Get Wise to Scams Targeting Seniors

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By Dan Rosenblum

A few years ago, one of the residents of a West Side senior center began to sell their neighbors an alternative to Con Edison.

"They began to sell to them a different kind of lighting company," said Micki Navarro, director of the Manhattan Valley Senior Center. "Well, it was all a scam. And they had to put a deposit down to get this."

It wasn't until one of the seniors mentioned it to one of the center's social workers that they were finally able to start tracking the crime and looking for the scammers. By then it was too late.

"We traced it to somebody we couldn't really trace," Navarro said.

This isn't an anomaly. Many elderly New Yorkers know the traditional safeguards to prevent pickpockets and burglaries. But, because they prey on trust, scammers can be much harder to avoid.

According to Ken Onaitis, head of the elder abuse department at the Carter Burden Center for the Aging, many scammers target the elderly, who can often be lonely or vulnerable.

Ageism is another reason scammers seek out senior citizens. Some see seniors' physical or mental limitations as an invitation to go after them. Navarro said scammers target some elderly victims because of mental issues like depression, Alzheimer's and dementia.

"Those people who commit the fraud, they know all of this," she said. "They prepare. They do research and watch. They watch their prey and they attack when they know it's the right time."

Because scams can happen in person or by mail, phone or computer, there's no sure-fire rule to avoid scams. But common sense is the best way to keep out of the crosshairs of con artists.

"If an offer sounds too good to be true," Onaitis said. "It probably is."

Here are some common scams to be wary of:

? While the mail is still used, email and computer-based scams are more common today. Never give out your social security number, bank information or other sensitive information over the Internet unless you absolutely trust the source on the other end. Even then, it's good to make sure you verify as much as you can and never give money to people you don't know.

? Phone scams are also common, according to Onaitis. Some scammers call dozens of people a day trying to gather sensitive data or sell fake products.

"The main thing is that if you get someone on the phone requesting information, trying to get information out of you, just hang up," said Onaitis.

? According to Navarro, another common scam is those who wait until seniors receive social security money. When seniors go to withdraw money from ATMs, some people follow them home and try to sell them things.

? Make sure you feel comfortable with the person on the other side of the door before you open it. If someone says they are in a position of authority, always ask them for identification.

Navarro said that many seniors grew up when door-to-door salespeople were much more common. Some scammers take advantage of that trust to enter people's homes. "They don't know who they're letting in," she said.

The first thing anyone should do if they feel scammed is call the police in the precinct in which the crime happened. Many people are ashamed to admit they've been had.

Beyond the police, there are resources like the city's Department for the Aging and community organizations like the Carter Burden Center, which help people respond to scams and go to court if necessary.

Still, prevention is much more simple than the cure. People should take simple steps to keep all personal information private and never give money to people based on a promise, because once scammed, it can be very hard to get the money back.

"Usually when the money's gone, the money's gone," Onaitis said.

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