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Caution gives seniors protection from fraud
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Senior citizens are more likely than people in other age groups to report fraud, but they remain attractive targets because of life situations that scam artists can exploit.
“Seniors generally are no more at risk of being defrauded than the rest of the population,” said Grant Hedgepeth, director of the Consumer Protection Division for the state Office of the Attorney General. “People who suffer because of physical or emotional distress are the ones who are susceptible, and unfortunately, a large number of seniors fall in this group.”
The top priority of the attorney general's office is the protection of society's most vulnerable citizens.
“I want to help our senior citizens avoid ever becoming victims of fraud,” said State Attorney General Jim Hood. “Every single thing we do, from cracking down on home repair fraud and identity theft to educating the public about lottery scams and mail fraud, has this intent.”
Seniors often stay home, and those who live alone may be hungry for attention, said Bobbie Shaffett, family resource management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. Many of them have home equity and investment wealth, she said.
“People generally have the most money they will earn in their lifetimes right before they retire,” Shaffett said. “Seniors should be especially protective of their nest egg because they are no longer earning a steady income.”
Seniors often feel they will need as much cash as possible to pay someone to take care of them as they age, but Shaffett encouraged seniors to exercise healthy skepticism in money matters.
“Many of the people in that age group were raised in an era where people trusted others because they had to rely on each other,” Shaffett said.
If investments cannot be converted into cash quickly, seniors may panic when they suddenly need money. At this point, desperation and a smooth-talking scam artist can cloud good judgment and create a false sense of security.
The No. 1 place scam artists obtain personal information is the garbage can, Hedgepeth said.
Scam artists don't worry about getting caught because most people do not notice or cannot discern who has been rummaging. They use any information they find to con their way into someone's home or steal someone's identity without talking to the person.
Identity theft is now the most common crime in the United States and surpassed the number of drug cases nationally in 2007, Hedgepeth noted.
“One in six Americans, including senior citizens, has been victimized by identity theft,” he said.
Seniors can get help by contacting the attorney general's office toll free at 1-800-281-4418. They can also contact the Secretary of State's Office, the Better Business Bureau or a local law enforcement agency. They should report a scam even if they don't fall for it to assist law enforcement in apprehending criminals.
“If a person receives an e-mail or printed material by mail, save it and get it to us,” Hedgepeth said. “Keep recordings of conversations or write them down because the more information we have, the more likely we are to catch the perpetrators.”
Seniors should be wary of allowing strangers inside their homes without proper identification or legitimate purpose, Shaffett added. Most telephone or cable repair representatives, for example, secure an appointment time.
“Don't automatically open the door if someone shows up unexpectedly,” Shaffett said.
She said seniors should hear warning signals when pushy strangers steer social conversation to investments or finances, urge quick decision making to prevent “missed” opportunity or ask for any type of personal information.
To draw attention to consumer fraud involving senior citizens, payday loans and identity theft, Shaffett and other financial advisers waged a consumer education protection campaign in February. Extension agents with family resource management responsibilities also provide educational programs about fraud during the year.
“The importance of saving money, especially for emergency needs, cannot be emphasized enough,” Shaffett said. “People often turn to payday lenders because they don't have money and are vulnerable.”
The attorney general's office is developing two publications to help senior citizens fight financial abuse and fraud. The first, a 40-page manual, targets issues that seniors are most likely to face. The second is a manual for banks to assist employees in protecting the financial information of customers. Both publications should be available soon, Hedgepeth said.
“Anybody can be a victim, even the police officers, attorneys and reporters who work together to protect all citizens,” he said. “We're from the South and we're taught to be polite, but don't allow scam artists to put your name on the sucker list.”