To help elderly Pekinites identify and avoid potential scams, the American Association of Retired Persons hosted a Fraud Watch Network seminar Thursday in the Pekin Public Library’s Community Room.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that every year, one in six consumers are cheated by telemarketers, with an average monetary loss per person of about $992. Because so many telemarketers and con artists target older Americans, the issue has become a significant concern for AARP.
“We feel it’s important to do this kind of community training,” said AARP volunteer Steve Hartley. “It seems that the senior community is vunerable to this type of stuff. When seniors come to meetings like this, they have a chance to learn what they should be looking for and how to protect themselves.”
The AARP invited Tazewell County Sheriff’s Deputy John Shallenberger and Officer Steve Fitzanko of the Pekin Police Department to present the seminar entitled “Crimes Against the Elderly: Con Artists, Telemarketers and More.” According to Shallenberger, some of the reasons that con artists often target the elderly include loneliness when a spouse has passed away, physical disability and mistrust of banks. Typical crimes against the elderly are internet fraud, telemarketer scams, Medicare fraud and home repair scams.
“The number one victim of telemarketers is the elderly, because they’re at home answering the phone,” said Shallenberger. “Eighty percent of the victims of telemarketing scams are older consumers.”
Fitzanko added that telemarketers have learned to fool caller identification programs on a target’s phone by calling from numbers that are within or close to the target’s geographic area.
“If you have caller ID on your cellphone, and most of us do, the call will look like it’s coming from South Pekin,” he said. “It’s not really coming from there. That’s just the nearest tower that the cellphone signal can get to. So, just because it’s a local number doesn’t mean it’s going to be what I call ‘a real person.’”
Fitzanko recommended that if the recipient of a local call does not recognize the caller’s phone number, he should allow the call to go to voice mail. Some common telemarketer scams are spurious prizes that require not-so-spurious fee payments, vacation package offers, calls purportedly from the Internal Revenue Service, and warnings of arrest warrants.
“We never call you to say there’s a warrant,” Shallenberger stated. “We’ll come and knock on your door. If you get a call about a warrant, call our non-emergency number.”
Another scam that specifically targets older consumers is the Grandchild Scam. The caller will claim to be the prospective fraud victim’s grandchild or the grandchild’s attorney, tell a story of the grandchild having been arrested and ask for the transfer of money that will allow them to post bail.
The best way to avoid becoming a victim of a home repair scam, Shallenberger said, is to use local contractors for home repairs. Consumers should be wary of contractors who make unsolicited visits and offer to perform home repairs or maintenance work.
“If you don’t think you have a problem, why are you going to let somebody come in and tell you there’s work you need done?” he asked. “See the contractor’s license, check the references, get a written estimate of how long the job would take and how much it would cost, and get a written contract.”
Practitioners of home repair scams tend to use substandard materials and perform the jobs for which they were paid in a way that is not in compliance with building codes. Many of the fraudsters travel four to six hours from their home areas to make themselves more difficult to track. It is also common for them to take advantage of any access they gain to burglarize homes, making off with cash and jewelry.
“They don’t want to mess with credit cards,” said Shallenberger. “They know credit cards can be tracked, while they can just go and pawn the jewelry.”
Following the presentation, Shallenberger and Fitzanko fielded questions from the audience. Shallenberger stressed that prevention is a vital weapon in the endless war against crime, and awareness is the ammunition that loads that weapon.
“A lot of the telemarketing and internet scams are not even coming from this area, even though the victims might be local consumers,” he said. “So, they can be difficult to prosecute. We try to prevent them more than anything.”