations or anything you view as suspicious, Davis recommends checking with the Better Business Bureau.
“Even if the company doesn't belong to the Better Business Bureau, it will have reports on people, so when you receive door-to-door solicitations or want to hire someone to do work around the house, call the Better Business Bureau,” explains Davis. “Get as much information as you can and if you’re going to hire someone, make them give you a contract that says what are they going to do, when are they going to start, when are they going to finish, what they're going to accomplish, and what it's going to cost, and then what the resolution process is if it doesn't work.”
Ask for written information
When considering hiring someone to provide services, ask for a contract in writing. The contract should contain the services being performed, the timeframe when they will be performed, estimated costs, and importantly, Davis notes, a physical business address.
Secure your bills or other important paperwork
If you’re like most adults, you likely have a place in your home where you keep your bills or other sensitive paperwork. If that place is out in the open—like your kitchen table—Davis advises purchasing and using a lockable box or filing cabinet or shredding the documents once you’re finished with them.
“If someone is in our house and happens to look around, they can get checking information. Or, if they break in, it's much easier for them to grab a set of financial information than to steal your TV or stereo,” he says.
Whether you receive a questionable email, letter, phone call or door-to-door visitor, trust your gut when evaluating an offer. If something seems too good to be true, or if you don’t remember entering a sweepstakes for a prize you’ve “won,” the offer is probably a scam.