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From telemarketing scams to identity theft, fake check scams and business fraud, senior citizens lose an estimated $3 billion annually — a 12 percent increase from 2008, Tim Summers, the state director of AARP Montana, said last week.
In an attempt to help prevent what Summers called "epidemic" fraud, dozens of people showed up at the downtown Holiday Inn in Missoula to watch the American Association of Retired Persons' presentation on outsmarting con artists.
The presentation, which largely focused on “keeping sharp,” included lectures from several experts, and dozens of brochures packed with information.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox was one of those experts.
“I always like talking with Montana’s senior citizens,” Fox said to an audience largely made up of that demographic. “And you’re a very savvy group. But somehow, one in every four seniors in Montana have been successfully scammed.”
Fox said in today’s digital world, it’s easier than ever to be scammed, especially for those who aren’t necessarily accustomed to using technology. The key to preventing fraud, Fox said, is equipping seniors with the knowledge of how to identify it as it’s happening.
Fox talked specifically about the tricks con artists use while scamming, including their ability to change caller ID using voice-over-Internet-phones. With this kind of technology, Fox said, con artists can made it look like they’re calling from legitimate businesses, or even federal agencies such as the IRS and the FBI.
“Why do the phone companies let this happen?” a man asked from the audience.
Fox explained that voice-over-Internet-phones are extremely difficult to trace and in most cases, law enforcement — let alone phone companies — can’t even track down the scammers.
Fox also added that scams can happen anywhere, including over the phone, at your door and on the Internet. And the scammers are merciless.
One senior was told over the phone that he'd won thousands of dollars, in return for making small payments, Fox said. The man's wife had just died of cancer and he wanted a new start. Over the course of several months, the man lost $75,000.
Another woman with dementia was scammed out of thousands.
Some women were even scammed through an online dating site. The con artist used Tim Fox’s photo on the site, telling the women he was starting a business and needed money. Collectively, the women sent the man more than $150,000. Authorities were able to track the man down and prosecute him, a rare case.
“When my wife heard people were scammed using my photo on a dating site my wife said, ‘I don’t know what those girls saw in him,’” Fox said with a laugh. “But really, scam can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, what education you’ve had or how old you are.”
Fox said he knows what it’s like to be getting older and more out of touch with technology. The audience applauded when Fox said he’d be turning 59 soon.
“Oh, he’s just a kid,” a woman laughed as she clapped.
Next up was state Auditor Monica Lindeen, who serves as commissioner of securities and insurance. She talked about the other ways scams can happen — with people you trust.
Lindeen said part of her job is to check on Montana’s financial advisors, to ensure that they aren’t pulling Ponzi schemes, a form of fraud in which people are tricked into investing in a nonexistent enterprises.
“Ninety-nine percent of our financial advisors in town do a really good job for their consumers,” Lindeen said. “But there are always bad apples. And before I had this job, I knew there were bad apples trying to take our hard- earned money, but I had no idea how many there were.”
Lindeen said most people pulling Ponzi schemes aren’t even licensed financial advisors. The best way to prevent this sort of a scam is to check your advisor out, make sure he or she is licensed, and backed by a real company.
Lindeen said that seniors are and will continue to be a prime target for scammers because three-fourths of the nation’s wealth is held by seniors.
The presentation also included lectures from Tim Summers, the state director of AARP Montana, and Alex Ward, the president of AARP Montana.
Director of Communications for AARP Montana Stacia Dahl said these fraud presentations are important for seniors because they are less likely to Google the telltale signs of a scam while they’re in the midst of one. AARP’s goal is to equip seniors with knowledge of scams before they happen.
There is even a community shredding event planned for Sept. 10 in Home Depot’s parking lot. Dahl said people can bring their bank statements and other personal info that needs to be thrown away and AARP and the Office of Public Safety will shred it for them.
“This is to help protect people’s identities,” Dahl said. “Some con artists will still dumpster-dive for people’s Social Security numbers and bank information. So it’s important that stuff be destroyed.”
The key statement made by every speaker at the presentation on Wednesday was, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”