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Scams target elderly

September 20, 2012
Jenn Brookens - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - From cases of identity theft, online or phone scams, to cases of theft among family members and friends, the elderly end up being a common victim.

There are schemes that target the elderly specifically, such as the "grandchild in trouble" phone call. The caller claims to be a granddaughter/grandson in trouble in another country and needing thousands of dollars for bail.

"We still get reports of the grandparent call," said Fairmont Police detective Eric Tonder. "We've had two more reported in the past 30 days. We're fortunate that people around here recognize that it's a scam from reading about it in the paper, and they report it to us just to let us know it's out there."

For Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma, seeing a vulnerable person taken advantage of is one of the most frustrating crimes for police.

"To see someone whose worked and saved all their lives, then someone comes in and takes advantage of them, ruining their finances, it's just so frustrating, especially since a lot of times, there's no way to recoup those losses."

Tonder reminds senior citizens that phone calls and emails requesting bank account numbers and other personal information are red flags for scams and identity theft.

"More seniors are getting online now, but there's also more risk for online fraud," Tonder said. "Remember that no reputable business will ask you to supply your bank account information. Don't respond to those e-mails claiming you won something that you never entered. Don't open any e-mail attachments on suspicious e-mails."

And while telemarketers may get a bad rap, some deserve it.

"You have some that peddle useless products to ones that are straight-out fraud," Tonder said. "Some of these may give a long spiel, or jump back and forth just to confuse the person, and get them to agree to paying $80 a month for vitamins that cost $10 at the store. It's not illegal, but they can still be reported to the Better Business Bureau."

One suggestion is to make sure all phone numbers are on the "Do not call" list.

"There is a scam where people will offer to put your number on the 'Do not call' list," Tonder said. "Some even charge for this service. But it does not cost to sign up for the 'Do not call' list."

And numbers can be bumped off the list if you sign up for something without reading the fine print.

"Sometimes you make a purchase with a company, and they could sell your information to any other company under their umbrella," Tonder said.

What may be even more heartbreaking than losing money over the phone or the Internet is when the crime is committed by someone trusted and loved.

"For caretaker exploitation, it's typically an older person, single, isolated, but needing assistance because they've become physically or cognitively impaired," Tonder said. "Sometimes it can be someone hired to help, but also it can be a family member or friend who's helping take care of the person."

However, this can become tricky when not all family members are on the same page.

"It can be tough when there's an adult who lives with mom, is helping her take care of the bills, driving her to her appointments, and then there's a sibling who hasn't been back for four years, and they're suddenly suspicious when they see the other sibling spending money on themselves, and they defend themselves by saying, 'Mom said I could.' This could end up as a criminal or a civil case."

Some of the signs of financial exploitation include:

o Sudden bank account changes, especially unexplained withdrawals of large sums of money when accompanied by another person.

o Additional unexplained names on an elder's bank signature card.

o Disappearance of funds or valuable possessions.

o Substandard care despite adequate finances.

o Sudden transfer of assets or changes in a will.

"Financial institutions around here are good about questioning things like that, such as a customer that's always been frugal is suddenly taking out thousand-dollar withdrawals," Tonder said. "They may notice if someone is suddenly accompanying them on all their visits or is doing all the banking things for them. They report these things if they feel it's appropriate."

The same has happened for some seniors who almost fell for the "grandchild" call.

"Walmart is popular for their wire transfers, and we've had people there call us when they suspected a scam, and sure enough that was what it was," Tonder said.

Financial abuse may go unreported by a person even if they are aware of it, due to shame and embarrassment.

"They may think that if they can't handle their money, that they'll be forced to move into a nursing home," Tonder said. "There's also that close relationship factor; once they realize it's a granddaughter or a son, then they decide they don't want to press charges."

The way to avoid misunderstandings and avoid potential exploitation within the family is for the whole family to discuss and plan before older members of the family are in need of care.

"It is easier to do when you're well," Tonder said. "When the person is in the hospital not able to speak, or is suffering dementia, that's not when you want to be determining what that person would want."

A program to help learn about avoiding identity theft will be held at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont. It is hosted by Thrivent Financial.

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