Seniors targeted by scammers
Fed up with receiving unwanted phone calls from telemarketers, Grass Valley resident Helen Walker, 77, agreed over the phone to pay almost $400 to stop them.
She gave the telemarketer from the National Privacy Association her checking account number, and since then, three other companies have taken money from her account without her permission.
According to Seniors Against Investment Fraud, a program run by the California Department of Corporations, the state has the biggest senior population in the country at 8.5 million people, and 250,000 of them get scammed every year.
Walker only had to make one mistake to create a giant problem for herself, and if her daughter, Debbie Fisher, 53, hadn’t been keeping track of her finances, the withdrawals would have gone unnoticed.
Fisher called the National Privacy Association to ask for the money back, sensing it was a ruse.
“I told them they were stealing from my mother,” she said. “They told me (the service) would protect her from phone scams. I said ‘what’s going to protect her from you.'”
In fact, anyone is entitled to not be bothered by telemarketers by joining the National Do Not Call List for free.
“The illegal telemarketers are always ahead of everyone,” Robyn Goodman, the director of SAIF, said. “They work off the trend that is going on.”
Fisher was able to fill out a form to recall illegal withdrawals at her bank and got her mother’s money back.
In October 2003, a representative from a company named American Seniors Coalition called Walker and offered her another protection from scams. This time, Walker said no right away and ended the conversation.
That did not stop the group from taking $149 from her account anyway.
Several months later, last January, Walker was called by her bank and told a check she had written was about to bounce because of an earlier $299 charge by a company called National Benefits Group.
At that time, Walker said she was getting many telemarketing calls and does not remember getting a call from that group. She said she told everybody who called her the same thing.
“With instructions (from Fisher), I tell them I can’t do anything because my daughter takes care of my checking account,” she said.
Fisher called the company and they refunded her money, but on the same day another company, IMG Inc., took $199 out of the account. Fisher once again got the money returned by filling out a form at her bank, and changed her mother’s account
“I wonder about all these people that don’t have a Debbie in their home,’ Walker said. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
“If we weren’t watching what was happening in the account, we wouldn’t know, and the money would be gone,” Fisher added.
Myrtle Mortensen, 91, also had a daughter who quickly realized her mother was about to be scammed.
Mortensen got a call in January from a company named Pristine Secure Services. The caller said the company protects seniors and had records she was having money stolen from her account. The caller said the firm could reclaim her money for a fee and some account information.
Mortensen hung up on the caller and called her daughter, who called Mortensen’s bank, Wells Fargo, to ask whether anyone else had that kind of account information. She was told that not even a bank customer service representative would ask for a customer’s account information over the phone and that no one but the customer has access to an account.
The Union contacted Pristine Secure Services, as well as National Benefits Group and IMG Inc., at their toll-free phone numbers and noticed a trend. In each case, the phone number belonged to a contracted customer service representative who did not work for the company. In each case, the representative knew little about what that company did and had no idea where the company was located.
One customer service representative said his company was contracted out by both IMG Inc. and National Benefits Group.
The representative for IMG Inc. and National Benefits Group said the first company sold medical discount cards and the second software and computer equipment.
The representative for Pristine Secure Services said that company provided legal services to people of all ages, not just seniors.
According to a 2001 Mississippi television news station report, Pristine Secure Services tried to sell an elderly Mississippi woman protection from telemarketers for several hundred dollars.
Seniors Against Investment Fraud representative Alice Molina, who trains volunteers in 45 counties to identify elderly fraud, including Nevada County, said senior citizens have to be more careful when dealing with someone they don’t know.
“It is an easy fix; go back to the basics of what you know. Don’t open the door for someone you don’t know,” Molina said. “There are a lot of good scam artists who are emulating customer service people.”
One of the more common scams is someone calling for donations for the local police or fire department, which seniors generally support, she said.
“If you get that kind of call, these are the words you need to say: ‘Thank-you for calling, take me off your list,'” Molina said. “They are offering what seems like a good customer service – that’s what you should look out for.”
Molina suggested seniors call companies directly to ask questions, request service or make donations.
“Whether it is someone at the door claiming they work with the local utility company or over the phone, I don’t want people to become totally paranoid; just to be careful,” she said.
To report a suspected senior fraud, call California Department of Corporations at 1-866-275-2677.
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