Rodney Brooks, USA TODAY
We've all worked mighty hard to get ready for retirement. So, the last thing in the world we want is to lose even a portion of what we've saved.
But that's what's happening as a legion of scam artists targeting seniors and retirees gets bolder and more treacherous. Their activity revs up during the holidays. And the data breaches at Target and other retailers mean everyone, especially seniors and retirees, needs to be more vigilant about protecting their personal information.
A MetLife survey estimated that seniors older than 60 have lost nearly $3 billion a year to financial abuse. And surprisingly, much of this abuse is not from strangers.
"They are often friends and families and neighbors," says senior fraud expert and independent consultant Marion Somers. "There are a lot of bad guys out there," she says.
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There are lots of scams. According to the experts, here are the most popular among the crooks. And be especially careful giving out your personal information - that is what many of them are after, says Somers, who operates the website www.livingsafer.tv. And people need to be as protective of their Medicaid information as they are of their Social Security number.
"When I deal with clients, I put a note on every phone in the house, 'Do not give out personal information,'" she says, "and never give money via wire unless you confirm it verbally with the person you are sending it."
1. Advanced fee (and lottery) scam. "They want you to pay for something you didn't order," says Summers. Most popular among these is the lottery scam or the inheritance scam, she says.
"They call and tell them they won this large prize and tell this person they need to send money for fees, to pay taxes or some type of insurance to receive the money," says Angela Byers, financial crimes section chief for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. "After they've paid some, they keep getting them to pay more. They haven't won the lottery. They've never played. I'm not sure why they completely fall for that."
"Never pay for anything you haven't ordered, that includes those books that keep coming," says Somers. "When you pay for that book by check, they know where you are checking. They are getting information. Never give out any personal information."
2. Grandparent scam. This one starts with a call from someone claiming to be a grandchild.
"They will call as the grandchild in some crisis situation where thy need money urgently, and beg them to send the money and not call the parent," says Byers. "They are crying. It is someone posing as the grandchildren. They are saying they are in a foreign country," she says. "You wire them money, and then try to get them to wire more."
"People are so willing to help their grandchildren, they will do whatever," says Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director and expert on senior fraud. "They don't ask questions. These impostor scams are happening all over the country."
3. Cash fraud. This includes people fraudulently asking for money for charities or people playing to seniors' loneliness with romance on sweetheart scams.
Summers says the charity scams are especially prevalent during the holidays. "You end up being on every charity list," she says. "They sell your name, your phone number and your e-mail address. They make money selling your information. When you send in your money, especially if you send it in a check, they are getting a huge amount of information."
The sweetheart scam happens when someone befriends an elder person, she says. "It could be a neighbor, it could be an aide, or a relative of an aide. They gain information on your accounts. That also goes for family members or neighbors who have drinking problems or drug problems."
Check your credit card and bank cards statements carefully every month to make sure there are no discrepancies, she says.
4. Computer scams. "Another one that especially scares older folks, is the computer virus scam," says Shadel. People will say, "I'm calling from Microsoft, and I see you have a virus. We can get rid of it." They get you to log into a website that lets them control your computer. They can make it look like a virus. They can also steal your ID.
"We've been trying to get the inside scoop of people who did the scams," says Shadel. "We interviewed an ID thief. The most valuable thing is your personal computer, even if it's 10 years old. It has all your information on it.
"A lot of people on home computers don't have them password protected," he says. ID thieves would hire people to break into homes and steal computers. If they steal your computer and it's not password protected, Shadel says, they can go to all your websites because you have logged in automatically. "Do not think that if you go the mall and you lock your laptop in your trunk, it is safe," he says. "People are waiting. Your laptop is the No. 1 thing they are looking for."
5. Time-share scam. " As you get older and are not able to utilize time shares, you want to sell them," says Byers. "A guy stole the time-share list of his former employer. He called the customers offering to sell them and trying to get them to pay fees, which he said they would get back."
She said people paid several thousand to $10,000 to the group. The FBI charged 41 people in Miami last year in the case that netted the thieves $5 million.
6. Homeowner scam. "They call you up and say we drove by and saw your roof needs repair or tree limb needs to be repaired," says Somers. "They are soliciting home repairs you don't need."
An old person's home is sometimes in disrepair. "They come to the door, and are very respectable looking. You should never let them in the house. You should say, 'Give me your card and I'll have my lawyer get in touch with you, or my son," Summers says. "Make believe you have a support system. For one of my people, we got a barking dog record for her. When someone came to the door she put the record on."
7. Medical scam. You get a call saying a company is running a special on some kind of medical equipment, maybe a heart monitor, or wheelchair or even a bench that goes into the bath tub, says Somers. They need a deposit and your personal information or Medicaid number to send the equipment. Not only does the medical equipment never come, but they are getting your personal information. "If you are suspicious, just hang up," she says.
For information on financial scams aimed at seniors, or to report a scam, there are several options.
• AARP recently started Fraud Watch Network (www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork), which alerts people to new scams. Shadel says in the two months it's been operational, 17,000 people have already signed up to get the alerts.
• The Senate Aging Committee has launched a new anti-fraud hotline to make it easier for seniors to report financial fraud at 855-303-9470.
•Report suspicious activity or get more information at the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (www. IC3.gov).