Seniors can learn to hang up on scams

Phone frauds target vulnerable people, especially the elderly, non-English-speakers

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter



Resources for fighting scams

Signs that a phone call is a scam:

• The incoming call is from a blocked, unfamiliar or foreign number.

• You’re asked for demographic information, such as date of birth, address or Medicare number.

• You’re asked to give a mother’s maiden name or other information that may be used to bypass a password.

• You’re asked to wire money.

• The caller requires immediate action or response.

• If the caller is selling something, they don’t identify themselves as a salesperson early in the conversation.

• Redeeming a prize or inheritance requires sending in money first.

Get help

Seniors and Law Enforcement Together is a collaboration among the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, Camas Police Department and the Senior Citizens of East Clark County that works to decrease crime and raise livability for seniors. The program also publishes a monthly newsletter on senior issues. 360-397-2104 for west Clark County, 360-834-4151 for the east side.

The Elder Justice Center responds to reports of abuse of vulnerable adults in Clark County. Call 1-877-734-6277 to report abuse.

Friends of the Elder Justice Center, an ancillary organization of the justice center; 360-566-7690.

Southwest Washington Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities; 201 N.E. 73rd St., Suite 201; 360-735-5720 or toll-free 1-888-637-6060.

Forewarned is forearmed, and officials want people to be ready to defeat attempts to rip them off over the phone.

Dianna Kretzschmar, liaison at the Fort Vancouver Convalescence Center and president of the Friends of the Elder Justice Center, said seniors are typical targets for phone scams because they still have a land line and a phone number in the White Pages. They may also be hard-of-hearing or have cognitive issues stemming from dementia that make them more likely to fall for a ruse.

Scammers can sweet-talk their way into stealing money or may use empty threats to get what they want. It's more difficult to solve these types of crimes because most of the perpetrators aren't local.

'Grandparent scam'

Sue Amann of Hazel Dell recently got a call from a man claiming to be her grandson. He told the 81-year-old that one of his friends was in jail in Mexico, and she needed to wire money down there to bail him out.

"It was scary. It didn't sound like any of my grandsons," says Amann, who has six grandsons.

After a short conversation, she caught on to the act and hung up without wiring any money.

Kretzschmar says this type of scam is gaining traction as more elderly people use social media and have information readily available online. Seniors who aren't tech-savvy may not know how to change the privacy settings on their accounts. Scammers can get details about grandchildren off Facebook or through graduation announcements and use it to make a convincing pitch when they call for money.

The "grandparent scam" is one of the Top 10 scams targeting the elderly, according to the National Council on Aging.

"Seniors have a hard time saying no because of the kindness, because of the graciousness, because of the way that generation handled things," Kretzschmar says.

Detective Kevin Harper investigates these types of crimes reported to the Clark County Sheriff's Office Major Crimes Unit. Seniors, he said, tend to be more trusting and willing to help, so they're more likely to get ripped off.

His own dad got a call from someone claiming to be a grandson who needed money because he found himself in jail.

"Good. Stay there," his dad told the caller before he hung up.

Harper and Kretzschmar agree that hanging up is the best recourse.

"Fighting back means hanging up," Kretzschmar said.

The Medicare scam

Seniors shopping for Medicare plans during open enrollment can get calls from scammers posing as providers.

"You have to be a smart consumer these days," Kretzschmar said.

With the Medicare scam, someone calls claiming to represent Medicare or a specific health care provider, such as Kaiser Permanente. Kretzschmar said this is one of the scariest scams because, if successful, the caller gains critical personal information; they can steal the senior's identity and open up multiple lines of credit in their name.

Many seniors, she said, don't realize that their Medicare number is the same as their Social Security number. These numbers can otherwise be treated like commodities and sold to other people.

Harper warns that scammers are finding ways to spoof numbers. This means caller ID can show a number from a legitimate organization, such as Red Cross or Kaiser Permanente, when it's not actually that number or associated with that organization. Seniors should ask the caller for a customer service line to call them back on.

The TV scam

Seniors aren't the only members of the population vulnerable to scams: Non-English speakers are targeted, as well. Harper has dealt with local reports of Spanish-speakers who are called and offered a "special deal" to upgrade their TV service.

The caller, claiming to be with Dish Network, asks them for money up-front on a prepaid card to secure the deal. If they're successful, they might even ask the victim if they have friends or family members who would also be interested in the deal.

"You have to have a suspicious mind," Harper says. "If it sounds too good to be true, it absolutely is too good to be true."

He acknowledges that this scam is particularly slick because actual Dish Network employees come to the house to set up their service. In reality, the scammer made an Internet order for satellite service and pocketed the money on the prepaid card. The victim doesn't know they've been scammed until a few weeks later when they get the bill they thought they already paid.

People often don't report these types of crimes, either because of the language barrier or because they're embarrassed. A victim Harper worked with brought an interpreter to the police precinct to explain what happened.