Scam Stoppers raises public awareness of fraud schemes

web-scam-stoppers.jpgBy Nick Diamantides
Staff Writer

Some thieves specialize in robbing elderly people. They use the U.S. mail, a telephone, or the Internet. Sometimes they knock on doors and even park close to banks. Whatever means they use, they aim to take advantage of unsuspecting seniors and often manage to take away their homes and their life savings.
Last Friday morning a coalition of government officials conducted a “Scam Stoppers” conference in the Signal Hill City Hall Council Chambers to make the public aware of various schemes used to trick retired people into giving away their money or open up their homes to a burglar.
The ultimate purpose of the seminar was to inform residents on ways to protect themselves from being victims of fraud. Co-hosted by State Senator Alan Lowenthal (27th District) and Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (54th District), the event was organized by the California Contractors State License Board, California Department of Consumer Affairs, and AARP.
“Senior citizens are too often the targets of scam artists,” Karnette said. “I sponsored this event to give residents the opportunity to hear from experts, engage in dialogue and learn ways to protect themselves.”
The seminar featured a panel of experts from the Contractors State License Board, California Department of Consumer Affairs-Bureau of Automotive Repair, California Department of Insurance, California Department of Corporations, California Public Utilities Commission, Federal Trade Commission, AARP, California Attorney Generals Office, as well as a captain from the Signal Hill Police Department.
Jackie Wiley-Sistrunk of the California Department of Corporations warned the audience to beware of unsolicited phone calls, especially when the telemarketer asks for a credit card number or Social Security number.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Why would I give my personal information to someone I don’t know?’,” she said.
Wiley-Sistrunk added that if someone offers any kind of a deal that sounds too suspicious, ask them to mail printed material regarding their offer and then contact the department of corporations or another government agency to find out if the company is legitimate. She noted that professional scammers are very shrewd and will not hesitate to steal your life savings, and once the money is gone, it is very difficult to get it back.
Expanding on Wiley-Sistrunk’s comments, Ann Stahl, representative of the Federal Trade Commission, said identity theft was a growing problem throughout the United States.
She explained that thieves have used stolen cards to obtain goods and services for as long as there have been credit cards, but in more recent years unscrupulous people have used driver’s license, Social Security and personal identification (PIN) numbers to completely drain bank accounts and open new financial accounts that the victim is not even aware of until they find out that they are in debt for thousands of dollars.
Stahl noted that it’s next to impossible to protect oneself from a dishonest person who has access to information in the files of one’s doctor, dentist or other business that needs it for insurance and billing purposes. She stressed, however, that dishonest office workers account for a very small percentage of identity theft.
“You need to think about how does the information that we all have get out there,” Stahl said. “You need to focus on how that information comes into your home and how it goes out of your home.”
She stressed that bank statements, credit-card statements and tax information come in the mail and wise homeowners will remove it from their mailboxes as soon as possible to avoid its theft.
Stahl also strongly urged audience members to shred documents containing personal information before throwing them into the trash and to never leave bill payments in their mailboxes for pick-up.
“There are identify thieves that raid trash cans and dumpsters and steal mail just to get someone’s personal information,” she warned.
Lauri Pearlman of the California Attorney General’s Office warned the audience of health fraud. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous folks out there who would like to take advantage of people who are dealing with health issues,” she said. “Always discuss anything you are considering with your doctor or a healthcare provider you trust.”
She noted that every year, seniors spend billions of dollars on medications or treatments that do not cure diseases or conditions, and in some cases actually cause physical harm.
Maria Guzman-Kennedy, of the California Contractors Board warned of another healthcare scam in which seniors are invited to a free health exam and lunch. “They take you to a fancy hotel where they give you a non-obtrusive exam of your eyes or ears, but they ask to see your Medicare or Medical card,” she said. “Then you get the free lunch, but what you don’t realize is that they bill Medicare or Medical for something like open heart surgery or very expensive equipment.” She noted that there have been cases where Medicare refused to pay for a patient’s needed surgery or wheelchair because according to its records the patient already had the surgery and already had a wheelchair. “So the scammers made off with a large amount of money and created a serious hardship for their unsuspecting victim,” she said.
The two-hour conference, attended by about 50 people, covered a wide range of scams including insurance and financial investment fraud. Lowenthal warned the older audience members against investing in annuities. “They are not really germane to the senior population,” he said. “We are getting more and more complaints from seniors who bought annuities because they were told they would get double their money back, but then they find out they don’t have access to their money for 15 or 20 years and there are pre-payment penalties.” Lowenthal noted that he has co-authored Senate Bill 573, which would mandate standards for annuities sold to seniors including starting the payouts much sooner.
Final speaker, SHPD Captain Ron Mark, told the audience to remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true.
He said that most scams have two things in common: there is a pressure on the victim to hurry up and take advantage of a good deal, and usually the offer is not something the victim was looking for.
Mark urged the audience to call the police if a person, activity or offer seems suspicious. “We’re your first line of defense,” he said.
Karnette added that people should never rush to sign any contract or give their personal information out to anyone. She noted that getting the advice of a law enforcement or regulatory agency or a person with expertise in a certain field before agreeing to any kind of deal is a good idea.
“Because of state budget constraints, we can’t do as much as we would like to fight against these kinds of things,” she said. “That’s why these seminars are so important. We want to educate the public on the kinds of scams that are out there.”

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