Friday, April 2, 2010

Senior citizens: Target of ongoing scams

Written by Carrie Schmelkin, Reporter Thursday, 01 April 2010 06:10

Without even having to set foot outside their homes, senior citizens have become the most recent targets of two nation-wide ploys — the grandparent and census scams.

Con artists posing as grandchildren or United States census workers have been cold-calling, e-mailing and visiting homeowners, particularly senior citizens, asking for immediate financial help or personal information. While the New Canaan Police Department has received no reports yet from victims of the ongoing census scam, two older residents over the last two years have been prey to the “grandparent scam,” according to Sgt. Carol Ogrinc.

“Maybe in some ways they are a more vulnerable population,” Ogrinc told the Advertiser of why scammers target the seniors. “They may tend to be more giving, and that population might want to spend more time talking on the phone with somebody because they have the time versus somebody that’s younger and more on-the-go in the workforce.”

Last year, eight scams were reported to local police, ranging from residents becoming victims of Internet ploys to chimney ruses to lottery tricks. This year, two have been reported so far.
“It’s probably normal,” Ogrinc said of the number of reports from last year, “but I’d like to see that number cut in half or even smaller.”

Appealing to affections

Two years ago, a New Canaan grandparent received a call from her supposed grandson explaining that he had landed in jail and wanted her to send him money to post bail, Ogrinc said. The caller knew the grandson’s name, and the resident sent along the money. After sending it out, the resident became suspicious of the call and notified the police. The person was never caught, according to Ogrinc.

The “grandparent scam,” which has been affecting seniors from Connecticut to Canada, involves scammers calling a grandparent and claiming to be his or her grandchild and requesting financial help for a problem they are in, according to the Connecticut Better Business Bureau, which is investigating the ongoing scam.

Scammers often begin a cold-call by stating, “Hi Grandma, guess who’s calling?,” which allows the resident to fill in the name of the child, according to a March press release from the bureau.
It said scammers will often plead with the grandparent not to tell their parents about the accident or arrest for which they are requesting money.

“I remember thinking that’s just another scam against a vulnerable segment of our population which is the elderly,” Ogrinc said of first hearing about the trick.

Leaders of Staying Put in New Canaan, which helps equip local seniors with the tools to age in their own homes, sent out a letter to its members warning about the dangers of the “grandparent scam” after the first incident hit the Next Station to Heaven, according to Executive Director Jane Nyce.

With grandchildren one of the top 10 concerns of senior citizens, according to the 2006 town-wide survey, this group can fall victim to this type of ruse, Nyce said.

“Senior citizens are always going to be concerned about loved ones,” she said.

“The emotion pulls you potentially more than reason,” Nyce said of the scam.

To avoid falling for the ruse, Ogrinc said residents should ask their “grandchild” personal questions, such as the family dog’s name or his or her mother’s first name. Seniors should also ask for a number to call the person back and then verify the problem with the parents.

“It’s great if you want to help out your grandchild but that’s just it, you want to be helping them out and not giving money to someone who is scamming and stealing from you,” Ogrinc said.

Claiming to be officials

While town organizations are still spreading the word about the dangers of the “grandparent scam,” others are currently focusing on the latest trick — callers or groups of people posing as census workers to obtain personal information.

Through illegitimate e-mails and mailings or personal visits, scammers are targeting individuals, eliciting personal information and using it to access their bank accounts, according to police.

Groups like Lapham Community Center and Family Centers, a nonprofit organization providing services throughout Fairfield County, are creating articles and programs to speak directly to this problem.

With the 2010 census process underway, 134 million households have been mailed census information since March, according to Lapham’s latest newsletter.

The census form asks 10 questions about age, date of birth, race and whether residents rent or own homes. It does not ask for Social Security numbers or for information about bank accounts, credit cards, taxes or income, as stated in the letter, so residents should be leery of any documents requesting that information, according to the center.

In addition to its newsletter, Lapham officials are working with seniors, in particular, to reiterate the dangers of this scam and how it can cause people to be out thousands of dollars if critical information is released, according to Lyn Bond, center director.

“Seniors tend to be a little more trusting if someone speaks nicely to them and acts as if they are trying to help they tend to be helpful back,” Bond said.

“It’s a generation that was taught to be polite, and they grew up and raised their kids in an era where people weren’t scamming and didn’t lie as much and people were more trustworthy,” she added. “Some of that has changed for the worse.”

Like Lapham, Family Centers is working to inform residents about the ongoing census scam. Through its Friendly Connections program, which offers teleconference classes weekly, New Canaanites may sign up for “Perspectives on Aging” and discuss their own thoughts on the ruse and experiences with it.

A representative from the Census Bureau has already spoken at one of the sessions and may return to teach participants about what they can do to stay safe, according to Bill Brucker, Family Centers communications director.

“These people may seem like they are legitimate and directly from the Census Bureau, but as soon as they ask about Social Security numbers and bank numbers, it should raise a red flag,” Brucker said.

“If they ask those questions there is nothing wrong with absolutely refusing them,” he said.

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