Seniors take heed: Bad guys out there

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 13, 2011 - 7:43 PM

Always prey for fast-talking scam artists, older people are particularly targeted at the end of the year with fraudulent schemes promising enhanced retirement finances, great online holiday gifts and heart-rending stories of children in need of charity.

Each year, thousands of older Minnesotans become victims.

• The aging Minnesota woman is on a "sucker list" of vulnerable people. So far, she's sent off $535,000 to scam artists. Despite explanations from investigators and her priest, she still is waiting for the armored car to arrive and make her rich.

• An older man in southern Minnesota was hooked again and again until the total hit $1.2 million -- foreign lottery tickets and other ploys for his money -- until county social services stepped in.

Older people are targets "because that's where the money is," Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said on Tuesday, paraphrasing famed bank robber Willie Sutton, "and because you were raised to be trusting."

She and other experts spoke at a Fraud Fighters Forum in St. Paul, sponsored by AARP Minnesota and the Better Business Bureau. They described ways to guard against numerous ploys to steal money from older people.

Billions of dollars are lost to scammers through identity theft, improper credit card charges, Medicare fraud and other schemes, Swanson said. Most of the fraud is never reported, and sometimes people aren't even aware they've been victims, she said.

"People usually don't fall for these schemes because they're stupid," said William White, a special agent with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "Con artists are really believable. You believe it when they say they'll make you rich, and you believe it when they threaten you or your family when you try to blow the whistle."

Among the advice: Never give out personal or financial information over the phone or on the Internet to anyone you don't know. Instead of answering phone callers you don't know, let them leave messages. If you think you've been duped, put aside your shame and report it immediately.

The economic downturn has provided even more opportunity for ripping off older people, White said. Because of his department's investigation, an arrest warrant has been issued in Florida for a Canadian citizen accused of bilking Minnesotans in six counties with the "grandparent scam."

"The guy calls and pretends to be your grandson arrested in England and needs $5,000 quick to get out of jail," White explained, "And they say, 'Don't tell Mom and Dad.' There are a bunch of variations, but basically they count on you being a loving grandparent."

A new scam is one where a caller says the victim has won $10,000 on a gift card from Wal-Mart or another store, White said. The victim is to go out and buy a gift card, put $500 on it, then call back with the card's number so the $10,000 can be added. Within minutes of that call, the $500 has vanished.

"We all want to trust people, and we love the idea of winning the Jamaica Lottery, even if we never bought a ticket," White said. "But the bad guys are out there, and they're after your money."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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