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Beware of these scams targeting older adults

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What can seniors do to protect themselves? The bottom line is that we should all exercise great caution before giving out any private information ...

Adam K.

For seniors who rely heavily on life savings, it is especially important to be careful about whom to entrust with personal and financial information. Many of us are bombarded daily with ads, mailings, and solicitations. In the midst of so much information, knowing whom to trust and how to identify scams can save us from a world of stress.

Many scams today specifically target seniors. These might include appeals for charity, free prize offers, vacation bargains, lottery tickets, and inexpensive health care products. According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, older adults lose approximately $2.9 billion every year due to scams and financial exploitation.

What can seniors do to protect themselves? The bottom line is that we should all exercise great caution before giving out any private information -- this includes anything related to your credit card, a bank account, insurance information or Medicare ID. When confronted with offers from telemarketers or by mail, remember that a healthy dose of skepticism is the best approach.

Phone Scams

Before giving out any private financial information over the phone, learn as much as you can from the caller -- the name and phone number of the salesperson; the name, number and address of the organization; and the organization's business license number. Even if the caller seems legitimate, tell them you will be back in touch and hang up.

Remember that legitimate businesses very rarely call consumers unsolicited, and that banks and government agencies virtually never do.

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from your bank, the IRS or a similar government agency saying that you owe money, simply hang up the phone.

On its website, the FBI has posted a list of typical lines you might hear from a fraudster:

-- "You must act now, or the offer won't be good." This is an attempt to pressure you into acting quickly and unreflectively.

-- "You've won a free gift, vacation or prize -- you just have to pay for postage and handling, convenience fees, or taxes." Any attempt to get you to pay for a "free" prize is a ploy. Furthermore, the caller is breaking federal law if they tell you that the payment is for taxes.

-- "You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by courier." Once your financial information is given over the phone, it is virtually impossible to recover the money or track down the perpetrator. Likewise, a courier who picks up your cash in person can even more easily vanish without a trace. Never agree to have a courier from an unfamiliar business come to your house to pick up cash.

-- "You don't need to check out the company with anyone." In this case, the scammer is hiding the fact that his or her business is illegitimate.

The Grandchild Scam

"The Grandchild Scam" involves a caller claiming to be your grandchild or someone associated with your grandchild, with news that he or she is in trouble and needs money. In some cases, the caller may even have the correct name of your grandchild. While it is distressing to think about a grandchild in trouble, know that this is one of the most prevalent scams out there.

Never agree to send money when contacted over the phone in this way.

Contact your grandchild's parents and tell them about the call. In almost all cases, you will find that your grandchild is fine and did not make the call.

Mail Scams

Common mail scams include invitations to participate in sweepstakes (which are fake) or foreign lotteries (which are illegal). In the case of the sweepstakes offer, you may be asked to buy magazine subscriptions or inexpensive jewelry, which will "automatically enter you in the sweepstakes." Not only will you not see any winnings, but you will also see a lot more junk mail like this once you have taken the bait; your name will be put on an "easy-target" list, which scammers buy and sell from one another.

In the foreign lottery scam, you may receive an authentic-looking check that says you have won the lottery in a foreign country. The accompanying note will instruct you to wire a portion of your winnings for taxes or other fees. Alternatively, the mailing might invite you to send money for a "special chance" to win the foreign lottery. Both versions are scams, as it is illegal to buy or sell foreign lottery tickets in the U.S.

To report or inquire about telemarketing or mail scams, you can contact the Massachusetts Attorney General's Public Inquiry and Assistance Center Hotline at (617) 727-8400.

- Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.

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